MILWAUKEE -- After the Cleveland Cavaliers spent October telling anyone who would listen that their injury-riddled training camp would make their start to the regular season a little rough, there is no denying that the Cavs’ 8-2 record out of the gates is a pleasant surprise.
Cleveland was playing on the road on the second night of a back-to-back and continued to miss its intended starting backcourt of Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert, who are both out with injuries. Milwaukee was playing for the first time in three days and playing with a full, healthy roster for the first time all season.
But those details, much like the Cavs’ impressive record, did not seem to matter to James.
“I think we’re a good team,” James said. “I think we expect we’re a great team. And we’re not. We have to get better in every facet of the game, and that’s every single facet of the game.”
He wasn’t done there.
“Records are meant to be broken, but that don’t mean you’re great,” James said, responding to a question about his team nearly matching the 1975-76 Cavs’ 9-1 record for the best start in franchise history. “For us, we have to play [with] a lot more sustainable effort throughout the 48 minutes. And we don’t do that. We give a half-ass effort sometimes and expect that we can just make a run at the end. We’re not good enough to do that right now.”
The Cavs’ late rallies had been working, as they came back from down nine points in the fourth quarter against Utah to win, down eight in the fourth against New York to win and down 11 in the fourth against Milwaukee to force overtime. The loss to the Bucks -- Cleveland’s first since opening night in Chicago when another furious comeback fell short -- gave James a reason to re-evaluate everything.
James' charging the Cavs to improve in “every single facet of the game” seems like an overstatement, but let’s weigh Cleveland’s pros and cons thus far to try to get what he’s aiming at.
Starting with the good:
Cleveland ranks fourth in the league in offensive efficiency with 104.4 points per 100 possessions. It is ninth in points per game at 102.8, eighth in team field goal percentage at 45.5, fourth in assists per game at 24.0 against just 14.2 turnovers per game (which ranks 10th) and ninth in free throw attempts per game at 24.5.
On the other side of the ball, the Cavs are tied for seventh in defensive efficiency, allowing 97.9 points per 100 possessions. They’re fourth in opponent's points per game allowed at 95.6 and ninth in opponent’s field goal percentage at 46.9.
James has been brilliant overall, upping his scoring average from 25.3 points per game last season to 27.0, his shooting percentage from 48.8 to 50.5, his rebounds from 6.0 to 6.8 and his steals from 1.6 to 2.0.
Kevin Love is in much better physical shape than he was at any point last season and is averaging 17.2 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.
Richard Jefferson has been a revelation playing the same veteran-searching-for-a-ring role that Shawn Marion struggled in last season. Jefferson is averaging 8.8 points per game while shooting 44.1 percent from 3.
After missing pretty much the entire training camp while holding out for a new contract, Tristan Thompson came back in shape and hasn’t missed a beat, averaging 7.5 points and 9.1 rebounds while shooting a career-best 62 percent from the field.
The Cavs had the lowest scoring bench in the league last season. This season, while having to play two substitutes as starters from the jump because of Irving's and Shumpert's injuries, Cleveland has improved -- its 28.9 bench points per game ranks 24th.
And now for the negative.
The combined record of the teams Cleveland has beaten so far is 24-34, so it’s not like the Cavs have been taking down world-beaters.
Offensively, the Cavs rank 16th in team 3-point percentage (33.8) and 27th in free throw percentage (69.4).
Defensively, they rank 24th in blocks per game (4.3) and are tied for 27th in steals per game (6.1).
While James’ overall game has improved, his 3-point percentage has nosedived from 35.4 to 26.2 percent, and his free throw percentage has also taken a dip from 71.0 to 60.5 percent.
Love is shooting just 39.7 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from 3, regressing in both categories from last season.
J.R. Smith has been, in a word, terrible. His scoring average has been cut in half from 12.7 with the Cavs last season after the midseason trade that brought him to Cleveland to 6.3 per game this season. He is shooting 30 percent from the field, 25 percent from 3 and 33.3 percent from the line. He’s also missed three games because of a right leg injury.
Timofey Mozgov is still not fully back from an offseason scope on his right knee. His scoring is down from 10.6 points on 59 percent shooting to 8.3 points on 50 percent, and his rebounds per game are down from 6.9 to 4.9.
Anderson Varejao has recovered from his torn Achilles only to find a very limited role available to him. He’s averaging 1.6 points and 2.4 rebounds in just 7.6 minutes per game while shooting a career-worst 31.6 percent. And he was already a healthy scratch in one game.
Will the Bucks loss be the agent of change that grows the pros list and chips away at the cons? “It’s good that we lost because it’s a wake-up call,” Smith said.
James wasn’t so sure that the improvement needed would happen so quickly.
“I am, I am curious,” James said when asked whether he had any question about how his team will respond. “Because we’ve had it so good to start the season. I told you guys before the season that we’re not, even though we’re playing good ball, we’re not that team just yet, so we’ve got to continue to get better. We’ve got to take it to heart when someone scores on us or we turn the ball over multiple possessions or we do stuff that supposedly great teams shouldn’t do. We have the talent, but talent doesn’t win championships. It wins games, but it doesn’t win championships.”
Speaking of champions, the Golden State Warriors are 11-0. Just saying.