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Cavaliers Hitting the Panic Button?

In the 1986 movie, Crimes of the Heart, Sissy Spacek’s character is asked by a policeman why she shot her husband. She gives a fraught sigh and says, “I was having such a bad day…” For some reason this classic understatement came to mind when LeBron James said the Cavaliers were in a funk last week.

I’m trying to be cool about this. I keep telling myself this happens every year, that things will kick in at some point and the Finals will begin to feel inevitable. Maybe they will have to make a trade. Perhaps they’ll shake up the rotation. A sudden coaching change has worked before. Could it happen again? The reality is that if this team wins half of its remaining games they will finish with 46 wins. That’s good for maybe the fourth seed in the East.

While it would be nice to avoid Toronto and Boston in the second round, if the Cavs play their game the matchups really don’t matter. It’s still football season, so there’s playoff games to distract myself with, and Ohio State is undefeated in the Big Ten — both men and women — so by the time I have nothing but NBA to focus on, the Cavs will probably have this all figured out.

This may or may not be a coincidence, but the Cavs are 19–3 in games in which Tristan “Kardashian” Thompson plays fewer than ten minutes. When his minutes reach double digits, they’re 7–14. Of course, Thompson would be far from the first NBA player to have his career derailed by a relationship with a Kardashian. On a per-minute and per-game basis, all of his numbers are down. Where Thompson differs from other players in this circumstance is that when his focus and intensity are lacking he brings nothing else to the table. His entire offensive arsenal is based on finding gaps in the interior defense and beating his man to the spot where he can catch a lob. That requires attention to detail that simply hasn’t been there.

It may be unfair to blame his personal life. Thompson was injured significantly for the first time in his career. He may still be recovering, which may hinder him from playing with his usual abandon. The reason doesn’t matter; the results do. The good news for the Cavs is that, aside from #23, nobody is indispensable. The Cavs know that they have been better this year with Channing Frye on the floor than Thompson; the only question is whether Frye can defend well enough to be useful during the playoffs. If nothing else, now is the time to make Thompson realize that his playing time is not guaranteed.

He is far from the only issue. JR Smith has become extremely one-dimensional. When that one dimension isn’t clicking (35 per cent on threes this year) he is a replacement-level player. He would be perfect as an instant offense guy off the bench, but that isn’t his role on this team, so he gets between 25 and 30 minutes every night whether his game merits it or not. Jae Crowder has been out of sync offensively the entire season, shooting below 40% despite benefiting from the open looks everyone gets when playing LeBron. All of which leaves too much offensive burden on James and Kevin Love, at least until Isaiah Thomas is ready to play consistent minutes.

Add to that the fact that these guys are 26th in opponent’s shooting percentage in 24th in rebound differential, and you get a team that simply isn’t very good. With the trade deadline less than a month away, they need to act with urgency. The Cavs have plenty of assets, including enough depth to enable them to bundle multiple players in a trade for one player who can make an impact, and that Brooklyn pick, which would currently be the eighth.

It’s hard to imagine that the Cavs would be anything other than aggressive with James’ free agency looming. Not only do they need to convince LeBron that they can continue to contend; they also know that if he does leave their ceiling will be struggling to get out of the first round. There’s really no reason not to go for broke.

In the meantime, the Cavs have some options. Jeff Green is playing better than Crowder right now, and Crowder’s defensive versatility might work better as a sixth man. Another thought is Crowder at shooting guard, enabling him to take the tougher defensive assignment away from Thomas. A starting five of Love, Green, James, Crowder, and Thomas would have a lot of length and shooting which would work well against a number of potential playoff opponents.

That leaves Smith, Dwyane Wade, and Kyle Korver as the first guys off the bench, followed by some combination of Frye, Thompson, and Cede Osman. There’s enough diversity of skills there to match up with most anyone. Eventually Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert will be available, as well as Jose Calderon, which would enable the Cavs to sit a couple of guys every night to stay fresh.

This assumes that Ty Lue can push the right buttons. He brought Cleveland their first title since 1964, so it’s only right that he’s gotten a pass so far. However, the struggles on defense and rebounding are directly related to effort, which is a coach’s main responsibility. Lue has been frightfully slow to pull guys who are struggling or not making effort on defense. Given the team’s depth, that’s a bit silly. Any decision on Lue would be based in part on whether it helps to retain James. James judges coaches based on whether they can get him another ring, so that may not be a bad thing.

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