Last week, the Cavaliers lost their 22nd game in a row. They were 8-41 on the season as of Thursday, and are a solid 3.5 games “ahead” of Minnesota for the worst record in the league.
There were varying prognostications on how bad Cleveland would be this season. All of us at RS64 projected them to win between 33 and 43 games. ESPN’s writers put them at 30 wins. And the great Brain Windhorst had them down for between 38 and 42 wins back in late August.
While there were a few experts out there that did predict the Cavaliers to be pretty awful, the truth is that almost nobody thought they would be this bad. Certainly nobody that had watched them over the past few seasons thought the loss of LeBron James would impact them as much as it has. They were still supposed to be a fringe playoff team. They were supposed to make up for their lack of talent by playing hard and being scrappy every night.
So what went wrong?
The impact that injuries have had on this team cannot be overlooked. Anderson Varejao, probably the team’s best player, played in only 31 games before learning that he was done for the season. The Cavaliers are 0-18 when he is out of the lineup, and 8-23 when he starts. Mo Williams, thought to be one of the team’s leaders and best players coming into the season, has played in only 33 games. And even when he was playing, he wasn’t fully healthy. Daniel Gibson has also missed ten games. That is a significant amount of time missed by arguably the team’s three best players. Anthony Parker, a starter on last year’s team, has also missed significant time. Perhaps this is too convenient of an excuse, but I highly doubt that this team would be 8-41 if they had their full compliment of players for most of the season.
Lack of Leadership
The biggest hole from LeBron’s departure was obviously left on the court, but don’t forget about the one that he left in the locker room. This is a team that clearly lacks mental toughness. Remember, they were 7-10 heading into that game on December 2 against Miami. After the game, they were 7-11, still tied for the eighth playoff spot in the East. But the bottom completely fell out after that game. They were down on themselves in a way that I have never seen a team get down before. They didn’t have an alpha dog to take control and say, “Look, it was only one game. We are better than this. Let’s forget about it and move on.” The weren’t able to forget about it. They haven’t moved on. And the result is that they are 1-30 since that night. Instead of playing like they had something to prove, they’ve played like they actually weren’t good enough for LeBron. Because there was nobody in the locker room to inspire them to do anything else.
Underperformance of Key Players
I’m looking at you, JJ Hickson. In our season preview, I predicted that Hickson would lead the team in scoring at at least 22 points per game. Currently, he is averaging 11.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while shooting an embarrassing 42.9% from the floor. The fact is, Hickson simply wasn’t ready to make the jump that many of us thought he would make. He is still a pretty good finisher inside, but his game doesn’t have much else to it. When LeBron was around, that’s all Hickson was asked to do. Now, without that type of player that draws defenses to him, JJ isn’t getting the wide open drives to the basket anymore. The lack of depth to his game has been disheartening. But there are some signs that he is turning things around and figuring it out. Although he still hasn’t been shooting the ball well, his scoring and rebounding numbers have been on the up and up. I’m not ready to give up on him just yet.
Loss of Players
People do tend to forget that it wasn’t just LeBron that left. It was also Delonte West, Shaq, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. When you factor in the injuries to Varejao, Mo, and Parker, this is an entirely different team from last season. There’s no question that the loss of LeBron was the most significant. But they also lost their entire low post presence and a guard that could create his own shot. Those are two glaring holes on the current team, and if those things were still in place, I doubt they would be 8-41.