By Adam Spinella
As the Cleveland Cavaliers collectively lean back in their chairs and relax for a few moments, they see the road before them appearing just as they thought it would. Whether the Washington Wizards or Boston Celtics meet the Fightin’ LeBrons in the Eastern Conference Finals is besides the point. These Cavaliers were confident that if playing at their best, their seeding and home-court advantages would not matter — their roster, rest and overall productivity were all that they needed. After sweeping back-to-back series, it’s hard to find many who disagree with the result.
As Cleveland made its way through a hobbled Toronto Raptors unit and undermanned Indiana Pacers group, sports pundits around the world were left kicking themselves. They’ve been overlooking LeBron James yet again. That’s right, in an over-saturated sports media frenzy focused on statistics, impressive feats and constant MVP discussion, the best player in the world was left on the outskirts of the discussion.
All it took to remind the world of his dominance was eight straight wins and averages of 34 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and 1.5 blocks while shooting 55.7 percent from the field and 47 percent from three. Hopefully the lesson has been learned: Playoff LeBron is willing to do that type of heavy lifting day in and day out to wreck the competition. As Raptors coach Dwane Casey remarked, “We ran into a buzzsaw.”
Every Herculean star has a chink in their armor, a weak spot ready to be exploited. As the rest of the league still searches for LeBron’s, the prevailing thought is that the way to beat them is to put pressure on the rest of the roster in such a way that LeBron can’t do everything to make up for their shortcomings. It’s what helped Golden State topple them nearly two years ago, going super-small and exploiting both Mozgov and another big. And as that defense has devolved to levels lower than ever, the opportunities exist for those soft-spots in the armor to be attacked.
One question needs to be asked amidst the barrage of concerns and distress over Cleveland’s weak defense: with this particular team, does that even matter? Cleveland has been all-in on an outside shooting barrage and a spaced offensive group around LeBron. Even if other teams can find ways to score against Cleveland on the other end, can anybody stop this particular offensive attack? Finding a weakness and exploiting it is one task, slowing down Cleveland’s insane scoring output is another.
Like any well-oiled machine, every Cavalier knows their role around LeBron on offense. Some have simple roles: space the floor in the corners, like Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith. Kevin Love shares that responsibility, but can also take post mismatches inside or be a stronger focal point in the pick-and-pop when the matchup dictates. Tristan Thompson sets hard screens and relentlessly chases any putbacks at the rim. Kyle Korver runs off screens and serves as a gravitational force to suck defenders away from the paint. Deron Williams will run the pick-and-roll when he’s the featured scorer on the floor and is otherwise on spot-up duty.
Kyrie is the player with the most variation in their role, and the offensive force the Cavaliers need the most. Watching Game Four against the Raptors provided a flashback to last year’s NBA Finals, where Kyrie would put the flat-earth on his back and score dozens of points at a time. His own 11-point outburst in the fourth quarter was exactly the jolt the Cavaliers needed. There are times when that’s what Lue and LeBron need Irving to be the sensational herky-jerky creator with the ball in his hands that mesmerizes on-ball defenders and slithers through the tightest of windows to the rim. There are other times when Kyrie has to sit back and defer to the greatest basketball talent in the world today.
Irving seems much more comfortable in this role than ever before, no longer forcing the pace every time he finally gets the ball in his hands with a green light to attack. He’s still a great creator in isolations near the baseline or in pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor. Few players keep the ball as low and tight as Irving does, allowing him to thread through traffic and spaces that barely appear open.
Cleveland gives him a steady diet of pick-and-roll opportunities for being a second cog in their offense. During the regular season, Irving found himself in the 83rd percentile for pick-and-roll production, a number that should only increase if the Cavaliers find him being guarded by Isaiah Thomas in the next round.
The Cavaliers are a heavily pick-and-roll based offense, toggling between their multiple ball handlers and utilizing everyone as a screener. Since most everyone can shoot, the Cavs choose their screener based on the defender they’d most like to attack in the pick-and-roll. It’s a strategy of simple basketball that doesn’t allow any defender to hide against them.
While the ball screen is the centerpiece of their attack, Cleveland runs many other good sets. They have some great ATO actions, will work into the post out of the hands of any of their stars, and run a great deal of high-post splits coming out of an elbow isolation. The ball doesn’t stick and Cleveland is routinely making the extra pass to the open man while they run isolations and ball screens. Their passing metrics and assist rates are akin to those of a more motion-based teams. It’s a great testament to the unselfishness of their stars and the robust playbook that Lue has assembled.
No single player has made a greater leap offensively for the Cavaliers this season than Tristan Thompson, who is now a threat worth accounting for on short rolls to the rim. When the Cavs set those spread ball screens with shooters surrounding the ball, it is Thompson who often finds himself open in the middle of the court. As LeBron or Kyrie drop a pocket pass to him on the move, Tristan has become skilled at either finishing through or around contact, or knowing when to kick the ball to the open man.
Spacing helps Thompson a ton, and everything is simpler for a player like him in the middle. Still, the Cavaliers want to avoid situations where teams ignore their best defender and offensive rebounder when he ventures to the perimeter. Thompson was in the 79th percentile of all pick-and-roll finishers this season, per NBAstats.com.
Only one player in the burgundy and gold was better as a roll man: LeBron James. The versatility of LeBron in pick-and-rolls as the ball handler or screen-setter is almost impossible to account for. Cleveland has found a knack for calling multiple Kyrie-LeBron ball screens late in games as things get tight. The two-man game that occurs keeps the ball in the hands of their two best players, but has enough wrinkles to prevent defenses from jumping the action.
All of this is possible only because the offense gets such a dynamic threat from the spacing their multiple shooters provide. Whether it’s Kevin Love and J.R. Smith on the first unit or Channing Frye, Kyle Korver and Deron Williams off the bench, the focal points of the offense can be patient and survey the floor until the lane opens up to attack.
Kyle Korver denotes the largest mid-season acquisition for any LeBron team since he left Cleveland back in 2011. His ability to shoot the ball creates matchup nightmares all over the court. Coach Lue can run plays for Korver, use him as a decoy or have him at the ready to catch-and-shoot around their multiple playmakers. As my colleague J.M. Poulard noted in a breakdown of the Cavs’ success with Korver, Lue is perfecting a progression of play calls to capitalize on how the defense must adapt to take Korver away once he makes one shot. Nothing is scarier for an opposing coach tasked with creating defensive assignments and game plans.
As the stalwart of the bench unit attack, Korver serves an important role in regards to Lue’s rotations. Cleveland cannot go without one of LeBron or Kyrie on the floor together — the Cavaliers played exactly zero minutes with less than a 15-point lead this postseason where one of the two wasn’t on the floor. Korver is the offensive threat that helps bridge that gap, becoming a focal point of the play-calling when only one of James or Irving stands on the hardwood. Korver’s usage sees a great uptick at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters, when Irving sits and LeBron comes in after only a short rest. By running plays for Korver and designing the offense around him, LeBron can be on the floor without the expectation and energy-usage of creating everything on offense. Most teams trot out their weakest wing defenders during this period too, adding to the success this style has.
To add even more threats for this second unit, Lue will trot out lineups with Channing Frye as an undersized center, stretching defenses out to the three-point line. It works on offense, but has drastic defensive ramifications. Frye is knocking down shots right now, leading the NBA Playoffs in effective field goal percentage with a ridiculously insane .800 mark. The Cavaliers offense has posted an insane rating with Frye on the court this postseason with a mark of 159, per basketball-reference. For comparison, last season’s Golden State Warriors had the best offensive rating of all time at 114. That’s almost 50 points lower than what Cleveland is achieving with Frye at the center spot.
Obviously, Channing will come back down to earth and the entire second unit is due for a cool shooting game or two. Yet the point remains these Cavaliers bench players are the perfect concoction around LeBron James or Kyrie Irving. Even with a porous defense at the rim and Frye unable to check the large interior scorers coming off benches, it doesn’t seem to matter. Cleveland is going to outscore them, out-shoot them and let their two primary creators breathe easy.
Two years ago, it was the Cavaliers burned by teams going small against them, failing to keep up with the pace and appearing antiquated in their roster construction. Now it’s Cleveland’s spacing that forces opponents to consider going small against them on occasion, daring the Cavaliers to go to a post-up oriented offense around two of the premier back-t0-the-basket scorers this game has in LeBron James and Kevin Love.
Dusting Kevin Love off the shelf in the corner and throwing him into the post is something many Cavaliers followers have been begging for since he arrived in Cleveland. They’re paying him $20 million a year, at least let him have his time to eat! The cries aren’t ignored, the Cavaliers are just waiting for the opportune moment. The other team goes small, Love finds a wing defender or an underszied four-man checking him, and he’ll get into the post early to beat the defense before they can really get set and is expecting it least.
Play-calling is one of those fusions between art and science. There’s always a method to the madness, and controlling the substitution patterns of both teams is a powerful way for a coach to govern the frenzy. Tyronn Lue is lucky he has the multitude of buttons to press to generate points at any time and in a variety of ways. His work is cut out for him in juggling the other side of the court.
Finding holes in the Cavaliers’ defense comes with an expectation that the opposing offense knows how to look, and how to outsmart both Tyronn Lue and LeBron James in their efforts to hide laziness or incompetence from those LeBron shares the court with. Long the target of concern, Kevin Love has become far more passable within Cleveland’s scheme this season. Lue has found that trapping ball screens where his man sets them has led to strong results: dribble penetration doesn’t kill Cleveland, and they have enough time to scramble out and find shooters. Love has also improved (a relative term — he’s still not very good) at hard-hedging to deter the ball handler from changing sides of the floor. Containment has been the name of the game.
Still, it’s LeBron that orchestrates everything for the Cavaliers to place other players in positions to succeed. Just check out this play beneath, where LeBron literally changes the defensive rotation mid-play to get Kevin Love away from a guard and onto a rolling big man.
People talk about which of LeBron’s skill sets is the most dangerous: his scoring, passing, rebounding, on-ball defense; to me, it’s his mind. LeBron is so intuitively aware of how to leverage the strengths and hide the weaknesses of every single player on the floor. His mental Rolodex flips through countless hours of film and pictures etched in his brain of what comes next, and it does so at such a high speed, that to the rest of us it appears instinctual. Sometimes it’s on display in the flashiest of plays. Other times, it’s subtle brilliance like telling Love where to switch off the ball by anticipating the pass. Toronto had raised Patterson, Love’s assignment, countless times out of that corner when the ball screen occurs so that Love wouldn’t be the lowest opposite defender (where helping on the roller would be his typical coverage). LeBron’s brain takes away those typical counters.
But there is only so much one player can do to cover up the defensive mistakes of others. Toronto and Indiana both run non-complex offenses; the Raptors’ plays are built to be disguised off each other, but they happen so slowly and are so ball screen-centric that LeBron could snuff them out in the half-court. That could be all well and good against a team like Washington or even Boston, but the nuances of Golden State present more challenges due to their speed and fewer places to hide poor defenders.
No single player has disappointed on the defensive end more than Kyrie Irving, who needs to be discussed more in conversations about laziest and worst defenders in the league. He’s a liability on lead guards, especially in the pick-and-roll, giving the Cavaliers just one more area they need to work hard to avoid on defense. There are multiple plays each game where Kyrie has been the reason for a defensive lapse, and every team they face hereon out will have Irving marked with a bulls-eye on any scouting report.
LeBron once again tries to flash his brilliance, anticipating the ball movement and arc of passing out of a trap, the matchups that the Cavaliers can rotate into and where he needs to be to direct traffic. Say what you will about Kevin Love’s physical abilities, but he’s willing to work and able to comprehend (or at least listen to LeBron) defensive rotations. Kyrie gets in trouble from the start when he gets screened, but makes no effort to move the rest of the play, killing Cleveland’s defensive rotation dead in its tracks.
Valanciunas tore the Cavaliers up in the first half of this game, going for 19 points on 9-of-10 shooting from the field. If Kyrie isn’t willing to rotate and the rest of the team feels they have to jump out onto Kyle Lowry to cover his mistakes, it’s no wonder Valanciunas was left with so many high-percentage looks.
See the effort at play for Kyrie, who does a horrible job getting through the multiple screens set on him in a tight space. Whether he defends Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, Steph Curry or any other scoring guard, he’s made himself a target for constant screening actions. Irving doesn’t hustle to get back in the play, and as the ball rotates around the perimeter, he’s found once again sleeping on a help defense assignment to tag Valanciunas at the rim. Yes, LeBron gets beat middle, but there should be a line of defense to help behind him.
Even worse is when the Cavaliers have a perfect defensive rotation within their scheme and take away their opponents’ ability to score off an action, and then Kyrie gets beat on laziness. Here is a play where they cover his initial botch, then he fails to get back into the play and they give up an open three.
There are countless clips available of Irving’s help defense bordering on narcolepsy. It’s nauseating to watch and must be infuriating to coach. The clip above does show one area where opponents can, with the right mastery of play and anticipation of defensive rotations, put Cleveland in a situation where the immediate help behind Kyrie is Kevin Love at the rim. It may be a stopgap to buy them some time before LeBron figures out how to switch off the ball and neutralize that threat, but those scrambles could create a mismatch elsewhere. The devil’s in the details.
In some series or matchups, Lue has great success using LeBron as a helper, putting him on the weakest offensive threat and letting James rove around and call out these emergency switches as he sees fit. It’s a great strategy when the Cavs aren’t burned by matchups elsewhere and LeBron has a truly weak link to sag off of (and it explains why Toronto had to abandon DeMarre Carroll in favor of Norman Powell). But the deeper the Cavaliers go in the playoffs, the fewer opportunities Lue has to construct a style over LeBron’s roving prowess. The effect of that adjustment? Easier opportunities to isolate and exploit Irving and Love.
It’s not all bad news for the Cavaliers’ postseason defense, which looks much more spry and sharp than their regular season performances. LeBron is still the brains of the organization. Tristan Thompson’s ability to switch onto any matchup and thrive while also protecting the rim has been paramount; he could be named to an NBA All-Defensive team and nobody would have any qualms about it. Even J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert have spurts where their length and athleticism help key defensive assignments all around. Shumpert in particular was helpful, defending the point guard so that Kyrie wouldn’t have to.
Cleveland has four plus-defenders in execution, versatility and reliability: LeBron, Thompson, Shump and Smith. Even when the four of them share the floor, there’s a weak link somewhere, and any chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Yes, there are flaws. Yes, they’re correctable. But as the years drip by into Love and Irving’s careers, it feels less and less probable that they become corrected. But what we still don’t know: if any of this matters to stopping the defending NBA Champions.
Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy has a famed quote on adjustments and tweaks in a postseason series. In essence, his argument is that the key difference between a team losing one game and winning the next is that their shooting improves — that no matter what the schemes or coaching philosophies employed are, this game comes down to making shots. Time and time again, Cleveland has proven that they can and will make threes, and that LeBron can get everyone easier shots. Defense be damned, this version of the Cavaliers just want to spread you out and surgically pick you apart. They bet they’ll score more than you will. On most nights, they’ll be right.
LeBron is a one-man wrecking crew on both ends of the court. He quarterbacks a defense and facilitates everything on offense. No single athlete in this world could carry the responsibility that James does to the degree he’s carried it for years. Instead of comparing him to Michael Jordan or stacking up his merits against others, I’ve finally found peace and awe in watching him operate and enjoying his brilliance while we have it. Parity now seems overrated when the possibility of watching such a special talent collide with the best teams of the West with everything on the line.
The best part about watching brilliance in competition is trying to see what happens when two unstoppable forces collide. Cleveland seems to have a clear path to reaching that stage for the third season in a row. How they get there, and if they succeed, is all dependent on their shooting.