The new-look Cavaliers' Achilles' heel could be defense
A diagnosis of the defensive woes of the Cleveland Cavaliers and their new personnel, and how the team can cover for their warts as they contend in the East.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' plan is complete, at least in the really big ways. There's still Ray Allen to try and acquire, and then they have to, you know, actually go out and play. But the big components are in place. The Cavaliers officially traded for Kevin Love Saturday and now feature a roster with up-and-coming guards Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, James and Love, reliable veterans like Mike Miller and Shawn Marion, and Anderson Varejao who when healthy has flirted with being an All-Star.
Things are great right now.
Back in the summer of 2010 when the Heat's triad came together, Dwyane Wade told reporters "the hard part's over" after Miami signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh. That was not the hard part, as they learned that first season. The Heat still wound up with the No. 2 seed and still made the Finals, but lost to the Mavericks and learned a hard lesson that a lot of superstar teams come to find: making these things work is not easy.
Cleveland has a better setup than the Heat did, arguably a better supporting cast, and an easier configuration of talent to align. But there's still a lot of work to be done, as James said in the letter he issued when he announced his return to the Cavs.
Any preliminary look at what might give the Cavaliers trouble starts and ends with defense.
The Cavaliers under Mike Brown last season finished 19th in the league in points allowed per possession, which was actually a substantial improvement year over year from the Byron Scott era (get excited, Lakers fans!) But they still struggled mightily. And on top of that, the biggest question about Kevin Love, beyond the inane playoff appearance questions, is his defense. And there's good reason to criticize.
According to NBA.com's Sport VU data, Love was attacked at the rim the eleventh most of any player playing 25 minutes or more per games. Of the top 100 players in attempts at defending the rim (playing 25 minutes or more), Love was the 15th worst player among all of them at opponent field goal percentage at the rim.
Love's problem has been four-fold in Minnesota. One, he's not a leaper. He's not going to sky up and knock some shot into the tenth row. He's not physically gifted body-wise to defend. He's athletic in terms of quickness and strength, but isn't a bruiser and isn't going to bump a guy off the block or swat him at the apex.
Two, one of the fundamental elements of the Wolves' defense the last few years has been to avoid fouls. The Wolves had the third-lowest fouls per game last season. Their scheme was designed not to put opponents at the free-throw line. In the post, Love only surrendered free throws 5.8 percent of the time, a minuscule amount. So if you're not fouling to stop someone and you're not physically gifted to challenge them, you're probably going to get kicked around a lot on defense.
And third, Love's had an effort issue. This is pretty common for high-usage offensive stars. See: Harden, James. Love will sometimes just not commit. He's slow on rotations and help, doesn't run off shooters as well as he needs to, and generally just doesn't give great effort unless it's for a rebound.
Love showed real strides in this area last season when the Wolves still had an outside chance at the playoffs. He was genuinely motivated and when he was, that went a long way. In short he started to get it. If that carries over, the Cavs could be in good shape.
Finally, and most importantly, Love hasn't played with a true rim protector. The last good one he played with was Darko Milicic. Think about that for a second. Nikola Pekovic is big and scary, but not actually good at defense, at all. While Love was 15th worst at protecting the rim, Pekovic was 24th worst. And Pekovic being bad at it compounds Love's problems. If he's playing stretch fours in space without elite wingspan to contest jumpers, he has to play up, and Love doesn't have the lateral quickness to contain. At which point his problems become Pekovic's problems and then Pekovic's problems become Love's. You have to be able to provide Love coverage with a rim protector. Pek could not.
Still, it should also be mentioned that last season, according to Synergy Sports, Love was in the 66th percentile defensively. This system doesn't account for when players are met by another defender and some of the descriptions are flawed. But Love fared well in post metrics and defending guys in spot-up situations. There's enough there to effectively say that while Love is not a good defender, he's not a bad one.
And if that was the only defensive question, the Cavs would be set. After all, Anderson Varejao can in fact be that rim protector for Love and LeBron James can take the tougher stretch-four assignments. But the Cavs' roster is chalk full of question marks on defense.
For starters, of the top 100 players who played over 25 minutes per game and defended at the rim more than twice, only two traditional "bigs" (plus new Timberwolves forward Thaddeus Young -- a tweener) had worst defensive percentages at the rim. One was Zaza Pachulia of the lowly Bucks who suffered through an injury-ravaged season on a horrible team. The other was Cavaliers forward/center Tristan Thompson. Thompson shows good instincts at attacking weak side penetration and gives good contest in the post. But he can also get fooled by multiple moves and suffers when he overthinks possessions. A lot of Thompson's' issues can be chalked up to coaching and a lack of perimeter defense, but there are issues there.
From there, the obvious mark is Irving. Irving was in the 34th percentile last season according to Synergy Sports. He gave up a huge percentage on jump shots, over 1.0 points per possession, which is very high. Players shot 39 percent on spot-up possessions with him guarding, as he's an over-active helper who doesn't run off with discipline or authority. Irving's issues are similar to Love's in that he struggles with effort and physicality. But Love can be hid effectively next to a rim protector. Even with help behind him, Irving can't be.
The addition of James, however, could change this. As James takes the primary offensive threat, who Dion Waiters used to cover, Waiters moves to the secondary threat, and so on. So Irving can now cover the third perimeter weapon, usually just a spot-up shooter. That's the Cavs' best hope. Irving has good lateral quickness but can get turned around and doesn't have the muscle to get up into a guard's dribble. The new-look Cavs should be able to hide him more effectively, however.
Then there's Waiters, who actually finished with worse defensive metrics than Irving. Waiters was in the 83rd percentile defending guards in the pick and roll, is a screen-buster, and a pain to deal with in any physical situation. He has good wingspan and a big, athletic frame that allows him to attack and remain aggressive. His problem?
Dear me, does that kid drift. He's got the defensive attention span of a hummingbird. He's distracted by shiny things and fast-moving objects, like basketballs. He will drift to the mid-paint to help out the weakside, thinking he can get back when the ball reverses. He can't. And as a result, Waiters finished with a 29th percentile mark, giving up 1.05 points per possession on spot-up shots. He just can't stay engaged if the ball's not in front of him. That's going to need to change with James on board.
The X-factor in all of this is new coach David Blatt. There's no way to know what kind of system Blatt's going to run, or what his principles will be, how he'll use this roster. But he's going to have to cover up some holes on defense. His reserves, Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, Thompson (with better development and help), and possibly Ray Allen will help matters. Matthew Dellavedova was surprisingly pesky last season and in situations where Irving is just getting roasted, he'll do as a defensive firebug. But much of this will also fall to James. Players who have not been part of good units in the past will need to be sharp, active, communicate, and stay on point. James is willing to be patient. He knew that was part of the deal when he came back to Cleveland. But he's also going to set a high bar, and players like Irving and Love, who have never had that kind of accountability above them, will be faced with it for the first
There's every reason to think the Cavs will be in contention for a Finals spot next season. LeBron James does that, and Kevin Love only reaffirms it. But there are major splotches on this resume, the way there were with Miami when James arrived. And no one knows better than James that the process of taking a good team on paper into a truly elite contender is a combination of both art and science, but it's also about philosophy, and all 12 active players buying in.
In two months, we'll find out how the Cavaliers take on this massive task, and the expectations that come with it.
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