What’s Plaguing the Cleveland Cavaliers Defense, and Will It Matter?

The Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals…easily the most overused and ill-considered joke in recent NBA Twitter history.

Why?

No, it’s not that I hate fun. It’s because it discredits what the Cleveland Cavaliers accomplished. They were staring defeat dead in the face. But rather than fold up shop, they went Syrio Forel on the Warriors, taking a 3-1 deficit and turning it into a championship for Northern Ohio.

Golden State didn’t “blow” anything; it got its lunch money taken.  

It was improbable and unexpected, but most of all, incredible to behold. And LeBron James’ transcendent performance aside, Cleveland’s defense provided the primary spark. 

Over the final three games of the Finals, the Cavs outrebounded the Warriors by 14, held them to 95.7 points nightly (during a year in which they averaged 114.9) and didn’t allow an offensive rating over 98.1 in two of the three contests (including the decisive Game 7). In fact, their defensive rating throughout the title run was a healthy 103.5—a mark that would have been ninth-best league-wide in 2015-16.

So it’s sort of hard to comprehend why their defense has been so abysmal this season.

A lot has to do with the general malaise that comes with knowing (or at least believing) they can simply flip a switch whenever necessary, activating James into a defensive demon, Tristan Thompson into a Hulk on the glass and Kevin Love into Game 7 Kevin Love, who apparently can shut down two-time reigning MVPs with NBA history on the line. And it’s true: They likely can find that next level as the lights continue to get brighter.

But that doesn’t mean there’s zero cause for concern, either.

It’s not exactly breaking news to say Cleveland’s defense has been bad in 2016-17. It finished the regular season with a 108.0 defensive rating, good for 22nd in the NBA—behind known stoppers like the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks.

Since 1997-98, no title-winning team has finished a season with a defensive rating greater than 102.3 (remember, you want to allow fewer points per 100 possessions), with both the 2010-11 Mavs and last year’s Cleveland squad hitting that mark on the head.

But we must also realize that thanks to offensive fluctuations, whether due to rule changes or teams getting smarter about which shots to take, a defensive rating in 2016 is not the same as one in 1998. Thankfully, NBA Math has just the solution for that conundrum. Using our era-adjusted team ratings—explained in depth right over herewe find the Cavs’ adjusted defensive rating this season is 98.64a mark that, when compared to the worst defensive ratings for NBA champions of the last 20 years, still does not stack up favorably.

If they get to hold up the Larry O’Brien Trophy, these Cavs would become the second team since the Michael Jordan era to win it all with a sub-standard defensive rating. The closest comparison stems from the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, notorious among NBA aficionados for flipping the switch to the tune of a 15-1 postseason record after a low-effort regular season. Every other team—even James’ offensive-tilted Cavaliers from last campaign—posted an adjusted defensive mark over 100, which always equates to the league average during the year in question. 

But perhaps even more concerning is that Cleveland’s primary strength during its title run, its prowess prowess rebounding the basketball, has all but dissipated.

In 2015-16, the Cavs finished the regular season No. 3 in rebound rate (52 percent) and No. 5 in defensive rebounding percentage (78.5 percent). Furthermore, they were fourth in offensive rebounding rate with a 26.8 percent clip during the playoffs. Had that been their mark throughout the regular season, it would have been the league’s third highest.  

Presently? They finished the current go-round No. 19 in rebound rate (49.7 percent), No. 22 in defensive rebounding percentage (75.8) and 20th in offensive rebounding percentage (21.9). Thus far in the playoffs, though they’ve improved their offensive rebounding clip, they’ve regressed both on the defensive glass and overall.

Regardless, it’s still way too early to worry about whether they’ve flipped any sort of switch. After all, on April 17, with the Cavs holding a 2-0 lead in their first-round bout against the Indiana Pacers, LeBron was quoted as saying he felt like he should have been at Coachella.

(After streaming all three days of the event, this writer really can’t fault him for saying that; s— really did look like fun.)

Clearly, the defending champions considered the first round an extension of the regular season. Why blame them? Poor effort and all, they still rather easily dispatched of Paul George and the Pacers in four games.

The bigger issue comes when we look at the road not yet traveled.

The Cavs’ second-round showdown with the Toronto Raptors isn’t just another series; it’s a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, which Cleveland won 4-2. These are the same Raptors who took Games 3 and 4 against the Cavaliers at home last year before LeBron infamously said he had experienced adverse circumstances before,and being tied 2-2 with Toronto didn’t qualify as one. (Turns out he was right: Cleveland won Games 5 and 6 by a combined 64 points. But still, that’s one hell of an audacious quote.)

Cleveland will likely roll, as it did in Game 1 this time around. But when examining the numbers, the series could be decided on two factors: Cleveland’s ability to take care of the basketball, and whether it finally shows a propensity to slow down the pick-and-roll.

In 2016-17, LeBron and Co. ranked dead last in points allowed per transition opportunity, with a whopping 1.18 mark. It fits the whole “they’re not really trying” narrative beautifully. Lose the ball? Screw it, let them score, we’ll just get it back and score again ourselves—not the worst gamble to make when you’re third in offensive rating, and LeBron-surrounded-by-four-shooters lineups were downright terrifying.

Plus, two things make their regular-season transition-defense numbers just a little less important. For one, they’re already showing signs of improved effort on that front:

What’s more, Cleveland’s turnover rate in 2016-17 was a mere 13.7 percent, which sat at No. 12 in the league-wide hierarchy. The team takes pretty good care of the ball.

A slightly bigger issue will be the problems defending the pick-and-roll. During the regular season, the Cavs allowed 0.89 points per possession (PPP) against pick-and-roll ball-handlers—the NBA’s fifth-highest rate. Meanwhile, the Raptors PnR ball-handlers scored 0.95 PPP on the year, which tied them with the Portland Trail Blazers for league’s best rate.

Moreover, Tyronn Lue’s team also struggled to slow down rollers in the pick-and-roll, allowing 1.10 PPP (the league’s third-worst mark). Again, that plays directly into the Raptors’ strengths, as they were excellent in that area, scoring 1.12 PPP on such plays (No. 5 in the Association).

Toronto’s ability to dominate in that facet, however, will only come to fruition if Jonas Valanciunas sees the floor.

He’s a liability against stretch-bigs, and Dwane Casey knows it; the Lithuanian big man was benched midway through their first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks in favor of a smaller lineup. And though he returned to the starting unit in Game 1 against Cleveland, he didn’t see the floor while Channing Frye was in the game. The Cavaliers’ willingness to trap against PnR sets could also mitigate his impact, since Toronto has to counter with shooters and handlers—Valanciunas qualifies as neither—who can punish the incessant double-teams in the open space they’re subsequently granted.

If Valanciunas can take advantage of the time he does see the floor, or if Casey trusts him enough to play against Cleveland’s smaller reserves, his pick-and-roll prowess will be vitally important to Toronto’s chances. Among men who rolled at least 180 times, only Rudy Gobert finished the year averaging more points per possession (1.38) than his 1.28. 

Theoretically, he should be able to get his against Frye and Kevin Love, both of whom are limited defensively (especially in the pick-and-roll). Whether that ultimately matters is a different question altogether.

If Cleveland gets past Toronto, as most expect it to, things will really get interesting. 

Despite losing the first two games against the Chicago Bulls in their first-round meeting, the Boston Celtics have quietly been some of this year’s most impressive playoff performers:

Will Thompson and Love be able to dominate on the glass (something they haven’t done since this season began), and bully the smaller Celtics into submission, assuming Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford first lead their troops by the Washington Wizards? Or will Boston’s three-point bombardment help it spring an upset?

If the former does happen, potentially giving us Golden State-Cleveland Round 3, how will LeBron, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Cavs handle the Warriors’ absurd offense?

They may be slightly aided by the fact that Steve Kerr’s scheme demands the lowest number of pick-and-rolls in the NBA, so one of the Cavs’ biggest weaknesses won’t be exploited all that often. Then again, even that may not matter, as Golden State’s just that good on both sides of the ball. We can flesh that out more if the hypothetical turns into a reality, since both teams have more immediate matchups to concern themselves with for the time being.

But the Cavaliers still have the best player in basketball. And flawed as they may be, they should find a way to earn a third consecutive Finals berth. What happens from there is anyone’s guess.

Just don’t count them out quite yet. 

 

Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.

Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or NBA.com and are accurate as of May 2. 

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