When Do The Cavaliers' Offensive Struggles Become A Concern?

The Cleveland Cavaliers have played terribly on offense. There’s no way to sugarcoat it to bring out the positives. They’ve just been plain bad. Through nine games, they have averaged 92.8 PPG, fourth-worst in the league. Their offensive rating, which measures a team’s point total per 100 possessions, of 96.6. Only the 1-8 Utah Jazz have a lower rating. Furthermore, as a team the Cavs have a True Shooting Percentage of 48.7 percent, worst in the NBA.

Sure, the Cavaliers still have 73 games to play, but these opening weeks can indicate season-long trends. Didn’t everyone condemn last year’s Lakers team as a failure after their train-wreck start? This year people have already taken note of Minnesota’s hot start and are wondering if they’ll make an unlikely playoff run similar to last year’s Warriors. These opening games can tell us a lot.

During Mike Brown‘s first reign as head coach, the Cavaliers were erratic offensively. Towards the end of his tenure, they ranked among the league’s best, but in his first three years, they were usually in the lower half of the league in these rankings. Here’s a look at these stats, with the league rank in parentheses.

Year Points Per Game Offensive Rating True Shooting %
05-06 97.6 (15) 107.8 (9) 53.8% (12)
06-07 96.8 (19) 105.5 (18) 52.2 (29)
07-08 96.4 (24) 106.0 (20) 52.0% (25)
08-09 100.3 (13) 112.4 (4) 56.0% (4)
09-10 102.1 (9) 111.2 (6) 57.0% (3)

In those last two years, the Cavs were one of the league’s elite teams on offense. Also during those years, LeBron James won MVP. What’s most amazing about that chart is how average or bad they were during Brown’s first three years, especially in the 2007-08 season, where they were coming off an appearance in the NBA Finals. Sure LeBron’s supporting cast was never great, but it’s surprising that they had a lower offensive rating than even the mediocre 76ers, Pacers, and Raptors that year. These trends highlight the notion that Brown, a coach renowned for his defensive acumen, struggles coaching an offense, and that it takes an all-time great player, like LeBron, to elevate his teams’ offenses among the NBA’s best.

During the LeBron era, Brown’s Cavs were still among the league’s best because of their defense. This year, however, the Cavs have allowed 101.4 PPG, 22nd in the NBA, and rank 19th in the league with a defensive rating of 105.6. They can no longer overcome their struggles shooting the ball with defense.

LeBron James-Best of Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers struggled on offense during LeBron’s first three years with Mike Brown. (Flickr.com/Keith Allison)

So how do the Cavaliers fix their struggles? The biggest solution will be to get Kyrie Irving going. This year he was supposed to make the leap into the NBA’s elite, becoming a dynamic scorer and passer like Derrick Rose and Stephen Curry have done in recent years. He currently leads the team with 19.4 PPG, but it’s come on 38.6% shooting with a PER of 16.5, barely above league average.

Irving’s success, though, can be directly linked to the health of his big men. Both Anderson Varejao and Andrew Bynum are recovering from injuries. Varejao has made little impact offensively and Bynum, in limited minutes, has been solid but is still a shell of his former All-Star self. Bynum especially creates a more dynamic offense when healthy. He’s such a threat in himself, that he’ll naturally draw double teams, creating space and opening up shots for shooters like Irving and Dion Waiters.

I’m not condemning the Cavaliers offense this season through only nine games. This is, however, an unsettling trend. Neither the injury-prone Varejao or Bynum are locks to return to their former selves. In fact, given their injury history it’s a safer bet to assume they’ll battle injuries all season. Without them playing effectively, it forces Kyrie to take inefficient shots and not spread the ball as well. Instead of setting Waiters up for shots, he’ll have to keep struggling to create something through isolation. With the defense not playing up to Brown’s usual standards, there’s an even greater burden on the offense to execute.

All three of the Cavs’ wins have come by four points or less. They’re afloat in these opening weeks, but barely. Without an improved offense, this team can’t compete for a playoff spot and will flounder in the 9-11 seed range. It’s only been nine games so far; for now, it can simply be marked up as early season struggles. But if this continues in 15-20 games? Then, it’s officially a major problem.

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Tags: 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers Offense Cleveland Cavaliers Cleveland Cavaliers Offensive Struggles