After the Cleveland Cavaliers picked up LeBron James, Kevin Love, and David Blatt this offseason, there was an immediate and obvious question: how good could this reloaded Cavaliers offense be?
Many thought that the Cavaliers would be amongst the most efficient and potent offenses in the NBA, if not the outright best. But this is not nearly the case thus far. Through their first five games, the Cavaliers have an offensive rating of only 102.1, which ranks a mere 14th in the league, below teams such as the Boston Celtics whose entire offensive scheme is a big work-in-progress. Albeit on an extremely small sample size, this placing speaks to the fact that the offense so far has been precisely average. With all of their offensive weapons, both old and new, the offensive end of the court was the one on which they were never supposed to be merely mediocre. And yet the Cavaliers have not scored points as easily as the majority of fans expected.
So, what is to blame? Some have pointed to the offensive schemes, but, when you watch the film closely, the schemes are sound, as will be explored below. In reality, the Cavaliers’ struggles relative to expectation have largely been caused by a lack of execution of those schemes. Here, we break down two set plays run by Cleveland against the Chicago Bulls that have the potential to haunt NBA defenses all year long.
Number One: The Perimeter Corner Screen
If executed properly, this is a scary look. If executed properly, Cleveland’s star point guard gets the ball in space with a lane to drive against only an opposing big.
In this play, Kyrie Irving brings the ball into the halfcourt. LeBron gets a screen from Kevin Love to get himself open and receive the ball at the top of the perimeter.
Anderson Varejao then sets a screen for Irving, and LeBron throws a very good over-the-top pass to get Irving the ball with momentum going toward the paint.
Because of the good screen, Derrick Rose is now far behind Irving, and the slow-footed Pau Gasol has to take Irving on himself. That should lead to an open path for Varejao to cut to the basket as the roll man. You can see Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy cheating towards the paint because they know Gasol is going to have to guard a two-on-one situation.
The problem comes here. Despite the room he is given by the double screen and over-the-top pass, Irving does not make a strong move to the basket to challenge Gasol. Gasol can therefore cheat off, as Rose has recovered a bit on Irving and he has Noah behind him protecting the rim. That in turn screws up Varejao’s path to the basket quite a bit. The other thing to note here is how Kevin Love has drifted back to the three point line, and that Dion Waiters has drifted away from the corner to open some more space between himself and Love.
Now, Love is open in the corner. Waiters continues to drift away from Love to create better perimeter spacing, and LeBron is open at the top of the perimeter – the floor is spaced with open shooter. Unfortunately, Kyrie’s earlier hesitation has allowed the Bulls to get in the passing lanes, and he ends up forcing up a contesting jumper.
If Irving does not hesitate and challenges Gasol immediately, Varejao has a free path to the basket. If Noah covers that, Kyrie has an easy pass to Love in the corner. And then Waiters and LeBron are in perfect position for any swing passes based on how the Bulls rotate. If the Cavaliers continue to get reps with this look, good things are going to happen. But it relies upon better execution from Irving, who has to do the right things to be able to utilise all of these weapons around him.
Number Two: The Double LeBron Screen
Here is another really nice look that, this time, the Cavaliers execute well.
Matthew Dellavedova hands the ball to Kevin Love at the top of the perimeter, and goes to set a screen for LeBron who is sitting in the corner.
Love comes toward LeBron, tosses him the ball and sets a screen on LeBron’s man, Mike Dunleavy Jr. Dellavedova now drifts to the corner behind the three point line. Tristan Thompson is watching Dunleavy to set up the second screen.
Thompson sets the second screen on Dunleavy, who is already trailing the play after navigating the first one. Love drifts to the three point line as well. This leaves LeBron one on one with Gasol, with Dunleavy behind the play. In the lane, Noah cannot over-help because he is left to guard Thompson, who is now rolling to the basket. Noah and Rose have to now defend all three of the screeners, Thompson, Love and Dellavedova, who are getting open for looks of their own.
Thompson cuts to the basket, which makes Noah commit to defending him. Now, Rose has to guard both Love and Dellavedova who are open for looks at a three pointer. If he cheats towards Love, it opens up the passing lane to Dellavedova. If he stays home too long, there is an easy pass for LeBron to get Love the open three.
Pau cheats toward the basket to prevent the layup, but this instead gives LeBron an easy bank shot that he makes. Noah in fact does a good job here somewhat getting into the Love passing lane whilst still defending Thompson, but although the Bulls actually defend this play quite well, it still results in an easy two points for Cleveland. There are simply too many options on the floor, with each screener also being threats to score. And when properly executed, this play, like the one before it, finds quality ball-handlers and passers in open spots against scrambling defenses, with the floor well spaced and multiple options to exploit.
That is, of course, only with proper execution.
As the season goes on, the Cavaliers players will become more familiar with both David Blatt’s offensive concepts and their team mates’ tendencies. That, along with repetition, will lead to better execution on these and other set plays. The Cavaliers already have a roster full of players who complement each other and space the floor well. When talent meets execution, the Cavaliers offense will be downright scary to opposing coaches preparing to stop it. But patience must be preached whilst this growing process occurs, and in the interim period, Cleveland may remain streaky.