Prior to the season, it became cliché to praise the offensive potential of the Cleveland Cavaliers while in the same breath question the defensive capabilities of their young stars. Such commentary only gained steam as the Cavaliers got off to a 5-7 start, struggling to find an identity on offense or any cohesion on the defensive end of the floor. While Kevin Love’s interior defense was the subject of quite a few hot takes leading into the season, Kyrie Irving’s defensive effort and ability also took considerable heat. That heat was deserved; prior to this season, Kyrie’s defense had a less-than-stellar reputation.
Irving and his team are making strides, however. Before losing back-to-back games in Oklahoma City (without LeBron James) on Thursday and in New Orleans on Friday, the Cavaliers had seemingly managed to right the ship in putting together an eight-game winning streak. Their defense was not elite during that stretch, yet improvement on that end was definitely a contributing factor to their success, and believe it or not, Irving deserves some of the credit. Kyrie made some headlines a few weeks back when he announced that he wanted to take on a bigger role on the defensive end of the floor, which primarily meant he wanted to start defending the opposing team’s top guard (an assignment that in the beginning of the season was usually going to whoever the Cavaliers were playing at the two).
To provide some perspective, over the first 12 games of the season the Cavaliers were 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, giving up 107 points per 100 possessions. They were even worse defensively with Kyrie on the floor, giving up on alarming 109.3 points per 100 possessions. Cleveland were 5-7 over those 12 games, and after embarrassing losses in Washington and at home versus Toronto, LeBron used the word “fragile” to describe the state of the Cavaliers.
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Since then, and since Kyrie announced his desire to take on more defensive responsibility, Cleveland has been anything but fragile. During the Cavaliers’ eight game winning streak, they only surrendered 98.6 points per 100 possessions, the fifth best mark in the NBA during that period of time. Perhaps even more remarkable, since Kyrie’s “declaration of defense”, if you will, the Cavaliers have actually been better defensively when Kyrie is on the floor, giving up just 97.6 points per 100 possessions in that span. When combined with the fact that during the streak Cleveland also scored 118.5 points per 100 possessions when Kyrie was on the floor (nearly five points better than when he was off the floor during the same stretch), and you can begin to understand the reason for the Cavaliers’ resurgence.
Even in their losses to the Thunder and Pelicans, in which Cleveland’s recent defensive improvement seemed to temporarily fall by the way side, the Cavaliers were better defensively when Kyrie Irving played. Against Oklahoma City, the Cavaliers surrendered a below-league-average 106.5 points per 100 possessions (again, without LeBron) with Irving on the bench; with Irving on the floor, that number dropped to 105.1 points per 100 possessions. Against the Pelicans the Cavaliers surrendered an atrocious 129.3 points per 100 possessions, but with Kyrie on the floor that number dropped to a slightly less atrocious 123.6 points per 100 possessions.
From a big picture perspective, after 22 games this season Kyrie has a defensive real plus-minus of -0.66. This is still a negative number, but it is one trending in the positive direction after Irving’s sub-par defensive play to begin the season. It is also a far better number than the -3.38 defensive real plus-minus Irving posted last season (416th out of 437 ranked NBA players and 66th out of 75 ranked point guards). When combined with the +4.31 offensive plus-minus Kyrie is posting this season (6th best in the NBA thus far), Kyrie has an overall real plus-minus of +3.65, good for 22nd in the league and 8th best among point guards. (Last season, Kyrie’s overall real plus-minus of -1.40 was 43rd among point guards and 231st among all NBA players.)
So what exactly is Kyrie doing out on the floor that is so drastically impacting his advanced defensive metrics?
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For one, Irving does actually seem to be trying on defense, something that could not always be said in the past. He also seems to be more aware of his defensive assignments and responsibilities. For example, earlier this season BBALLBREAKDOWN.com’s Seth Partnow wrote a great piece which, in part, discussed the confusion amongst Cavaliers’ players as to how they should be guarding the sideline pick-and-roll. On one particular play against the Utah Jazz featured in that article, it appeared that Kevin Love was expecting Kyrie to “ice” the sideline pick in order to send the ball-handler baseline where Love could offer help. Instead of icing the pick however, Irving did not react to it at all.
During their winning streak, the Cavaliers showed they have gone a long way towards cleaning up this confusion. Head coach David Blatt and his lead defensive assistant Tyronn Lue appear to have decided that icing the pick-and-roll will not be their primary strategy. Instead, the Cavs are now consistently blitzing the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls, as the Miami Heat were famous for doing when LeBron was in Miami. For example, in the image below Raptors forward Amir Johnson is coming to set a pick for guard Kyle Lowry.
Notice how instead of icing the pick by blocking Lowry’s path towards the center of the court (which would in turn force Lowry towards the baseline where Anderson Varejao would be waiting), Kyrie fights through the screen, while at the same time Varejao moves towards Lowry and away from Johnson in order to block Lowry’s driving lane.
This action by Irving and Varejao places increased pressure on Lowry as the ball-handler, but it leaves Johnson with a path to the basket. Notice in the below image how LeBron is pointing towards the hoop, presumably motioning for Kevin Love to step into the lane to block Amir Johnson’s path if Lowry is able to get him the ball. LeBron would then rotate down to block the passing lane that Johnson might have had to Patrick Patterson in the far corner for the three. None of this happened though as Varejao was able to stick out his foot and block Lowry from getting the ball to Johnson.
From the same game comes another example of the Cavaliers understanding how they want to attack the pick-and-roll as a team. Amir Johnson sets a pick for Lowry on the wing, and instead of Kyrie icing the pick to block Lowry’s path to the center of the floor, Kevin Love jumps out to block Lowry’s path.
Irving stays home on Lowry, Varejao rotates over underneath the basket to make Lowry think twice about the entry pass to a rolling Johnson, and Love recovers to Johnson after jumping out high on Lowry. With their designed action not working, Lowry is forced to pass it across the court to Greivis Vazquez for a reset.
The above are prime examples that the Cavaliers’ defensive improvement is due in large part to the players on the floor better understanding – and more consistently executing – the team’s defensive strategy. Irving, in turn, is playing better individual defense because he is showing an understanding of what the coaches want him to do. And he is doing it.
…most of the time.
In the below image, Jonas Valanciunas comes to the top of the arch to set a pick for Vasquez.
Vasquez, knowing that Anderson Varejao will jump up top in an effort to block his driving lane down the middle, chooses instead to go away from the direction of Valanciunas’s pick and away from Varejao.
The problem here is that Irving gets caught assuming Vasquez will take the ball in the direction of the Valanciunas pick, and as a result Irving is a step behind Vasquez as Vasquez drives the other way.
This results in a domino effect whereby the Cavaliers defense is forced to collapse on the driving Vasquez, leaving Patrick Patterson open in the corner.
Vasquez drives into the lane and has no problem finding a waide-open Patterson, even adding a little no-look flare for style points.
Patterson ends up missing the three, but this is a good example of how Kyrie still has a ways to go when it comes to improving his defensive game. In this situation he needs to resist the temptation to guess, to instead read, and do a better job of reading Vasquez’s movement so he can deny or at least delay Vasquez’s drive into the lane.
Thursday night’s loss to the Thunder provided further evidence that Kyrie is indeed playing better defense but that he also still has plenty of room for continued growth. Down for the first three quarters, Cleveland was able to make a game of it in the fourth quarter of the Thunder game due in large part to a 26-9 run that was spurned by solid defense. During a good portion of that run, Irving was matched up with one of Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, and in the below image Kyrie finds himself alone with Westbrook at the top of the arch, a terrifying prospect for any human.
As you can see below, Kyrie does a good job of containing Westbrook’s drive to the side of the floor where his help defense (Love and Thompson) is waiting.
By opening his body to that side of the floor, Irving leaves Westbrook with only three options; drive into the help, pass the ball, or take a long two pointer.
Goaded by the slight space Irving gave him, Westbrook chose to take the contested long two pointer, which he air-balled. Westbrook can and does hit that shot often, but it is a much less efficient shot than the one Westbrook would have gotten had Kyrie allowed him to drive to the other side of the lane where neither of the Cavaliers’s big men would have been in optimal help position. Kyrie therefore made the right read and gave up the right shot in this instance.
However, Kyrie did not always make the correct choices in that game. On the Thunder’s next possession, in fact, Kyrie and Matthew Dellavedova switch when Durant sets a pick for Westbrook on the right wing.
This leaves Durant an opportunity to back down Irving from the high-post.
Irving foolishly gambles and tries to steal the entry pass to Durant.
But as you can see below, Irving whiffs on his attempted steal and Durant is left with an open path to the hoop.
Durant of course finished that opportunity off by dunking over a half-hearted contest from Kevin Love. Irving however got a shot at redemption on the Thunder’s next trip down the floor. This time, he wisely chose to not try to steal the entry pass to Durant.
Durant catches the ball and leans back into Irving to create space for himself to operate.
Irving stands his ground when KD puts the ball on the floor and uses his body to direct KD towards his help defense – Tristan Thompson – who is sagging off of Anthony Morrow.
However, Durant was feeling it, and much like Westbrook did several possessions before, he chose to rise up over Irving for the two-point shot. This time, though, Durant drained it.
Giving up points, though, is not an automatic indicator of bad defense. No one on earth can defend that shot from Durant, save maybe Anthony Davis, so Irving should not necessarily feel bad for giving it up. He denied the drive to the weak side and he forced Durant to choose between driving into help or shooting over him. These were the right things to do in that situation, as opposed to gambling for the steal, as he did on the previous play.
The best indicators of defensive effectiveness are the numbers. And the numbers don’t lie. Kyrie Irving is playing much better defense over the last ten games, and this is in large part due to his increased discipline on that end of the floor. By defensively doing what his coaches are asking him to do on a more consistent basis, Kyrie is not allowing his man easy driving lanes nearly as often, nor is he causing the team’s help defense to fall like a series of dominoes. This in turn is helping Cleveland force the opposition into less efficient shots. While Kyrie’s improved defense is not the sole reason the Cavaliers were able to go on an eight-game winning streak, the fact that Kyrie, Kevin Love, and the rest of the Cavaliers are more often on the same page defensively, has undoubtedly contributed to their recent success, and bodes well for the immediate and long term futures.
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