The Cavaliers’ unprecedented firing of David Blatt—and promotion of Tyronn Lue—came about because management smelled something rotten in the team’s process. Its results were never in question; 30-11 is not a record that necessitates a sea change, save for those cases when a franchise has the luxury of looking at the big picture and is worried about its own internal dynamics.
Immediately, that positioned Lue to face a unique sort of pressure. Regular–season wins and losses clearly matter to Cleveland, though less so than one might imagine for an at–all–costs contender. Some tactical changes would be in order based on Lue’s preferences but no overhaul could be reasonably expected mid-season. This was a change made, rather, in service of culture. Any expectation of the team playing differently would be more a function of rapport than scheme.
This is part of the reason why a media suggestion that Kyrie Irving is unhappy in Cleveland gained the traction it did. There’s a salacious quality to that kind of rumor that entices casual fans, to be sure. Yet public interest in the point also spoke to how delicate Cleveland’s situation really is. Balancing the needs and talents of three stars is never easy. It’s striking, though, just how far the assessment of the team and its play has been abstracted from its X’s and O’s. That Lue runs largely the same offense as his predecessor (if at a slightly faster tempo with a few more opportunities for Kevin Love) is very much the point. To reprise Lue, who was asked following his promotion what he will do differently than Blatt: ”I wouldn't say 'differently.’ I would say 'better.'"
Otherwise, the practical distinctions have been relatively few. Lue has been slightly more flexible with Cleveland’s lineups than Blatt, though generally has employed the same, basic groups of players to the same, basic ends. The considerable talent on the Cavaliers roster only allows for so much. Love, Kyrie Irving, and LeBron James all need a particular level of minutes and usage. TimofeyMozgov and Tristan Thompson have their roles, which appear to be interchangeable on a night-to-night basis. J.R. Smith, ImanShumpert, and Matthew Dellavedova are all consistent pieces in the rotation while Richard Jefferson might play more or less depending on a particular matchup. Channing Frye, whom Cleveland acquired at the deadline, has had his moments but wound up a DNP-CD in the Cavs’ last game after going 0-for-5 in 24 minutes the night prior.
Lue’s lineup constructions are largely the same, except that he plays Mozgov and Thompson together more often (though still not all that much, in the grand scheme of things) and seems more comfortable with a small backcourt of Irving and Dellavedova. The fundamental limitations of the roster remain. Questions linger regarding how some of the Cavs’ better lineups will hold up defensively, in particular now that the team’s overall performance on that end of the court has taken a stumble. This has been a mediocre defensive team under Lue, which one could take as a hint of Blatt’s quiet value or an inevitable regression to the mean depending on their narrative leanings. Regardless, it’s evident that the Cavs aren’t hitting the same highs of late—their top lineups maintain a healthy winning margin, though nothing is coming easily.
Cleveland remains a grind-it-out team that, for all its roster continuity from last season, still features league-high levels of on-court micromanagement. James and Irving regularly spend precious seconds pointing and orchestrating their teammates before initiating their attacks off the dribble. Some of this is the natural byproduct of the Cavs’ newer sets—a regular addition of any new coach. Some other part speaks to the team’s continuing on-court disjunction, which seems increasingly unavoidable. The tactical synergy of Cleveland’s stars is, in some specific ways, the best it’s ever been; Love genuinely has been put in a better position to succeed, and all involved seem very much invested in making the on-court relationship work. It’s remarkable, though, how little comes easy to a team this loaded with talent. Even when Cleveland’s offense is operating at peak levels, so many of its possessions are excruciating displays of singular skill and power.
Lue can do all in his power to cultivate a healthier chemistry and a culture of responsibility. He can be frank about his team’s performance in the media. He can hold his starters accountable or even pull them as he did in Cleveland’s disappointing loss to Washington over the weekend. He can tweak the Cavs’ approach in ways that makes Love slightly more useful or communicate players’ roles more effectively. There are simply limits to how far he can go with the team still in-season, when so much of its internal style and momentum have already been established.
No NBA team in Cleveland’s position and record had ever fired its head coach. That extraordinary choice stands juxtaposed today to a relatively static result. Lue was made to be Blatt’s replacement on the grounds of how much his promotion would shape the internal structure of the team. Those processes take time, and perhaps Lue’s management style might bring about a profound shift over a longer term. What’s most remarkable after 18 games, however, is just how little has changed in the way the Cavaliers actually play basketball and what that means to the stakes of their season.
While You Weren't Watching
David Lee was completely superfluous in Boston, if not an active detractor from the team defense that makes the Celtics so formidable. It’s a different story in Dallas, where the center rotation is in such a state where the Mavericks can live with some of Lee’s tradeoffs when it means getting playmaking like this:
• Easily my favorite aspect of the Chris Paul-DeAndre Jordan two-man game is the way in which Jordan has to read the lob mid-roll. The choreography of those sequences is so smooth (and the spacing so accommodating) that Paul will often throw an oop to Jordan without making any eye contact whatsoever. Jordan will swivel his head back after initiating his roll only to find a ball in the air he has to accelerate to even catch—though knowing Paul, he can trust in its placement and timing. Just a terrific display of passing specificity and Jordan’s insane athleticism.
• What Shelvin Mack (who was acquired at the trade deadline) offers the Jazz, more than anything, is some degree of choice. No longer is Quin Snyder locked into playing Raul Neto or Trey Burke in crunch time on a night when their play doesn’t warrant it. Nor will he be obligated, for that matter, to stick with Mack if his performance is off-message. Utah’s most sensible play was to get another viable option in the mix at point guard if only to absorb minutes and responsibilities in tandem with those already manning the role.
• For as good as the Blazers are, there are times when their defense (which has been pleasantly average to date) gets stuck chasing the ball in rotation. Some possessions like that are inevitable. Portland, for whatever reason, seems to get stuck in that mode more than most.
• DeMar DeRozan has never been more slippery. Now that the Raptors guard aims to drive on every possession and has the variety in his game to accommodate that, few defenders can consistently stay in front of him.
• Chicago has played rather well at times this season, though the team’s pervasive willingness to fold early in games has been a sad constant. There’s enough on the roster still—in spite of all the Bulls’ injuries—to put up more of a fight than they’ve managed.
• It remains genuinely shocking how important Raymond Felton is to Dallas’s offense. The drives, the occasional shooting, the ability to fill out Rick Carlisle’s undersized lineups—it all works in a way that it almost shouldn’t. Kudos to Felton and Carlisle for finding a way.
• On first blush, Anderson Varejao doesn’t appear to have all that much to offer the Warriors. His feet just aren’t as quick as they used to be which, which makes him appear stationary on opponent show-and-go drives or sluggish on offensive rebound attempts. He might still have some value yet, though this isn’t any kind of clear, immediate upgrade.
• One would have to think that Aaron Gordon chuckles to himself every time an opponent bites on his perimeter pump fakes. This, however, is the great benefit to reaching a certain point of respectability; that Gordon has made 31% of his three-pointers this season (even after trailing off over the last few months) has lent his perimeter game a nice foundation.