What’s so hard about playing hard?
Is effort a skill?
Does it take talent to hustle?
I started pondering these elusive questions Monday night, at about the 3:09 mark of the third quarter, when the Cavs, still less than two years removed from winning the NBA championship, and still employing the greatest player on the planet, trailed the Minnesota Timberwolves by 41 points.
Repeat: 41 points.
The score at the time was 96-55, and it occurred to me that the Cavs at that point could have gone on a 40-0 run, and they would still be losing.
This from a team that on Dec. 17, 1991, laid what is still the biggest whooping in NBA history on Miami, beating the Heat 148-80, an out-of-control 62-point thrashing highlighted by the Cavs outscoring the Heat in the second half 75-27.
The Cavs played hard that night.
Monday night in Minnesota? Not so much.
The Cavs are not a chump team. They’ve been to the NBA Finals three years in a row, won it all two years ago, and, despite their annoying habit of mailing it in too many times during the regular season, they are still so talented that they are, in the eyes of many, the favorites to get back to the Finals for the fourth consecutive year.
But that’s in June. This is January, and this stuff is hard to watch — and harder still to explain. Too many times each year the Cavs lose games simply because they don’t feel like playing. It may be — and usually is, though not in the case of the Timberwolves — because the other team IS a chump team that the Cavs don’t respect, and they feel they can go through the motions for 3½ quarters, then play hard for the last six minutes and win.
Sometimes that’s exactly what happens, and the victory gives the Cavs a positive result from negative effort — which only helps to perpetuate this annoying habit.
Look, every team in every sport is allowed to play a clunker now and then. In the middle of a season in which they would go 110-44, the 1927 Yankees, on July 9, lost to the Tigers 14-4.
The problem with the Cavs is that it happens more than it should. That they continue to reach the Finals every year despite this flaw probably makes it more difficult for them to address it.
Not playing hard often enough reveals itself most dramatically on defense, where the Cavs aren’t so much passive-aggressive as passive-passive.
To put it another way: the Cavs’ laissez-faire approach to defense is the single biggest reason why, in the four seasons since LeBron James returned, their record against the Golden State Warriors is 9-16. That’s counting regular season and postseason.
You never see the Warriors play a game like the Cavs played in Minnesota, where they simply fail to show up. The Warriors always show up, and they always play defense. Elite defense. With effort.
In the regular season, over the last four years (since LeBron returned):
The Cavs have had 13 losses by 20 or more points. The Warriors have had seven.
The Warriors have had 21 winning streaks of five or more games. The Cavs have had 11.
The Warriors have had seven winning streaks of 10 or more games. The Cavs have had two. Offensively, the Cavs can play with the Warriors. Defensively, it’s no contest.
This season the Cavs have basically stopped playing defense altogether. Incredibly, after trading their worst defensive player _ Kyrie Irving _ to Boston, instead of getting better on defense, the Cavs have gotten worse.
While Boston leads the league in defensive rating, the Cavs rank 27th. The top five in defensive rating in the league are all elite teams: Boston, San Antonio, Portland, Toronto, and Golden State.
The Cavs are wallowing with the bottom feeders. The only teams with a worse defensive rating than the Cavs are Atlanta, Phoenix and Sacramento, three teams that are a combined 44 games under .500 (39-83).
In the four years since LeBron returned, the Cavs average defensive rating has been 18th. The Warriors’ has been 3rd. Which is not to say that LeBron is the problem. In his four years in Miami the Heat finished first, fourth, ninth and 12th in defensive rating.
In four years since LeBron left, Miami has been 12th three times and 24th in defensive rating.
This isn’t brain surgery.
Defense is personnel, but it’s also effort. The Cavs, too frequently, are suspect in the former, and invisible in the latter. When they won it all in 2016 they were a very respectable ninth in defensive rating.
This year they are 27th, and Golden State is fifth.
How do the Cavs close that gap?
All the time.
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