By Eric Apricot
For the third time in as many years, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will meet in the NBA Finals. Despite the addition of Kevin Durant, there is enough familiarity between both teams to seek out specific weaknesses.
One of the key ways the Cavaliers attack the Warriors is by using LeBron James to go after Stephen Curry.
Careful observers of the game realize Curry’s defense is between above-average and near-elite. No defensive measure is great, but they all point the same direction: ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus rates Curry as a positive defender (+0.46) and 13th out of 91 point guards. NBA.com’s defensive hustle stats show out of all 486 NBA players, Curry is 12th in the league in deflections, fourth at loose balls recovered and 70th in charges taken.
In fact, NBA.com’s Defensive Win Shares rates Curry as the fourth defender in the entire league. Now, nobody believes that, but DWS is overly swayed by Curry’s many steals (his rank over the last five years: 14, 11, 1, 1, 4).
So, observers can disagree on the degree of defensive excellence, but he’s definitely a plus:
Having said that, of course it makes sense for the Cavaliers to try to attack Curry with James. Curry is usually the smallest and worst defender on the floor next to Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green, the declining but still excellent Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
More importantly, Curry is the key to the Warriors’ offense, so when he gets into foul trouble—one of Curry’s biggest weaknesses is picking up soft folds for reaches and bumps—this is a huge disruption for the team.
Of course, Curry doesn’t defend James voluntarily, so the Cavaliers have to force the issue by using Curry’s man to screen for LeBron in the pick and roll. For three years, the Warriors and Cavaliers have played a cat and mouse game around this tactic with Golden State trying a number of different solutions:
First, the Warriors tried a simple switch. Here’s a typical outcome.
LeBron just invites so much contact that Curry risks collecting fouls. This approach resulted in Curry being plagued with foul trouble all Game 6 and eventually fouling out during the Warriors comeback in the fourth quarter.
Show/Hold and Recover
In Game 7, the Warriors tried switching again but added a new wrinkle with a show/hold and recover.
Curry gets away with a grab and starts to unswitch with Iguodala, but the Cavaliers spacing is good and Cleveland gets a dunk.
Here’s another show/hold and recover. This is a tricky scheme, because if the handoff isn’t perfect, LeBron will have lanes to drive.
The New Warriors Coverage: High Tag
This season, the Warriors rolled out a new default coverage the Cavaliers have yet to respond to; and their next adjustment will be a key thing to watch for as the Finals begin.
The scheme is that as soon as Curry’s man sets up to screen LeBron, Curry immediately rushes up to tag LeBron as far from the basket as possible. The other defender cuts off direct passes to the screener and contains LeBron’s straight line drive. Usually, the screener will short roll. At this point, Curry uses his speed to bolt back to his original man and the original defender comes back on James.
Let’s follow the possible outcomes. Here is the new scheme as unveiled in the Christmas game. (The LeBron pick and roll happens after the play resets.)
In that play, the switch was effectively undone and LeBron was back in single coverage by Durant, which undoes the benefit of targeting Curry.
So, what if LeBron just treats this as going under the screen and fires the open shot? Here’s an example.
Curry tries to tag LeBron so high up that he doesn’t have a good shot.
And if LeBron uses his excellent passing to hit the open roll man, Curry simply recovers with speed.
Here’s another example of the high tag working despite the pass to the screener.
Again, Curry needs to recover really far back to his man, but he’s fast and any pass has to both get by Curry and out-race him.
Here’s an example where the Warriors don’t pull off the tag correctly and LeBron threads a casually awesome pass which is wasted by Richard Jefferson.
For the Warriors, even if the roll man hits a contested jumper, that’s still better than LeBron racking up fouls against Curry.
Here’s a final variation, where LeBron’s defender doesn’t switch but turns it into a double-team trap.
This is a clever defensive idea. I’ve never seen the Warriors play this scheme except exactly when Curry is attacked in the pick and roll by LeBron. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this scheme played by anyone.
The apparent weakness of the scheme is that Curry has to recover a really long way to the screener. But this maximizes the use of Curry’s main defensive strengths (awareness, quick feet and quick hands) and minimizes the weaknesses (size, sometimes carelessness off-ball).
If LeBron attacks from high up, he’s can’t back Curry down and it’s a long way to pass to a rolling screener. If LeBron attacks from closer in, there is much less space to drive.
One possible Cavaliers counter would be to have a second screener come to screen Curry as he recovers, in a Spain action:
Another would be to have the screener screen the big defender and have LeBron drive from high up past Curry as soon as he turns to re-switch.
Familiarity breeds contempt, but it in a NBA series, it can also force innovation. In LeBron James, the Cavaliers still have the best player on the court. Finding the best ways to utilize him will be key for Cleveland to overcome the deficit in talent every team faces against the Warriors.
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