The Cleveland Cavaliers lost for the fifth time in six games on Sunday, falling to the Atlanta Hawks, 117-115.

The loss moved the Cavaliers to 4-6 on the season, continuing concerns about the team’s lackluster start to the season.

Even more concerning has been where and to whom the Cavs have lost this season. They have already dropped four games at home this season and their losses have come to teams like the Brooklyn Nets, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, and Atlanta Hawks — bad to middle-of-the-road teams the Cavs should be beating.

After the loss to the Hawks on Sunday, Dwyane Wade, who lost his starting spot earlier this season, said the team’s first unit has to do a better job early in the games.

“It’s no secret we’re starting games off awful. Terrible,” Wade said. “And [Atlanta] got it going early, and the effort or the focus just wasn’t there to start off. And you try to battle back, you waste a lot of energy trying to come back from 16-18 down, and it’s tough nightly to do that. And we all know this. It’s no secret in this locker room, but our first unit, we got to start off better.”

LeBron James acknowledged a similar problem after the game, saying: “No energy. The effort was pretty bad and you turn the corner, but you can’t fix it in one game. This is something that has been going on for awhile. We just have to try to figure it out.”

The Cavs have used six different starting lineups in six games, and while they adjust to several new pieces, they’re also waiting for the return of Isaiah Thomas, the centerpiece of their return for Kyrie Irving.

Head coach Tyronn Lue acknowledged the first unit’s struggles by saying that a team should win if their bench scores 64 points, as the Cavs did on Sunday. Instead, Lue also pointed to energy and effort for the Cavs’ struggles.

J.R Smith [The Cavs]
J.R Smith [The Cavs]
The Cavs’ offseason moves may have portended these struggles. Last year, the Cavs were a high-octane offense that bombed enough three-pointers to outscore opponents. This offseason they added non-shooters like Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Wade, while Jae Crowder, who came over in the Irving trade, has struggled mightily.

Last year’s Cavs shot 38% on 34 threes per game, the second-best mark in the league. This year they’re shooting 33% on 30 attempts per game. With Thomas out, all of this has placed a greater burden on James, who now runs the offense and has less room to operate.

On Friday, the Cavs had a feel-good win over the Washington Wizards in which James scored 57 points. While it was refreshing to the see the Cavs play up to their opponents, it’s arguably concerning that it took a 50-point game from 32-year-old James to get them over the top.

The offseason moves have also worsened the defense. Not only are the Cavs the oldest team in the NBA which affect their speed in transition and on rotations (not to mention effort level), their rotation now consists of several historically below-average defenders. Five of the Cavs’ top 10 players in minutes have worsened the team’s defensive rating when they’re on the court — James, Rose, Crowder, Kevin Love, and J.R. Smith.

When asked about a double-digit loss to the Knicks in October, James said he wouldn’t panic, noting how early in the season it is. But an old roster that doesn’t play defense and struggles to spread the floor won’t magically improve upon its weaknesses.

The return of Thomas, if he’s fully healthy, will help some issues, but the Cavs, as they are now, are at risk of falling too far behind. Not too far behind to make the playoffs (though if the postseason started today, the Cavs would be out); rather, too far behind to correct some of their issues. The Cavs have shown bad defensive habits thus far that won’t just fix themselves in the playoffs, and the longer they go into the season, the harder offensive adjustments will be.

Perhaps more than ever, the Cavs feel reliant on James. With the threat of him leaving in free agency next summer, what have they done to convince him this is the best place for him to win?

Source: Scott Davis| BI