Ineligible Man Downfield: The Cavs' Offense Is Broken

We are back, kind of.

It’s not good!

The Cavs were demolished by the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night by a final score of 133-95. It marked the 13th time this young NBA season that the Cavs failed to breach 100 points, which means that in half their games, Cleveland hasn’t made it to triple digits. As an NBA franchise operating in 2021, that is, to put it bluntly, embarrassing.

There were legitimate excuses early on, when both Darius Garland and Collin Sexton were sidelined with injuries. But the backcourt duo has been back since late January, and the offense hasn’t improved. The Cavs are averaging 105.3 points per 100 possessions, good for dead last in the NBA and their lowest offensive output since the 2013-2014 campaign, the final season before LeBron returned.

There are a myriad of reasons why the Cavs offense gives off such a pungent odor, but it can be summed up by one simple sentence: the team does not play a modern version of offensive basketball. That issue begins with Andre Drummond, the plodding big man that resembles a dinosaur in the waning moments before the meteor hit. Drummond is an offensive black hole; the basketball goes into him in the post and rarely comes back out. Drummond holds the highest usage rate on the team at 30.7 percent while simultaneously boasting the lowest points per shot attempt of his entire career, per Cleaning The Glass. Drummond is shooting a seemingly impossible 52 percent on shots at the rim, down a full 11 percent from last season. In laments terms, Drummond gets the ball in the post at an absurdly high rate and converts those opportunities only half the time. To make matters worse, even when Drummond does convert, those baskets are worth only two points, which leads us nicely into the Cavs other enormous issue.

The Cavs love affair with the two-pointer does not fall solely on Drummond’s shoulders. It is a disease that has spread through the entire team. Forty percent of the Cavs shot attempts come at the rim, the third highest in the NBA. That would be well and good if the Cavs converted those attempts at an efficient rate, but they don’t. They’re finishing just 57.1 percent of those shots, dead last in the league.

That two-point obsession stretches out to the midrange, where the Cavs hoist nearly 33 percent of their shot attempts, 11th highest in the league, and shoot just 41.5 percent on them. In summation, two-point attempts make up nearly 80 percent of the Cavs shot selection, and the team is barely converting half of them.

On the flip side, the Cavs attempt the lowest amount of 3-pointers per game in the NBA at 26.8. No single play represents the Cavs backwards offensive philosophy like this possession from Garland in the 3rd quarter of the aforementioned game against the Nuggets. Viewer discretion advised.

Sexton makes a nice pocket pass to Drummond off the side pick and roll, while Will Barton, who is guarding Garland, cheats into the paint to throw another body at the Cavs big man. This leaves Garland all alone in the corner, and Drummond actually does a great job of finding him with a rare pass out of the post. This forces Paul Millsap to leave Jarrett Allen to late contest what looks like a surefire Garland 3-point attempt, but instead, Garland decides to pump fake. Here’s where things get infuriating.

Isaac Okoro is standing wide open at the top of the three point line as his defender, Michael Porter Jr., has been sucked into the paint after the initial pick and roll. A quick swing pass from Garland and Okoro is ready to fire an uncontested three. But instead of doing that, or simply taking the initial open 3 from the corner, Garland dribbles once to move just inside the 3-point line and fires off a contested 18-footer, which he misses. It’s hard to watch.

The Cavs make this tradeoff all the time, passing up open or slightly contested 3’s for long 2’s, and Garland and Sexton have become the lead culprits. Sexton is attempting just 3.7 3’s a game; Garland only four. Compare that to the backcourt duo SexLand is most often compared to, and the different is stark: Damien Lillard and CJ McCollum attempt 10.6 and 11 3’s per game. respectively.

While the players certainly shoulder much of the blame for how archaic the Cavs offense has become, so too does the coaching staff. It is unclear what, exactly, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s offensively philosophy is, but no team consistently puts up this amount of midrange shots without some instruction from the people putting together the game plan. Bickerstaff should be commended for the team’s defensive improvement (though even that has cratered over the last month) and steering the Cavs through a litany of injuries, but at some point he needs to make the Cavs resemble a modern basketball team.

There are some reasons to be optimistic about offensive improvements. Kevin Love should return to the starting lineup sooner than later, and both his passing and shooting ability should open up more three-point opportunities. Drummond will eventually be traded, allowing the Cavs to mercifully stop throwing the ball into the post and grinding their offense to a halt. Garland and Sexton will, hopefully, simply start attempting more three-pointers.

But the Cavs current offensive path is untenable. Getting back into the draft lottery for a team that needs another piece on its path back to legit contention is one thing. Arriving there because you’re playing basketball like it’s 1985 is another issue entirely. — Jordan Zirm

Who we are

Chris Manning: Site Manager at Fear the Sword, co-host of the Locked on Cavs podcast, words at places like Cleveland Magazine and Forbes. On Twitter @cwmwrites

Jordan Zirm: Social editor at @TheCheckdown. Formerly of ESPN Cleveland. Words at B/R, SB Nation and UPROXX. Host of The Rebuild podcast. On Twitter @clevezirm

Alex Hooper: Contributor at Fantasy Sports Insight. Former Cleveland Baseball Club beat writer for 92.3 the Fan (WKRK), and contributor at Sports Illustrated, Let’s Go Tribe, and the News-Herald. On Twitter @lexhooper.

Photo: USA Today