What has gone wrong for the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Cavaliers Nation
Photo: Cavaliers Nation

The Cleveland Cavaliers cemented their status as the worst team in the NBA by slumping to a dismal defeat against the Bulls on Monday night.

Chicago has also endured a horrible season and they carried a 10-game losing streak into this battle of the Eastern Conference basement dwellers.

But the Bulls were supremely comfortable in coasting to a 104-88 victory that left Cleveland rock bottom of the standings, with a 9-39 record. The Cavs are on course for one of the worst seasons in NBA history and it beggars belief to think how far they have fallen in just eight months.

Back in May 2018, Cleveland fans were celebrating after their team beat the Celtics in Game 7 to win the Eastern Conference for the fourth season in a row.

With LeBron James leading the charge, nobody in the east could topple the Cavs. He carried the team to four successive NBA Finals and he even disrupted the Golden State dynasty by clinching the championship with a virtuoso showing in 2016. It was therefore understandable to see the city of Cleveland go into mourning after he abandoned ship for the LA Lakers following a 4-0 Finals defeat to the Dubs last summer.

James is the greatest player in the league right now, arguably the best of all time, and everyone expected the team to struggle after he left. But few could have predicted quite how terrible the Cavs would become. “We’re a playoff team – that’s realistic,” declared forward Tristan Thompson before the season began. “We just have to go out there, be ourselves and prove the naysayers wrong, which we will.”

There were high hopes for Collin Sexton, the point guard signed with the eighth pick of last year’s draft. Kevin Love surprised everyone by re-upping on a four-year extension worth $120 million and some argued that the Cavs could now build a strong team around the All-Star forward. The likes of Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. had a point to prove and they were expected to come out fighting, so there was a degree of optimism amid the sadness at James’ departure.

However, little has gone to plan for the Cavs this season. They have missed James’ blocks, his passing, his points and his electric presence on court.

Love suffered a long-term injury after just a week of the season and he is yet to reappear, JR Smith requested a trade, reports surfaced suggesting that the veterans had zero trust in Sexton’s ability and Tyronn Lue was fired after Cleveland lost its first six games of the season. Longtime lead assistant Larry Drew stepped up to the top job and tried to pick up the pieces, but the Cavs cannot stop losing.

The Quicken Loans Arena has felt like a morgue throughout the season, and the rest of the season looks pretty bleak for this franchise. Injuries are a major factor, while the offense is underwhelming and Sexton has struggled for consistency in his rookie year.

But, ultimately an abysmal defense is at the heart of their woes. They miss the way James menaced opposing players, but there are also manifold problems with this roster. Since they traded George Hill, the Cavs’ defensive rating is the worst in the league and they are well behind the 29th-ranked Knicks. Opposing field goals are 3.6% higher than average. Defensive win shares are horrendous, and they have allowed 113.3 points per 100 possessions. Much of the blame must rest with the coaching staff, and an overhaul in this department could be in order.

If you take a glance at the sports spread betting markets you will see that they are the underdogs in almost every game they play. They have a win percentage of just .188, while the next worst team – the Bulls – have now moved up to .222 after Monday’s victory. The Cavs have lost 16 of their last 17 games and it has been a very sharp fall from grace for this team.

However, there is a precedent. When James deserted Cleveland for the first time, they went 19-63, 21-45, 24-58 and 33-49 in the subsequent four seasons, while he was starring for the Miami Heat. He returned for another four years to oversee a period of unprecedented success, but history is now repeating itself and the Cavs are picking up the pieces once more. “There was a total dependence on LeBron,” admitted Drew.

A lack of leadership in his wake has cost the Cavs dearly. They traded long-term stability for short-term gain during James’ second spell in Cleveland as they desperately struggled to build a championship-winning team around the great man. They lost Andrew Wiggins and Kyrie Irving to accommodate him, and the franchise was left in tatters when he departed, with nobody able to take up the mantle. Still, fans made some great memories during that exciting four-year stretch and it is now time to rebuild.

The NBA trade deadline is just a few weeks away and the Cavs are likely to be involved in a number of roster moves. Along with the Bulls and the Grizzlies, they will be sellers, bidding to shift existing contracts to obtain assets. They should hold onto Sexton, Nance and Cedi Osman, but they are likely to listen to offers for Hood, Alec Burks, Channing Frye and David Nwaba, plus there is also Smith to factor in.

They have already moved on Hill and Kyle Korver, and the clear-out must go on. A big decision has to be made around Love, as they could put him at the heart of their rebuilding process, or offload him and start completely from scratch.

Cleveland will become a dumping ground for castoffs and bad contracts, but such is the pain a franchise must go through when it is in the rebuilding phase. They have had all the luck in the lottery, winning four first overall picks since 2003, which saw them land James, Irving, Anthony Bennett and Wiggins.

If they end up with the first pick again they are all but certain to go for Zion Williamson, and Cavs fans are licking their lips at the prospect of him joining the franchise. He is the first freshman in Duke history with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a game, he is an absolute beast on court and he appears to be the surest thing sinceLeBron James was a teenage star. The class of 2019 is loaded with talent, including R.J Barrett, Cam Reddish and JaMorant, and Cleveland could grab a real star.

The arrival of Matthew Dellavedova could help reinvigorate the offense somewhat. They need more depth at power forward and small forward, and ultimately, they just need to accumulate assets, clear cap space and keep an eye on free agents. There is also work to be done on developing Sexton and Osman, and the franchise needs to bring in a defensive scheme that encourages healthy progression to breed long-term success.

Cavs fans are likely to be in for a painful year or two, but if they make the right decisions now they could become an Eastern Conference powerhouse once more in the not too distant future.