This is a team that needed to go down three games to one to realize they absolutely had to play defense for forty-eight minutes to win. Sometimes it appears like they’re waiting for history to repeat before they do it again. That’s certainly the impression left by their 126-113 loss to the Nuggets last night.
Despite fielding a fully-healthy team for the first time since December, their approach to defense lived up to the Cavalier name as they surrendered 73 first half points to the Denver on 59% shooting. They went to the rack like they carried a speed pass, which kept the Nuggets layup lines free of congestion. Denver finished with 70 points in the paint, the second most Cleveland surrendered this season, behind the 78 the Bulls put up in their 111-105 December 2nd win. That night the Cavs had 60 point paints of their own. Last night they had just 30.
The loss dropped the Cavaliers to 18-17 on the road and 21-17 since January 1. Over the stretch they are scoring 111 points every 100 possessions, fourth best in that time, behind The Nuggets, Warriors and Rockets. The defense is allowing 110 points every 100 possessions, which is 26th ahead of the Suns, Kings, Nuggets and Lakers. Yup, that’s the sad news: The Cavs are playing a lot like the Nuggets, but not quite as good, apparently.
There are essentially only two responses to the Nuggets loss and what it represents. Either you become paranoid about this team’s seeming indifference toward regular season games, which is rapidly approaching how Allen Iverson felt about practice, or you blithely dismiss it and lean heavily on the idea that history repeats, and the Cavs will too – at least with regard to turning up the intensity for the playoffs.
By now you probably know that the Lakers were 21st in defense during the 2000-2001 season only to turn it on during the playoffs, going 16-1 on their way to a three-peat. (They are the last titlist not to finish the regular season in the top ten of defensive efficiency.)
There’s a handy grab-bag of excuses from injuries and new players to the lack of practices and all these road games and back-to-backs. Plus, like, they’re bored, and the only excitement that reaches them is the thrill of pushing it to the very limit like a bad TV drama, with the expectation that they can wrap it up in the final frame after sleepwalking through the first three.
The Horror, The Horror
There isn’t much good to say about this game. Sure James (8-12 FG, 18 pts), Irving (11-22 FG, 4-5 3P, 33 pts) and Deron Williams (8-10 FG, 2-4 3P, 19 pts) had very efficient offensive games, but the defense was often a mess. There were plays like this where J.R. Smith turned his back on his man and headed to the other side of the court, leaving Gary Harris open enough to enjoy Ken Burns’ entire Civil War documentary.
On other occasions guys just failed to get back on defense after threes. It’s very important when someone shoots a three from above the break that the guys in the corners get back. But as this “comic” strip shows, James made no effort, and Love’s effort was seemingly in the wrong direction. (If you’re the furthest guy back, maybe you should continue backwards instead of foolhardily challenging the guard in the backcourt.)
There could be an entire dissertation on the Cavs inability to cover roll guys in the pick and roll, or the terror that happens when help does arrive in time, usually leading to an open three, since the Cavaliers aren’t in the mood lately to send consecutive timely help rotations. If you said to yourself, “Eh, no worries, they’ll turn it on during the playoffs,” you should drink. It’s a new alcohol consumption game I call, Cavs Apologist.
We jest. Nobody knows what will happen with this team. They’ve got plenty of talent, and maybe it’s just a matter of getting some time together to gel. On the other hand, this team hasn’t put together a solid half of energized defense in consecutive games for several months. Will they be able to maintain their focus for 48 minutes when the time comes?
Some Much For #1?
The Cavs love to wrap themselves in a straitjacket, chains and ride a safe to the bottom of the Cuyahoga because ordinary escapes don’t excite them anymore. With that thought in mind, they’ve allowed the Celtics to climb back into the race for the top seed. According to Five Thirty Eight, the Celtics (by virtue of a much easier schedule) have a 55% chance of securing the top seed to the Cavs’ 45% chance.
Obviously nobody who has watched LeBron doubts his ability to win on the road. He’s won a road game in 23 straight series. Homecourt advantage is not that essential. Everyone knows what this team is capable of. But there remains this fear in the back of our head that says, “This isn’t a scripted television show. Just how many times can this team do the Houdini before they pull a Joseph Burrus?”
Nobody has the answer. LeBron can will this team to incredible heights. But despite what seems a more talented roster, the team’s defense has been much much worse, and boasts a huge hole in the middle that can be exploited unless Larry Sanders can recover his mojo in time. It’s not impossible, even though he looks awful slight physically. Remember Manute Bol? Length can compensate for a lack of ballast, particularly when you’re only asking for 10-12 minutes a night.
The biggest question seems to be whether Cleveland’s guards can stop opponents from going by quicker than summer vacation, and making the paint their second home. Without a big everyone has to take personal responsibility and spent the postgame presser discussing their need to take the one-on-one challenge and not expect someone to help them if their man gets past. Those are the kinds of habits they need to establish, a refrain nearly as familiar and nauseating as “Uptown Funk.”
The Cavaliers’ troubles stopping penetration have resulted in a lot of threes, and open ones at that. The Cavaliers’ inability to corral opposing ballhandlers means someone has to rotate over to help. That help is opening up shooters at the arc and opponents are taking advantage. Some of it is slow help rotations to help the helper. Some of it is just piss-poor close-outs. Indeed, oftentimes you’ll see guys just give up and concede a guy an open three and not even make an attempt to contest it.
As you can see in the chart below Cleveland’s shot defense numbers have slid over last year, but the team in the bottom third in most categories. One of the most important is wide-open threes, which are shots with no-one within six feet or more of the shooter. This year the Cavs are allowing 40% more (from 8.7 to 12.1) and teams are shooting an extraordinary 40.7% on such shots.
Last year the Cavaliers were relatively good inside, allowing the 4th fewest shots inside the restricted area (the half circle that extends for three feet around the basket) This year they’re allowing two-and-a-half more shots putting them in the middle of the pack. The team’s net defensive FG% (what the opponent shot versus what they typically shoot from that distance) is off 0.6%, and now the defense adds a little to opponents’ shots rather than subtract from them.
When Lue took the job he talked about how important it was to stop teams from behind the arc. So what do you make out of the fact that they’re 21st in defensive 3-point FG% and they’re allowing the 7th most shots from behind the arc? It’s true that 3-point shooting percentage is highly variable, meaning any fluctuation may just be error, however the increasing number of wide-open threes suggests the jump of nearly two points in 3P% (34.7% last year versus 36.5% this) is more than a random fluctuation and actually a manifestation of the team’s lower level of effort on defense this year.
It’s worth noting they endured a similar fall off when Lue took over the job and the team hasn’t really improved. They actually were worse in defensive efficiency last year during the playoffs than the regular season (103.5 versus 102.3) and this year they’re worse still (107.7). They were at 105.1 when the calendar turned but since January first that’s fallen to 110.0, while the team has gone 21-17.
All this speaks to the team’s continual defensive slide, particularly since 2016, which they ended 25-7. But it’s more than just poor shot defense and uninspired rotations/close-outs.
Second Chance Points
The Cavaliers have been a poor defensive rebounding team all season. While some might like to tie it to Kevin Love’s injuries, it’s a chronic condition similar to whatever afflicting Bill Belichick. At the turn of the year they were snaring 75.6% of the available defensive rebounds, 21st in the league. Since then they’ve snared 75.5%, which is 26th during that stretch.
In isolation, giving up a lot of offensive rebounds isn’t necessarily going to hurt you. The best offensive rebounding teams in the league are Oklahoma City, Denver, Minnesota, Chicago and New York. But the Cavaliers also force the fifth-fewest turnovers in the NBA (12.7, just ahead of the Nuggets, Nets, Blazer and Knicks).
That means other teams are generally going to have more possessions than the Cavaliers, and it also limits the team’s ability to run. Not only do you need a turnover or rebound, but if you’re giving up offensive rebounds you generally have to not push the break as much and send more guys to the boards. (Having LeBron as your best rebounder negates this to some extent since he’s a potential one-man fastbreak every time he touches the ball.)
It’s not only tactically debilitating to give up so many second chance opportunities (13.5 pts/gm, 24th), but morally as well. Nothing is quite as frustrating for the team as to play 20+ seconds of intense defense only to give the opponent a fresh shot clock or an easy putback.
The Cavaliers also allow the 11th-most points off turnovers (16.6 pts/gm) which is 2.1 more points than the Cavaliers create. Add opponents’ two point advantage in second chance points and you’re staring at a four-point gap you have to make up with your shooting every night. The Cavs are good enough to do it, but what happens when they have an off shooting night in the playoffs. Perhaps on the road?
It’s worth noting they’re even worse on the road allowing 18.1 points off turnovers away from the Q and 16.4 fastbreak points, second worse in the league, only behind the Los Angeles Lakers. (They only allow 10.8 home fastbreak points, 8th best in the NBA.)
Part of the slide in the rebounding can be tied to Tristan Thompson whose effectiveness on the defensive boards has been in steady decline since the early season. After peaking in December, he’s seen not just his defensive rebounding but his defensive efficiency fall as the season wore on.
Because Thompson does so much on defense, and the team’s overall defense has been particularly struggling over the last six weeks, it’s hard to know how much of it is Thompson’s issue and how much of it is the team’s aforementioned permissiveness toward penetration, and how much is Thompson’s declining health.
Lue mentioned a few weeks ago, perhaps still foggy from the flu, that Thompson had been battling knee tendinitis all year long. Though Thompson denied it and said Lue didn’t know what he was talking about, it would go a long way toward explaining things – except that Thompson was allegedly feeling better, but the slide has continued. Another factor could be the lack of another big on the bench to relieve Double-T of some of the responsibilities associated with banging much bigger players for 82 games. (Somewhere along the way Klhoe must’ve worked it out; ask her!)
One way that many have suggested fixing the defense and the rebounding was by sitting Channing Frye. Frankly, that’s very difficult unless you play Love at center, which will inevitably happen, and we’ll discuss that in a moment. But for now, let us consider the case of Channing Frye.
While we generally cadge our stats from stats.nba.com’s tremendous site, one of the fine specialized sites is nbawowy.com which allows you to examine the stats of specific lineups. We wanted to do this because of a stat that was floating around showcasing how much better LeBron is with Channing Frye on the floor than without him. This ran headfirst into our feeling that Frye is a revolving door on defense. However, to our utter surprise the stats don’t entirely bear that out.
It’s true that Frye really does improve LeBron’s shooting when he’s on the floor, increasing James’ Effective FG% by over eight points. The offense scores five more points when they’re together, but gives up five more as well. It leaves a lot of offensive boards on the shelf, but surprisingly the team’s defensive rebounding is better with Frye and James on the floor together than with James on the floor and Frye on the bench.
But it looks like when they play together, the team surrenders a much higher percentage of threes (nearly have the opponents’ shots) than the more preferred, lower-value/likelihood midrange jumpshot, while allowing a very high FG% on layups.
However move down two lines and you find that over the last six weeks Frye seems to have figured it out defensively, going from 1.12 points allowed per possession for the season to 1.06 since the beginning of February. Meanwhile the offense has gotten even better (1.26 from 1.22) and James EFG has shot up to 72.3% with Frye on the floor. Even the team’s defense of layups with Frye on the floor has improved.
It would seem the problem of late isn’t Frye but Thompson. It’s fair to note that Thompson carries out far more complex defensive assignments than Frye, but the fact remains – Frye’s moving in the right direction while Thompson and the starters are going back.
We’re not sure the exact reason, but we’ve noted that there are a particular set of players that seem to excel while sharing the floor with Frye. These include Derrick “Due Bills” Williams, who sat in last night’s game in Denver, having apparently fallen out of the rotation until the game slipped away.
We think that was a bad idea because somehow Due Bills and Frye are a perfect team. Due Bills is uptempo and gets up the floor while Frye is a great trailer. Derrick is a particularly adept screener while Frye seems to struggle sometimes getting good contact, though both are decent rollers to the basket. (Due Bills is actually surprisingly good moving without the ball, both rolling and cutting.)
Joining Frye, Derrick Williams and James is typically Kyle Korver, providing a great catch and shoot threat as well as a guy who also moves well without the ball. Now add someone like Deron “Overdue Bills” Williams who allows LeBron to play off the ball more like he did when Delly was in town.
Before Overdue’s arrival, James ran the offense and Richard Jefferson played adding another long similarly-sized who by virtue of their length can switch any screen if necessary. Last night Lue tried running the offense without Due Bills, with Shump playing instead and the team got crushed inside. Denver posted up Korver repeatedly, and they grabbed a couple offensive boards as their mounting comeback slipped away from them in the fourth.
Derrick Williams size and activity on offense and defense just can’t be effectively replicated by Jefferson or Shump, who simply enough, lack his beefy physicality and level of off-the-ball activity.
Above you’ll find how each player performed in a lineup with Frye and James. We’re honestly not sure how Shump fits, but as the numbers below suggest, the aforementioned trio of Korver/Due & Overdue Bills seem best suited to play alongside Frye and James in what finally gives Lue the kind of tempo-changing second unit Blatt had in before Love’s 2015 injury in Boston.
The preliminaries are almost done. The entire cast is assembled and has (presumably) started learning their roles. The offense is great – when it moves the ball – but like last year, we’ve seen them get distracted by the individual greatness of Irving and James, failing to properly incorporate the complementary pieces into the offense. We’ve also seen the pace slow and ball movement become more intermittent.
Last year they finished the season in the same infuriating torpor. Why would we expect anything different? We don’t know who will appear when they pull off the regular season mask. We can speculate and guess, note how far they are off last year’s defensive pace, but nothing matters but what they do April 15, and until then we just have to trust them to raise their game to the next level. They did it ten months ago, and that probably earns them the benefit of the doubt.
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, which is the best way to know when there’s a new column up until the playoffs start and we return to recapping every game. In the meantime you can catch us every Monday at 11am on WRUW 91.1 on the Defend Cleveland Show with Michael James.
We’ll be signing copies of our book, King James Brings The Land a Crown
, today, Thursday, at the University of Toledo Bookstore from 5pm to 7pm
, and will be joined by Fear the Sword Editor and former UT alum David Zavac. We’ll be talking Cavs with anyone that shows. I’ll be at the Barnes and Noble in Akron’s West Market Plaza from 3pm to 5pm on Saturday
, appearing with Vince McKee, the author of another Cavs book, All In. Finally, on Sunday, we’ll be at the Barnes & Noble in Dublin, Ohio from noon to 2pm