The Cleveland Cavaliers just lost to the Houston Rockets, 117-113. As a stand-alone score, that’s not horrible. It was a close game, in Houston, and the Rockets have a very good offense. The problem: It’s not a stand-alone game. It’s a trend. The Cavaliers’ defense is making every offense look like a really good offense.
There are several ways of putting into perspective just how bad they are, but here’s one that might speak the loudest. Here’s how the current Cavaliers’ defensive rating stacks up with the worst defenses in history:
If they continue on their present course, the Cavaliers will have the worst defensive rating in the history of the league. To be fair, we can only track that to 1973-74 because stats that determine possessions (like distinguishing between offensive and defensive rebounds and counting turnovers) only go back that far. Still, out of 1,193 teams we can measure, Cleveland is last.
While that could most definitely get better, and we’re comparing 82 games to 12, let’s pause for a moment and consider what this means.
Only one of these teams, the 1981-82 Denver Nuggets, made the playoffs — they lost in the first round.
Scrolling down the list at Basketball-Reference.com, the 18th-worse defense, the San Antonio Spurs, made the postseason. They got swept in the first round, as did the 85-86 Chicago Bulls (24). The 83-84 Nuggets (27) lost in the first round. The same goes for the 1990-91 Indiana Pacers (41), the 1988-89 Philadelphia 76ers (68) and the ’89-90 Pacers (71). The worst defense to ever win a playoff series comes from the ’86-87 Golden State Warriors, who ranked 85th. The ’85-86 Mavericks (96) also won a series. They both lost in the second round.
The worst defense ever to get to a conference finals was the ’86-87 Seattle SuperSonics (136). The worst to make the Finals was last season’s Cavaliers (who were giving up 5.3 fewer points and were the 143rd-worst defense). The worst defense to ever win a championship was the 1994-95 Houston Rockets, with a 107.4 defensive rating, making them the 431st-worst defense.
So let’s put this together. Of the 100 worst defenses in NBA history, only nine of the teams even made the playoffs. Only two won a playoff series. No team with a bottom-100 defense has made it past the second round of the playoffs. The teams had an aggregate 45.6 winning percentage (equivalent to a 37-win team).
Furthermore, the worst defense to ever win a playoff series had a 111.2 defensive rating, which is 4.4 points better than the Cavaliers are right now.
Some people might argue that a fairer comparison is the first dozen games. Yes, the Cavaliers fare slightly better there. Here’s where they rank:
They rank 13th here, and this list (again, due to available statistical archives) only goes back to 1983-84. Still–it’s atrocious.
Of the teams that got off to the worst starts, the No. 4 Trail Blazers lost in the first round in 1984. The No. 11 San Antonio Spurs lost in the first round in 1988. While their start was slightly better, the 1983-84 Denver Nuggets also lost in the first round.
If you want some encouragement, the 1983-84 Lakers had the 17th-worst start and made the NBA Finals. But they were also 9-3 after 12 games, not 5-7, and finished the season with the ninth-ranked defense.
So, you might argue, it’s just a matter of regression. The Cavs will get better over time. Maybe they will, but that’s certainly not the direction things are trending.
The league average is around 105 and the Cavs haven’t held anyone below that since the second game. The only two teams they’ve held below 110, the Chicago Bulls (30th) and Atlanta Hawks (24), are in the bottom 20 percent of this season’s offenses.
Furthermore, the Cavaliers have given up at least 112 points in each of those games. That’s the longest such streak in the NBA since 1994, when the Minnesota Timberwolves did it. They won 20 games that year. The Dallas Mavericks did it in 1992. They won 11 games. The Denver Nuggets did it three times in 1991. They won 20 games. The last time a team did this and had a winning season was the 1985-86 Denver Nuggets.
It’s been over 30 years since a team coughed up 112-plus points in a game and had a winning record at the end of the season.
That’s bad news by any measure.
Sure, we can talk about chemistry and new guys learning to play together. We can talk about Tristan Thompson missing games. But the reality is that we’re not talking about a bad defense; we’re talking about a historically bad defense that seems to keep getting worse. What’s more, defenses this bad historically have not done well in the postseason–if they get there at all.
If things don’t turn around very soon and dramatically, LeBron James’ streak of seven straight Finals will be in serious jeopardy.