By Adam Spinella
The strength of the 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors was undoubtedly their shooting and versatility. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson swirled around the court. Draymond Green did everything on defense and created matchup nightmares on offense. Harrison Barnes was a reliable two-way player, while Andrew Bogut protected the rim and sliced defenses from the high post with expert passing.
Taking on Kevin Durant as another world-class superstar meant parting from Barnes and Bogut, bringing in Zaza Pachulia to anchor the middle and change the way their defense was played. Any change to the rotation, style of play or payroll has ripple effects felt by the rest of the roster. While many of the same faces persist for the Warriors, a few of them find themselves in new roles.
The same can be said for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who construct their roster by a different model. Each year, Cleveland adds new players around the mid-season mark by using their trade exceptions and swallowing up veterans that were waived and want to play for the veteran minimum to chase a ring. The starting unit around LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love looks the same, but the bench is drastically different.
So which style is more pertinent towards success, mild continuity or reloading with veteran talent year after year?
Golden State Warriors: 2015-2016 vs. 2016-2017
Key to understanding the Warriors’ bench unit is understanding that Kerr rarely plays five reserves together, needing at least one of Curry, Thompson or Durant on the floor to shoulder the scoring load. Kerr’s rotation patterns generally have mirrored each other through this and last season in a formulaic fashion. First, replace the starting center in the first quarter, then Thompson will get his reprieve. Green and Curry maximize their time together, usually finishing the odd-numbered quarters on the floor. Bench passing around Thompson takes root in the beginning of even-numbered quarters, they slowly sub their starters back in (perhaps giving Klay a small breather) and depending on the matchups will finish with their small lineup featuring Green at center.
The Warriors have a great deal of versatility and flexibility with their starting group, and that carries over to the bench. Perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate Andre Iguodala leads that charge, as the former All-Star has been a LeBron-stopper in his time with Golden State. Playing only 26 minutes per game, Iguodala has been able to save his body from wear-and-tear in the regular season as he ages. A point forward in small-ball lineups, Iguodala assumes the top defensive responsibility on the wing, creates when Draymond Green sits and does a decent job spacing to the corners.
Looking at Iguodala’s per 36-minute output over the last three years since moving to the bench, his usage and numbers haven’t fluctuated very much. Even with Durant, he’s shooting and scoring at the same clip. This season, his turnovers are down and his field goal percentages are up; a product of playing with one more elite scorer that draws attention. Putting the ball in Iguodala’s hands has been lethal for their offense: he generates 2.32 points per assist this season, the same rate as Draymond Green.
Prong number two in Golden State’s versatility: Shaun Livingston. A 6’7″ point guard who can defend multiple positions and mismatch smaller guards in the post, he’s been instrumental to the Warriors second unit attack. Livingston needs to be flanked by shooters since he isn’t a threat from the outside — the mutual impact goes both ways between him and the Warriors. More than Iguodala though, Livingston has seen his impact cut ever so slightly in a few regards this season.
As you would expect, more scorers and creators (the Durant effect) means fewer touches trickle down somewhere, and that somewhere tends to be Livingston. He’s still an efficient scorer, but he gets to the free-throw line less frequently and has a much lower assist total per 36 minutes than ever before.
When Livingston comes in (often replacing Curry or Durant), he shares most of his minutes with Klay Thompson, logging over 300 more with him than Curry. Those numbers have little effect on Iguodala, part of the lethal “Death Lineup” that Golden State trots out to go super small. Better yet, every single four-man unit to log at least 200 minutes together this season for the Warriors that has both Iguodala and Livingston also features Klay Thompson. The philosophy is clear: while resting Curry and Durant, Thompson can get his and be the primary scorer as he shares the court with two primary creators. Last season, it was Harrison Barnes filling that role as the tertiary scorer.
The rotation of big men has changed the most drastically in Golden State, both in personnel and stylistic preferences. Out have gone Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Marreese Speights. In came Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and David West. What we’ve seen statistically is an overlap in roles and distribution of minutes.
Pachulia took over as the starter, eating the lion’s share of minutes at center and being the interior defender the Warriors needed. Only, Pachulia wasn’t the passer that Bogut is: that role ended up being taken by David West off the bench. Initially thought of as an acquisition to offset the loss of interior scoring from Marreese Speights off the bench, West has established himself as one of the best passing big men in the league, averaging 6.6 assists per 36 minutes and matching Bogut’s assist output from a season ago in nearly half the minutes.
So where has the interior scoring gone without Speights? Simply put, adding Durant has negated the need for as much of a go-to scorer on the second unit. That said, it’s been JaVale McGee who terrorizes the rim and leads the bench bigs in offensive usage rate. McGee combines the athletic rim protection of Festus Ezeli with an alley-oop threat off pick-and-rolls that the Warriors have never possessed. He’s been without a doubt the most pleasant surprise for the Dubs.
Here’s where the stylistic changes take root the most. When Ezeli would come in as a substitute for Bogut last season, the offense needed to continue as it did with Bogut — facilitating for primary scorers. Yet assist rates dropped when Ezeli was in the game as the Warriors found themselves with one extra player clogging up the lane. McGee has a different effect, skying and finishing at the rim in a way that can get Steph Curry going. Per NBA.com tracking data, when Draymond has the ball and Curry is cutting around him, on passes from Green that lead to a McGee shot, JaVale is shooting an absurd 84.3 percent from the field.
Ian Clark has filled the Leandro Barbosa role this season as a speedy scorer and creator in the backcourt, and he’s filled it well. Clark will likely command a large role elsewhere next season and create another void in Golden State’s bench unit. Rookie Patrick McCaw has been serviceable as well, with a better than two-to-one assist to turnover rate, taking the role that Brandon Rush performed last year off the bench. Plug his length and corner three ability in for Rush (32.6 percent from McCaw, 42.7 percent from Rush last year) and you see the one area where the Warriors offense has taken a hit this year in comparison to last.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 2015-2016 vs. 2016-2017
Throw out the season-wide stats, comparisons and data for Cleveland. Their team looks drastically different in May than it does from December of that year due to the amazing roster facelifts David Griffin can perform. It would be easy to say that, with the starting unit the exact same each of the last two postseasons, that the Cavs bench has gotten worse from last year to this as the record and defensive ratings have tanked in Cleveland. That might be an over-simplification.
Griffin, LeBron and company have gone all-in on an offensive spacing unit that’s unique enough to bulldoze opponents and shoot the ball so well that their defensive output can be bad and they still win. The roster has jumped two full percentage points in three point shooting, from 36 percent last year to north of 38 percent currently.
Cleveland’s bench isn’t asked to do much: just spread the floor and knock down the open threes that LeBron or Kyrie create. Among all the reserves in the first round series against the Pacers, 44 of their 62 shot attempts (71 percent) came from behind the arc. They shot 11-of-18 from two-point range, nearly all of them on bunnies and easy attempts at the rim. They combined for three offensive rebounds and only one turnover. No such easier or more clear-cut offensive role exists in the league.
Thank Tyronn Lue’s rotation juggling for that. Cleveland played a grand total of one minute and 43 seconds without either LeBron James or Kyrie Irving in the first-round. Need further proof that the Cavaliers always rely on one of them to do their offensive damage? Kyrie had a limited role in Game Three with Indiana, so LeBron logged 45 minutes. Cleveland simply cannot survive without them.
Cleveland’s second unit still revolves around LeBron, as everything in Cleveland seems to do these days. The addition of Deron Williams has added to LeBron’s repertoire with the famed “31 PNR”; a league-wide action between a tall, ball-handling and scoring wing and the point guard. Both will toggle between screener and ball handler in the action, though the objective remains the same: force a switch with a little guy on LeBron or get him going downhill towards the rim.
Kyle Korver doesn’t have the same effectiveness as a ball handler as Deron Williams does, but his effect as a screener is much greater. Korver is one of the elite 3-point shooters in the game that requires almost zero help to be given from his defender. Whenever he sets a screen, the lane opens up like the Red Sea for a ball handler.
With such a simple task for the reserves on offense, the effort and engagement asked for by Coach Lue comes on the defensive end — and they fall short. Iman Shumpert has been one of the worst rotation players in the playoffs, and even saw one DNP in the first-round against Indiana. The conundrum comes from the athleticism and defensive potential that Shump provides — he’s not a great defender by any means, but he’s got the mobility that others Cleveland guards don’t.
It’s the biggest drop off from last season for Cleveland, where they miss the presence of Matthew Dellavedova the most. Delly was scrappy and feisty and all other gnat-like adjectives to describe a petulant perimeter defender. Poor play in the postseason last year (25.8 percent from three, one steal) overshadowed what was a really strong regular season for the Aussie (41 percent from three, 0.6 steals per game). Delly’s defensive contributions rarely showed up in the stat sheet, but a strong-bodied guard that wouldn’t get bullied in the post eliminated other teams running Cleveland’s secret weapon against them: that deadly 31 PNR.
In the first round against Indiana, the lineup of James/ Deron Williams/ Korver/ Shumpert/ Frye had a defensive rating of 123.0 (yikes). The LeBron surrounded by shooters strategy, even with Shump in the game, has amazingly poor defensive output. As the postseason progresses and teams send doubles at LeBron, that lineup regresses in terms of outside shooting (bench guys shot 50 percent from three in the first round) and opponents have better and smarter offenses to attack this defense, Cleveland’s bench could go from saving grace in Round One to weak link.
The bench for Cleveland has gotten much better this season than last year, when they won the NBA Championship. That’s the major coup here — it’s the same team, subtract Timofey Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova and Mo Williams, and add Kyle Korver and Deron Williams. Turning Channing Frye into a full-time center and going smaller certainly meant faster pace, more offense and sieve-like rim protection from their second unit.
Role players normally perform better at home than on the road, and if Cleveland is going to be more competitive, it will need a competitive response from its bench.