There is no better statement on the Cavaliers’ miserable defense than this: Their great hope, with nine regular–season games remaining, is a secret plan. Here’s how Tyronn Lue explained his predicament earlier this week:
"We've got to hold back. We can't show our hand early because ... these are some good teams and we don't want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens."
On the one hand: Every smart contending team does some measure of this. There are undoubtedly elements—some lineups, some general concepts, some riffs on existing plays or new ones entirely—that teams like the Warriors and Spurs are playing close to the vest. If doing so can buy a contender even one quarter before their an opponent can adjust, that could be enough to swing a competitive series. The difference, of course, is that teams like the Warriors and Spurs aren’t defending so wretchedly as these Cavs—in part because no other team in the league is. The defending champions have been the NBA’s worst defense in the month of March, some 14 points worse per 100 possessions than Golden State or San Antonio. Zoom out and you’ll find that they’ve been one of the three worst defenses since Jan. 1 (exactly half of their season) in escalating fashion. Say what you will about Cleveland’s ability to flip the switch, but they’ve essentially never been this bad since LeBron James returned and certainly never this late in the season.
The steady deterioration of the defense speaks to more than the awkwardness that comes with injury and reincorporation. Kevin Love and J.R. Smith are just a few weeks removed from missing significant time, but their timelines fold into Cleveland’s decline rather than define it. Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, and Derrick Williams are all still finding their footing with the Cavs to varying degrees. What they have in common, however, is that none among them does more than contribute to a team defense. The best Korver and Deron Williams can hope for is to be solid; a best-case scenario for Derrick Williams would be to defend with the focus and specificity needed to actually stay on the court in a playoff series. None of the personnel churn is especially hopeful.
Getting through the East—provided the conference’s other top teams are healthy enough to live up to their end of the bargain—might actually demand some rigor this time around. Cleveland is definitively the most capable in the bracket. LeBron James alone ensures that, and through him the fact that no team in the East seems capable of keeping up with the Cavs’ physical, nuanced offense. Any tardiness from Cleveland’s defense might help to close that gap. Part of what made the Cavs so good over the past two playoff runs was how cleanly they read the pulse of the moment. Lesser teams were dispatched precisely when they needed to be. An amazing comeback against the Warriors was triggered not a moment too soon.
There is some reassurance in that. The Cavs are a team of deliberate transformation, free from the precedent of the regular season in a way that others are not. No group of players has made more of the postseason’s blank slate than this one—particularly in the elevation of their defense. It wouldn’t be unfounded for Cleveland to hone its focus and impede every opponent in their playoff path. That kind of shift, however, seems further out of reach for this year’s teams than previous ones. Read between the lines of LeBron James’s post-game commentary. Read into Kyrie Irving’s evident frustrations. Cavs general manager David Griffin has expressed that his team plays its best as a response to adversity, yet there are cracks in Cleveland’s defensive performance that threaten to become fissures.
Little in the way the Cavs are acting and reacting suggests the knowing resolve of a championship team. If James and Irving knew exactly where to locate the switch, they’d flip it. There’s no satisfaction to be had in getting punked by the Spurs on national television, much less in dropping nine of the team’s 15 games this month. So much of the Cavs’ season has come uphill. Their every performance is a slow-developing morass, the kind that creates enough disarray as to delay most actions involved. When James lashed out at his team and its need for “f---ing playmaker,” he did so amid the pressure to keep up with all that Cleveland’s porous defense allowed. Even at their best, the Cavs have largely been a team that overwhelms—one that takes an opponent’s best shot but responds in kind with James, Irving, Love, and a barrage of three-pointers.
Even that should good enough to survive the East, but Lue is being cagey with what he considers to be optimal defensive strategy because the Cavs have the Finals in mind. Winning them will demand more of a Cleveland team that has been getting by with less. Even relying on newcomers like Williams and Korver will come at the expense of others like Iman Shumpert and DeAndre Liggins—shaky players in some respects but important for the defensive function they provide. Love will be targeted at a time when the defense isn’t totally connected, Irving will be forced to defend point guards more often, and James is coming off his heaviest regular season load in years. These are far from ideal circumstances for a team in search of its center.
Monday’s game against San Antonio provided a further suggestion of how fragile Cleveland’s title defense really is. The fact that James had to leave the game early after taking a David Lee elbow to the neck wasn’t only concerning for his absence. It was a reminder that even upon his return (James has since said he’s “fine”), anything less than a height-of-his-powers LeBron won’t likely be enough to correct what ails the Cavs and handle the best the West has to offer.