Cleveland Cavaliers issues to start the season are about hustle and effort–not Mike Brown’s offense

It’s funny how the narrative and general feeling around a sports team can change and flow with very little if no data to change perceptions. When the Cleveland Cavaliers were winding down their pathetic 2012-13 campaign and it became obvious that Byron Scott was on the way out the media and fans fixated on the team’s utter lack of preparedness that they showed on defense in Scott’s three seasons at the helm. Both Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert preached that the team drastically needed to improve at that end.

That’s why Mike Brown was brought back, to instill in this team a defensive mentality. That move was not initially received well as most could only fixate on the offensive issues that they had in Brown’s previous time in Cleveland. However, over the summer that tune began to change and the narrative shifted to what Grant and Gilbert wanted which is that Brown would have a positive impact on the team because of his defense. But only six games into the season and the fans are already back to complaining about the bad offense again.

The problem with that narrative, not that it isn’t true because the offense does not look good, is that the real issue through six games is just general inconsistencies and sloppiness all over on both ends of the court. The past two losses, both on the road, against Milwaukee and Philadelphia cannot be described as anything short of terrible. The Cavs have a more talented roster than both of those teams, especially with as many guys as the Bucks were missing on Wednesday night. But when you play sloppily on offense and don’t get back in transition and don’t match up and give up open shots the opponent is going to look pretty good. They are NBA players after all. When those players start to see things going well that inspires confidence and drives the whole team. If you want to call it “momentum” that’s fine, call it whatever you like. But momentum is only a state of mind and when you allow a team to believe that they’re better than they are they’re going to start playing like it. And that’s exactly what happened last night in Philly.

After a strong first quarter where the Cavs flew around on defense and forced tough shots which led to more positive movement on the offensive end and high percentage shots, it all went to crap after that. The defense got lazy and started giving the Sixers easy looks, which led to the offense pressing which manifested itself in too much dribbling and not enough movement and ultimately bad shots which, shockingly, didn’t fall.

I’m not, and Cavs fans shouldn’t be, panicking yet about this team… “yet” being the operative word there.

It’s only six games and with a new coach and new players to work into the rotation there is going to be a learning curve. Additionally the issues are compacted by the fact that Kyrie Irving isn’t playing well right now. He’s played much better on defense and his assist numbers are up which are both great. But offensively he just isn’t getting shots to fall. These two facts could go hand-in-hand. We all know that Kyrie didn’t exactly exert a lot of effort on defense his first two years which allowed him to be fresh on offense to dominate. It’s tough to say because it’s only six games which is an incredibly small sample size and I don’t know if Kyrie is taking more contested shots than before but I don’t feel like when I’m watching him that he’s taking bad shots and nothing looks overtly off about him. It might just be that he’s in a little shooting funk, which is being compounded by him trying to run a new offense as well as work harder on defense. He’s still a very young player so he’s still learning and growing as a player. While we want him to work better on defense and I like what I’ve seen so far, don’t lose sight of the fact that most young PGs (and even some old ones) who carry big offensive loads simply don’t work on defense. Derek Rose in his MVP season was not (and still isn’t) a very good defense player. So let’s not freak out just yet about Kyrie’s shooting. Yet.

What should be discouraging about the team as a whole is that at times they simply show a lack of effort. Jason Lloyd referenced this last night that it seems like this Cavs team is playing with a sense of entitlement; like they’re better than they actually are. They are a talented team for sure and vastly improved from last year. But they have earned nothing. Opponents aren’t going to come into a contest against the Cavs fearing them because they’re roster looks better on paper. They have to prove that they’re good before that ability can have any real affect. But regardless of how the opponent views the Cavs as a team shouldn’t change the effort level that they give. When you look at the good teams in the NBA, no matter how talented they are, you see the effort that they give.

For as talented as the Miami Heat are and as much of swagger and sense of entitlement that they carry with them into each game they become a beatable team when they don’t play with a sense of urgency and a sense that the other team is just as good if not better than they are. When they are playing at their best they play like an underdog who needs to scrap and claw for every loose ball and every rebound. They treat every offensive possession like it’s the final two minutes of a tight game in the playoffs. Now the Heat don’t bring that intensity every night and many times they wait until the fourth quarter to turn it on. But they do that because they can, because they’ve actually accomplished something, and because when they do turn it on the other team fears them. How many times did we see that happen last year with the Heat in the regular season? Then in the playoffs they played with that intensity all the time. That’s why they won the title and why they’ll be tough to beat again this year if they’re at full strength.

That’s the kind of intensity the Cavs need to bring every night. They need to play like the underdog that they deserve to be considering their play so far. Maybe a better example is the Bulls and with how hard they bring it every night…just maybe without the outrageously high minutes for the starters in a game in November. But still the point remains that the Cavs right now are playing like a team that thinks they can just waltz into a game against an inferior opponent and turn it on whenever they want and come out with the victory. That almost happened on Wednesday against a crappy Bucks team. The only problem was that IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. You would think that maybe that would have been a wake-up call for the team and get them to play harder last night but it didn’t happen. And that’s what is most troubling to me so far.

A 2-4 record to start the season matters very little. But the fact that they already have three bad losses is something that should at least garner some very serious criticism of the team.

The good news is that all these issues are correctable. With added effort will come better defense and more transition opportunities which will help the offense. And when Kyrie gets back to shooting like himself that will open things up even more on the offensive end.

Mike Brown hinted that some lineup changes could be coming. I hope that he’s thinking about moving Earl Clark to the bench to fill in for those Anthony Bennett minutes that will be open while he’s out. Because the “Earl Clark at small forward” experiment is not working. He hasn’t been great on defense and certainly hasn’t been good enough to make up for his horrendous play on offense. It’s almost like they Cavs are playing 4-5 on offense when Clark is on the floor. The opponent simply doesn’t have to guard him at all. Those threats from Brown could just be a warning to get some fire under their butts but that’s certainly one change I wouldn’t mind seeing.

For tonight what I expect to see from the Cavs is for them to come out hard (especially at home) and bring that same intensity that they had in the first quarter last night, except this time sustain it for the entire four quarters. If they play like they’re capable of playing, especially defensively, then a team like the Sixers has no chance of hanging with them.

Maybe then this group of players will start understanding what it takes to win in the NBA. It’s not about just working on refining your game in the offseason and expect that things will naturally get easier once the real games start. It’s about consistently working harder and executing the little things night-in and night-out. These are the issues that happen with young teams. That’s why I’m not going to panic yet about how they’ve looked so far, especially the past two games.

“Yet” being the operative word there again.

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