(Important note to new readers before you move on. I am a mental health professional practicing for 12 years. I am licensed with the state of Ohio to provide counseling and mental health care in a multitude of areas. It is this experience, education and license that I speak from in today’s article)
The Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled this year, particularly on the road, in many aspects of the game. While the talent on the team is easily identifiable, how they fit and play together has not yet been. Watching the players interact with each other on the court, their facial expressions and body language on the bench and their overall play one thing has stuck out: Uncertainty.
Uncertainty breeds many things for many people. Using what we know statistically about 75% of people are externally motivated, meaning they work hard to get paid, or if the boss is around or to get the outcome they want. For this vast majority uncertainty often creates difficulty in the uncertain situations. While it is entirely possible that professional basketball players are more likely to be internally motivated, that is doing things right, or working hard, no matter the external situations, for this piece lets assume they fit the norm rather then the exception.
Diagnostically this uncertainty often leads to a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, further more referred to as GAD. GAD is diagnosed when for 6 months a person has uncontrolled, excessive worry about daily things that may be disproportional to the rational event. Symptoms of GAD include fatigue, fidgeting, headaches, nausea, restlessness, insomnia, numbness in hands and feet, muscle aches or tension, problems swallowing or breathing, difficulty focusing, irritability, agitation among others and an inability to control anxiety. Any one of these symptoms can prove difficult to function at a high level in daily living, much less playing basketball. Uncertainty creates pessimism and limitations upon the lives of those living with its anxiety.
Because we know that anxiety is always a future looking issue, its important to look at the multiple ways the Cavaliers may be anxious:
Many Cavalier players have had extreme changes in their minutes, either due to performance or health issues. Earl Clark started and played 27 minutes in the opener just over 2 weeks ago. Since then he has not played in 2 games and averaged around 15 minutes a game in others. Dion Waiters, averaging just less then 30 minutes a game in other games plays 20 minutes against the TWolves just two games after only play 14 minutes and sitting for most of the 3rd and 4th quarters. Tyler Zeller, coming back from injury, has two games of 15 and 18 minutes while only playing in less then 10 minutes in every other game. Anthony Bennett, after a very slow start shooting, sat out Monday’s game with an injury following playing only 9 and 6 minutes the two previous games. In all other games he is playing at least 10 minutes with a high of 20 in the game on Wednesday.
A prime example of trust is the 14 minute game for Waiters. Though he was 1 for 5 shooting with 2 turnovers and 2 fouls, Waiters shared the same -7 plus/minus score with Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao. Coach Mike Brown chose to sit Waiters instead of letting the youngster work through his issues and gain some confidence. Jarrett Jack still played 25 minutes against the Bulls even though he was 0 for 6 from the field with a turnover and a foul.
Brown has made it apparent that he wants Irving playing point and Waiters playing the 2 guard spot with Jack coming off the bench at the point. Yet often in games, when Irving is with either Jack or Waiters, Irving is playing the shooting guard role in the offense with Waiters or Jack initiating. Instead of having defined roles the 3 players seem to decide play by play who is doing what, often with Irving, the teams best player not getting a meaningful touch on a possession. Varejao also has to deal with this issue, as he was the starter then benched in favor of Andrew Bynum, but will start when Bynum sits out due to injuries.
There does not seem to be one. Players set picks, run through screens, pass the ball around the perimeter but the motion seems to have no point and go no where. If a player can’t get open on his own, or hit a shot off a screen, the offense goes nowhere. Even the simple act of an entry pass to the massive Bynum is a struggle and often players rotate the ball away from Bynum even when he has position. Irving, a star at attacking the basket, seems to be dancing with the ball, unsure where he should go or where his teammates will be.
As stated above GAD, and anxiety in general, is only future looking. Many of the players understand that they could be traded at any moment. Outside of Irving no player is off limits, especially with the early season struggles. This means high draft picks Tristan Thompson, Waiters, Bennett and Zeller have concerns for their unsure future. Bynum’s contract means he is unsure if he will be with the team past January of this year. Besides Irving the only Cavalier that can be certain of his future is Coach Brown, which may be an issue.
Because the team brought him back after firing him, Brown can be certain he has a long leash. This means for him experimenting with lineups, minutes, trust and roles is fine because he has security. Yet due to this his players have the opposite, anxiety. While Brown should spend time figuring out how the team works together, clear communication of the above things could limit player anxiety.
There are a couple obvious exceptions and those are the players playing well, Thompson and CJ Miles. Each of these players have very defined roles and have a good sense of what their future looks like: Thompson should be around for awhile and Miles is auditioning for his next contract. While Miles contract situation may seem anxiety producing, it is a known thing that he can work with. His role on the team is to score. When he comes in the game he knows he will be running off screens getting passes and looking to score the ball. His 3 point shooting has been very good and he uses his shooting to set up drives to the basket. He doesn’t dribble too much and all of his movements on the floor seem purposeful.
Thompson seems like someone who should have anxiety, due to the switch from the left hand to the right, but has been solid so far. While his numbers haven’t risen from last year, his role has. Thompson is a defensive leader, communicating regularly with the rest of the team and providing good back line support. Offensively, similar to Miles, Thompson’s decisions have purpose. He cuts to the lane, he makes power moves to his left or right or he faces up his defender to try to get a shot. Not a lot of wasted motion, which is a good sign of a player being free.
One last exception may come as a surprise: Matthew Dellavedova. He is the cheerleader on the team. Every time a shot goes up, so does he. He is ready to cheer on his teammates as soon as the possibility of something positive happening occurs. He has been given some playing time and during such he seems well aware of what his role should be and plays within it. He has shot only 6 times on the year, going 2 for 6 in 25 total minutes. He has 4 assists to 1 turnover which shows he is making the needed pass not trying to force things.
Players are playing with a high level of anxiety for a variety of reasons. While the team is not going to seek mental health treatment, I am available if they need me (for a price) (I only half kid), they do have the ability to treat the players anxiety. Brown needs to identify with players his expectations, especially on the offensive end by implementing a clear system as he has done on defense. Brown needs to create a clear rotation that is followed except for injuries or blowouts on either side. Finally Brown needs to have consistency with his players. Anxiety is created when the unknown of the future barges into today’s activities. Consistency can corral that from happening as the players know what the following game holds. Consistency will free up players like Irving, Waiters and Jack to play more free like Thompson, Miles and Dellavedova. It will free them from tentativeness and allow a more flowing team play, which is much needed. If uncertainty and anxiety create pessimism and limitations, consistency creates optimism and opportunities.