The Cleveland Cavaliers are currently 7-7. They sit in 9th place in the Eastern Conference, and the panic alarms from fans and pundits have gone off.
LeBron James continues to dominate while playing 38 minutes per game. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been getting much help. Derrick Rose has been held out of multiple games due to injury and precautions, and has not been particularly effective when he has played. Kevin Love has been wildly inconsistent thus far. Jae Crowder is shooting at a career-low rate, J.R. Smith is having his worst all-around season of his 14-year career, and Tristan Thompson is injured.
The Cavs are clearly desperately missing Kyrie Irving, as James has had to do everything from scoring himself, to running the offense, to setting up teammates to score. But, help could be coming soon. Thompson is not the only Cavalier currently on the mend; new point guard Isaiah Thomas is as well. He will certainly help on the offensive side of the ball, as his passing and shooting skills rival Irving’s. But are there deeper problems with the Cavs than just a lack of a secondary scorer, and will Thomas’ return fix them?
Depth (or a lack thereof) is why the Cavs have lost two of the past three NBA Finals. This year, that problem was supposed to be fixed. On paper, their rotation, provided it was healthy and performing up to expectations, looks very good:
PG – Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon
SG – J.R. Smith, Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Iman Shumpert
SF – LeBron James, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman
PF – Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye
C – Tristan Thompson, Ante Zizic
With a good mix of scoring, athleticism, and defense, the Cavs seemed primed to improve while taking some pressure off of James. Unfortunately, the opposite has been true.
Inconsistency, lack of effort, and poor shooting have plagued the entire team outside of James on offense. But on defense, things are even worse. The Cavaliers have a defensive rating of 112.0. Defensive rating measures a team’s effectiveness at preventing other teams from scoring; lower is better, and right now, the Cavs have the highest number in league by a full three points. They are on pace for a historically bad defensive season, and that absolutely has to change if Cleveland has any hope of winning the NBA championship, or even making it back to the Finals.
With his 5-9 frame, Thomas is one of the league’s worst defenders, so he won’t help the problem, in fact, he will probably make it worse. The solution is to hope that Shumpert, Green, Crowder, and Thompson can play up to their ability. Ideally, the Cavs would be able to add someone like Greg Monroe through a buyout, or DeMarcus Cousins or Marc Gasol through a trade.
Monroe is not a great defender, but he would at least add a physical presence in the paint that the Cavs desperately lack. Love is not a physical player, and was getting flat-out dominated by Dallas center Dwight Powell on November 11. Cousins would fit the Cavs’ needs perfectly; a dominant interior scorer who can shoot the three, rebound, and defend at a high level. Cousins is a key contributor for the Pelicans, a likely playoff team, so he probably won’t be available. Gasol is a more likely acquisition, but only if Cleveland is willing to deal the Nets’ 2018 draft pick.
While the defense may take a step back with the return of Thomas, the Cavs’ offense will benefit greatly. Rose will be relegated to the bench, where he will be able to effectively lead the second unit. No longer will James be the only player who can create his own shot. Thomas can score from anywhere on the court, and his role should be similar to Irving’s when he was with the team. Perhaps the defense will benefit from an improved offense overall.
Getting Thomas back will be a much-needed boost for the Cavs, but he won’t be a miracle drug; there are still large issues with the team that must be solved, whether by coaching and development, or by adding a new player before the trade deadline in February.