Stick a fork in them: The Cleveland Cavaliers
This is the first in our new ongoing series here at PBT: Stick a fork in them. As we feel teams are done, toast, dead to the playoffs, we will give them a sendoff and obit. We’re not talking mathematically eliminated, we mean when their playoff chances really give up the ghost. John Krolik starts it with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but your team is coming. Probably sooner than you think.
This should not come as news: The Cleveland Cavaliers are horrible. I mean, really horrible. The team has won one game since November 27th, and that win came in overtime. They have won no games since December 18th. They have lost 20 straight games, are four losses away from tying their own record for consecutive losses, and will have to beat the Heat in Miami today to avoid going winless in January. They are 0-26 in games decided by 10 points or more. No other team has more than 18 double-digit losses, and no other team has failed to win less than two games by a double-digit margin. Not only are they the worst team in the NBA; they are one of the worst teams in basketball history.
Here are a few things you should know about the Cavaliers:
1. They were the worst team in basketball when they were healthy. It’s easy to point to injuries as the root cause of the Cavaliers’ futility, and the loss of starting center Anderson Varejao, as well as various other injuries, have certainly made the team even worse. However, the team lost 16 of the last 17 games that Varejao played in. That’s not a very small sample size, and that is a very bad record. The team’s 7-9 stretch to open the season is often pointed to as evidence that the team was competing when they were healthy and hadn’t been embarrassed at home by the Heat, but those wins came against the Nets, the Wizards, the Bucks, and the Grizzlies.
The team certainly felt the tangible loss of Anderson Varejao and were never quite the same again mentally after getting beaten down at home by the Heat, but the team’s early “success” was more the product of a weak schedule and everybody playing with early-season uncertainty than anything the Cavaliers were doing particularly well.
2. The players who were supposed to thrive in LeBron’s absence have been huge disappointments. Ramon Sessions was supposed to give the team some of the playmaking it lost and help get the team running, but he has spent almost all of his time on the floor making reckless drives to the rim and almost none of it being a facilitator. J.J. Hickson was supposed to have a breakout year, but lost confidence in his perimeter game, has far too many mistakes with the ball in his hands, and is still an atrocious defensive player.
Antawn Jamison is playing the worst defense I have ever seen an NBA forward play, and his offense consists of running to a spot on the floor and firing up a shot as soon as he touches the ball. Mo Williams has improved as a playmaker, but is completely incapable of creating high-percentage shots and plays horrible defense. Varejao is a great defensive player, but could not create offense from the high post. Because of all that, the team has no way of scoring points with any consistency or stopping opponents from scoring at will. That is a bad combination.
3. The team’s short-term rebuilding plan was fatally flawed. The Cavaliers lost Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Shaquille O’Neal, and Delonte West along with LeBron. On a pure talent level, those players should have been easily replaceable. All three players missed a lot of games in 2009-10, and none of them played at a particularly high level when they did. In fact, a full season of Jamison, the trade for Sessions, Hickson moving into the starting lineup, and Daniel Gibson’s career year probably should have offset the loss of those three role players on paper. However, the three players the Cavaliers lost were often responsible for guarding the rim and the other team’s best scorer.
Instead of trying to replace their defensive value, Byron Scott and new GM Chris Grant traded for Ramon Sessions, promoted J.J. Hickson, and promised a high-octane team that would utilize its athleticism by pushing the break and running the Princeton offense. However, it quickly became apparent that the Cavaliers lacked the skill to out-score teams, and their off-season maneuvers left them with no player outside of Varejao capable of making a significant defensive impact. The Cavaliers came into the season with an offensive gameplan that their personnel had little chance of executing with success and no defensive gameplan to speak of. The team is now 8-39.
4. Yes, the team was built around LeBron, and many of the players they signed or traded for in his seven years with the team are significantly worse (Williams, Moon), or completely useless (Moon, Jamario) without him feeding them easy shots and covering for their defensive mistakes. However, the bigger issue is that the Cavaliers failed to accumulate any significant talent with the draft picks they had after LeBron. They used their one post-LeBron lottery pick on Luke Jackson, effectively gave away their other post-LeBron lottery pick for a Jiri Welsch rental, and used their biggest chunk of cap space on Larry Hughes. (For a full breakdown of what the Cavs did with their post-LeBron draft picks, click here. Full disclosure: I also wrote that.)
5. Yes, LeBron was that good. Statistically speaking, he added an estimated 30 wins to the Cavaliers last year. I don’t dispute that number: he had one of the best statistical regular seasons ever. He was also the backbone of a top-10 defense, and made players like Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao far, far better offensively than they would have been without him. Losing a player like that, having a fatally flawed rebuilding plan, and suffering injuries to the only decent players remaining on the roster is how a 61-win team becomes one of the worst teams in NBA history over the course of an offseason.