Any Hope for Life Without Love?

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The curse was bound to hit. You know it, I know it. But let us not forget, we call the Eastern Conference home. It’s like Thunderdome on the Island of Misfit Toys – suddenly all our competitors seem to be missing an arm, eye-button or battery. We’ll worry about the West when we get there, but the immediate task at hand is not beyond the Cavaliers’ reach. Think of all the practice the team’s had playing without Love in the fourth quarter!

There are some obvious issues and questions, many connected with whom the Cavaliers face in the Semifinals. While it’s generally been assumed the Bucks would lose – particularly when they went down 3-0 – but we very well could be witnessing an epic meltdown.

In our prognostications last week, we questioned how well Rose would mesh with his compadres. He’s been in-and-out and there are a lot of new pieces, the continuity of which has been spotty, particularly from the defensive end. Add to that the tendency of Rose to hero ball it, and Butler’s offensive inconsistency, and you have a recipe for disaster. We fully expect the Bucks to win at home, and force a game 7 in Chicago.

This Bucks team is very young and energetic, while their three veteran bench pieces – Jared Dudley, Jerryd Bayless and O.J. Mayo – have played terrific and steadied this young team at key times. However the real revelation has been Michael Carter-Williams’ offensive emergence and the clear defensive difficulty his length is giving Derrick Rose.

We believe the Bulls will still pull it out in 7, but it’s hardly a sure thing, and it won’t be fun facing the Bucks coming off the momentum of an unprecedented (in the NBA) four-straight over the Bulls.

Rather than imagine how the Cavs might match up, we thought it’d be better to simply assess the weapons at their disposal and how they might be used.

Big or Small?

This is a huge question, but we think it comes down to deciding what your team’s personality is going to be in the absence of Kevin Love. (GM David Griffin announced today that Love was unlikely to play again this season.) While they will certainly adjust from opponent to opponent, one supposes that Coach David Blatt wants the team to have a style to lean on and go to.

This is allegedly what Blatt is good at – adjusting his personal to the challenge. It’s hard for any same person to suggest the Cavs have a better power forward option than LeBron James. It will have a physical toll on him, but would he rather punt this season after coming this far, in a dilapidated East?
No player in the league grabs as greater percentage of rebounds that he’s near (within 3/5’), not even DeAndre Jordan. He’s not a great three-point shooter, but can certainly stretch opposing 4s to the arc. But even more importantly, we have several good options to play the “3,” and one that might make us an even better team – over a short distance.

It will be more of a struggle to score without Kevin Love because not only was he good for 15-18 points a night, he made things easier for others offensively. But honestly, this team has more than enough offensive firepower. For various reasons, Blatt tended to favor the lineups that produced the most offensive bang as opposed to those with the best differentials.

That’s an entirely other discussion, but the larger point is that without Love it makes a lot of sense to play James at power forward with Shumpert at small forward. Shumpert is a part of all of the Cavs’ 7 top three-man teams, and 9 of the top 11, as ranked by point-differential/minute. By comparison Tristan Thompson is part of 5 of the top 12 as are Timofey Mozgov, LeBron James, and, oddly, Matthew Dellavedova.

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It shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice that the best team is Mozgov, Thompson and Shumpert together? It seems to us that this lineup could also be effective if the Cavs are willing to use James more of a motion offense that uses picks on both the strong and weakside to open cuts to the basket. This is more in the vein of the Princeton offense and will within Blatt’s wheelhouse, though it would involve largely abandoning the three.

That seems unlikely, as an overall strategy though we wouldn’t be surprised seeing Blatt experiment with this big lineup at times. The problem is that as good as that is at defense (third best at 94.2/100 possessions) it’s also the worst offensive squad outside of one of the two with Matthew Dellavedova. Shumpert is a nice medium and provides the best D on team when paired with Mozgov.

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Something like the #2 3-man lineup, with Delly, Shumpert and Mozgov joining James and Irving would makes sense, with Delly’s solid 3-point stroke helping counterbalance Shumpert’s lack.

Delly always fails the eye-test with me but puts up better stats than we expect, perhaps there’s something to it. The addition of another strong ballhandler and pesky defender out there helps too. That might be Delly’s best argument. He’s a more active defender in J.R. Smith’s absence than Mike Miller, Shawn Marion or James Jones.

It’s easy to forget that Miller played 21 minutes/night on a playoff contender (Memphis) last year. But he’s 34, and even if he’s signed for one more year, it’s difficult to see where he fits given his 33% FG & 3pt conversion rate. He says he’s in great shape but he hasn’t moved well all year and though he’s a much better passer than anyone on the bench, unless he can get some shots to drop he’s pretty useless because he doesn’t challenge defenses. Even James Jones is more of a threat off the bounce.

Speaking of Jones, has anyone seen him? He hasn’t showed up in more than a month and the absence of his 3-point stroke (24% from 3/20 to end of regular season, 18% in playoffs) renders him just about useless as well. Every time he comes in you’ll notice the opposition races to post him up. My deck chairs stand a better chance holding their ground in the post. Add in a terrible rebounding rate, and Blatt’s continued use beyond a 5-10 minute heat check begins to get criminal.

The victim is probably Shawn Marion. We say probably because it’s hard to say how much Marion has left – we’ve barely seen him since January. That shouldn’t be an issue, Marion is the consummate pro. Indeed, during his brief 50 second stint in his sole Cavaliers playoff appearance in Game 2, he produced two steals and earned the approbation of the King.

“I thought the most important complement was ‘Trix,” said James, singling Marion out after the Game 2. “Those final seconds at the end of the third he got back-to-back steals and those possessions count especially in the post-season. Every possession’s important. He helped us get those two steals and sat back down. That’s a true professional.”

Somehow he didn’t see another appearance, essentially because Blatt likes James Jones (aka the Champ), or maybe James likes the Champ, or maybe Blatt just hates Marion’s lack of a reliable shot, especially from 3. Yet as ugly as his shot looks, he hit 45% of his shots, and even 26% of his 3s, which isn’t a lot but only a couple ticks worse than Jared Sullinger.

Marion like Shumpert is a very good rebounder and will help make up for Love’s absence. Make no mistake, as good as Thompson and Mozgov are on the offensive boards, they’re not great defensive rebounders, a fact some teams have exploited.

Marion doesn’t look smooth out there and at times appears every bit of his 36 years, but don’t forget this guy started 76 games for Dallas last year and played 32 minutes/game. While his 26% 3 point shooting is his lowest in 4 years, he has a knack for the ball on defense, where he always seems to be in the right place. On offense he scores a lot of nifty cuts and stuff that happens away from the ball and doesn’t necessitate focus, but nonetheless keeps things active.

Returning to the initial supposition, playing James at power forward reduces the drop-off losing a big and allows Thompson to play a relatively similar number of minutes with the same intensity he has before – a key to his skill. We’ll probably see a little more Perkins, but so long as Blatt doesn’t use him against starters he can still be effective in the lane. (Just don’t force him to play pick and roll – trains have more lateral mobility.)

This opens up a lot of time for Shumpert, who has been a mad defender and proven a terrific rebounder. Between him and James, they can cover a lot of Love’s slack on the boards. Shumpert showed a willingness and ability to drive in Game 4, racking up eight free throws. If he can even do half that and get a couple baskets on the perimeter that would go a long way to papering over Love’s absence.

It seems clear that the Cavs can’t get better by improving the offense – but there are still sizeable returns to be found playing better defensive lineups. That means more Shumpert and Delly not Jones and Miller as some have suggested. We would like to see some Shawn Marion for a dozen minutes/night but are under no delusions about how much burn that dilapidated trio can stand. They’ve got days off after, so hopefully each can be responsible for 6-10 solid veteran minutes apiece/night and a three-pointer or two a night collectively.

The Cavs haven’t created a lot of turnovers all year and have thrived on the efficiency of their offense. That won’t be possible without Love but there is the possibility of making more steals and using their speed more with smaller lineups, especially those with Shumpert and Thompson. Those squads will be able to switch nearly everything which is why Blatt was using those lineups in the first place.

Now we’ll see what happens if you extend this fourth quarter approach to the whole game. Blatt likes a challenge, and now he’s really got one.

As always you can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and hear us Monday mornings around 10:45 on Michael James’ Defend Cleveland show on WRUW, 91.5. Look for my columns all week on the Scene blog and find my prior columns in the archive and all my writing at chrisparker.contently.com.


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