Now that we’ve apparently given up dissecting Kevin Love’s scoring totals and Mathew Dellavedova’s usage, the best new flashpoint has been Coach David Blatt’s use of center Timofey Mozgov, or the lack thereof in the fourth quarter.
It’s a somewhat baffling decision because the team is so much better defensively with the Russian seven-footer in the middle. His net efficiency (+12.3) exceeds James for the season (+9.6) – if not since his return (+13.9) – and only Iman Shumpert’ been better in defensive efficiency.
So why does Blatt keep playing Tristan Thompson instead of Mozgov – many times for the last 18 minutes of the game? The problem is the tendency of teams to run multi-pick sets at the end of the game. These are designed to create a mismatch that can be exploited on a drive or in post up, forcing a double-team the opens up someone else.
The optimal way currently for teams to counter is to switch these plays. While teams will often switch their guards and wings on picks, they often hesitate to switch their bigs onto perimeter players lest they get taken to the basket by a quicker player.
Golden State switches just about everything, a strategy made possible by the length and agility of Draymond Green, who in that respect greatly resembles Tristan Thompson. (Quick someone teach Thompson to shoot a 3, we don’t care which hand.)
When Thompson’s in on defense, the Cavs indeed are capable of switching everything and Tristan can hold his own on quick wings. The problem is that Tristan is not so great at protecting the rim, so while his presence helps you on the perimeter, it tends to hurt you closer to the basket.
The numbers bear this out. Thompson is in the 78th percentile in defending the roll-man in the pick-and-roll. Mozgov and Love are in the low sixties. Love (78th) and Thompson (60th) reverse positions when it comes to post-up, while Mozgov is in the 40th percentile, allowing 0.9 pts/play. Love is in the 76th percentile defending spot-up shot, Thompson at 50th and Mozgov 10th. (For comparison sake, Varejao was 43rd percentile, all according to Synergy.)
On the other hand when it’s defending the rim, we’re talking Mozgov allows a 45.6% FG versus 51.7% by Thompson and 52.9% by Love. Thompson and Mozgov aren’t great defensive rebounders – LeBron James is almost as good, and the team sometimes suffers preventing offensive boards when Love sits. Similarly, when Mozgov sits, there seem to be more drives to the basket.
Asked about the dribble penetration and offensive rebounds, particularly with regards to how it pertains to the small lineups, Blatt implied they were part of a larger plan to limit 3-pointers.
“For what it is, of course it’s a problem. Teams getting offensive rebounds and taking it to the basket, that’s a problem,” Blatt says. “I don’t know that we’ve suffered greatly from it on a consistent basis… Everybody talks about defending the three-point shot, but if you defend the three-point shot, you’re running guys off the line [and] the ball’s going to penetrate.”
“Rotating and helping a lot of times leaves you in a situation where if you don’t get to the next level of the defense, you’re not going to rotate back and cover someone else that maybe you left free because you were coming to help,” he continued. “That’s part of the process and the organism that’s called defense.”
Since LeBron’s return the Cavs have allowed the 4th lowest opponent FG% on threes. (Prior to LeBron’s return they were 19th.) However in the fourth quarter since LeBron’s return, the team’s allowed the 10th highest opponent 3-point percentage. (It’s been there since the all-star break.)
It’s quite possible Blatt feels the team’s best off trying to limit open threes by limiting the amount of rotating that needs to be done. The best way to do that is to switch picks so no one has to cover for anyone and bigs aren’t strung out across the floor guarding perimeter players until guards get off their picks.
As he implies it’s a trade-off. You don’t have to love it (we don’t), but at least you can appreciate the defensively logic. So the next time someone scores over Tristan (0.7 blocks/game) going to the hole, or breaks down his man off the bounce taking it to the rack, you can comfort yourself that those two-pointers are significantly less damaging than 3-pointers, particularly at the end of the game.
More LeBron in the Fourth Quarter
At the urging of a twitter follower, we dove deeper into LeBron’s stats. The new NBA.com stats package is extraordinary for anyone looking to parse a player or team’s performance. The question was how LeBron’s regular seasons and fourth quarter usage compares with his career playoff usage. The suggestion being that James shares the load more come playoff team.
We also looked at James’ usage rate (essentially the percentage of offensive possessions featuring his involvement) across the season. Since his January 13 return his usage rose steadily peaking during that games on both sides of the all-star break and receding for the last 15 games.
His fourth quarter usage has stabilized at a high rate 42%-44%, but the pace of the game in the fourth quarter has steadily slowed, dropping almost three possessions a quarter (from 97 to 85/per 48 minutes when James is in). Whether this is by design or the impact of LeBron’s unique one-corner slowdown offense is unclear, though we’ve got our guesses.
James has steadily reduced his fourth quarter turnovers since his return. When you break the 4th quarters into 10-game stretches something mildly troubling emerges. We say “mildly,” because the two 5-game stretches we’re about to discuss are sandwiched around a fine 10-game stretch. But look for yourself
While the high-usage rate worked when he first came back, by the end of February (games 51-60) it was markedly less productive. James pulled back during the first 10 games of March, but over the last five 4th quarters his ball-dominant ways have become more predominant and his shooting percentage has sunk. This coincides with fourth quarter play that’s actually surrendering more than it’s yielding (-1.2 pts NetEff).
Then we looked at James’ history. His fourth quarter usage is typically a little higher in the playoffs than the regular season, though not last year. You can also see that his fourth quarter usage increased each of his four years in Cleveland, and he was able to generally sustain a high eFG% and high scoring pace even with the higher usage.
His usage is high compared to Miami and his eFG% and offensive efficiency aren’t what they were his final two years there, but this is a new team, and they’ve even exceeded that rate at times. We don’t like the way the pace has dropped the last few weeks, and the higher usage rates do coincide recently with a lot less efficient offense and poor shots.
However, from a purely strategic standpoint, it might not be something Blatt is interested in raising with James until it happens when games really count. It’s something to watch but as we were saying in yesterday’s column
, the recent fourth quarter struggles have as much to do with Irving and Love’s inability to shoot as with LeBron’s failings.
One thing is clear from the above – the Cavs should be giving the ball to J.R. Smith as much as possible and let Irving and Love share the third option.
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