This may be the last season we see LeBron James in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform and if LeExit does occur it may be the last time we see the Cavaliers franchise contending for a championship as well, at least for the foreseeable future. In other words if the Cavaliers want to raise a second championship banner it’s now or never for Cleveland. There are two major factors standing in their way at this point– the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland’s own defense. Unfortunately I don’t have a solution for the former (apart from espionage) but I believe the latter can be mended through an elixir of effort, focus, discipline, communication and hiding the five foot eight guy who happens to be your starting point guard as much as possible.
Well the Cavs currently register as the seventh overall ranked defense in the Association. They can’t be that bad right? Wrong.
The Cavs defense is allowing a whopping 54.8% effective field goal percentage, second worst in the league while conceding 111.9 points per 100 possessions good for second worst in the NBA and are only ranked 23rd in forcing turnovers, all per Cleaning The Glass. Cleveland has a defensive rating of 112.1, third worst in the league and the Cavs have gone 3-9 since Christmas while the defense has slipped to 27th over that same period. So yeah, not good.
The best place to start when looking at where Cleveland’s defensive issues lay is in the film room. The eye in the sky doesn’t lie and when studying the Cavs defense it becomes abundantly clear that this team is suffering from a severe lack of communication, effort and discipline. Rotations are bungled, players take stupid risks instead of staying home and it looks like no one is talking to each other out on the floor. Yes the Cavs have the oldest team in the league with a roster full of minus defenders getting huge minutes like Love, Isaiah Thomas and JR Smith but that only partly explains their issues. Even a team of average to below average defenders can be adequate as long as players maintain their assignments, communicate and do their job.
To start we’ll isolate a sequence from Cleveland’s narrow win over the Orlando Magic on January 18th in which they blew a 23 point lead, only to barley escape at home with the W.
As you can see the Magic are running a standard pick and roll at the top of the key. IT ducks under the Biyombo screen, knowing that Payton isn’t a great shooter while Love steps up to suffocate the drive. Two things are already going badly here. One, Love is standing straight up and not in a proper defensive stance which will negate his already limited foot speed, making it all the more difficult to stop Payton’s penetration. His poor posture suggests he’s not fully engaged on this end of the floor, unacceptable at any point, let alone with less than five minutes to go in the game. Two, in the right corner Aaron Gordon is flashing baseline to take advantage of an oblivious LeBron James who is committing the basketball sin of “ball watching.”
Love allows Payton to get too deep into the paint but recovers nicely, funneling him away from the basket. Gordon is now under the rim and LeBron has no idea. Tiny man Isaiah Thomas is now switched onto huge human Bismack Biyombo–not exactly ideal.
LeBron has now fully committed to cutting off Payton’s drive, going for a trap with Love, while Gordon runs free down the baseline. It seems that LeBron has made this decision on the fly without communicating with any of his teammates. James has now put IT in the precarious position of having to choose between cutting off the seven footer in the paint or picking up the athletic wing flashing to the corner.
LeBron tries to spring a trap with Love but both players are taking bad angles. Love should be about a foot over to his right in order to block Payton’s vision and cut off his options while James would ideally be where Love is currently situated, in perfect position to force a turnover or a jump ball. Nonetheless Payton takes advantage, quickly reading the defense and waiting for Thomas to make a decision. If Thomas stays with Biyombo, Payton can pass to a wide open Gordon for an easy bucket but if IT leaves Biyombo to cover Gordon it’ll be an easy dunk for Bismack. Either way, the Magic are scoring here.
Payton faints a layup attempt in order to get Love up in the air and limit LeBron’s options to zero. IT runs to the corner to cover the wide open Gordon. Payton sees this and knows he can get it to BB easy as pie.
Payton makes the easy pass to double B and the big man gathers himself for the dunk. Thomas has his back totally turned away from the play and LeBron rotates over way too late.
Two points for Orlando. Defensive breakdown for Cleveland.
The Cavs earn themselves some angry home fans in the process.
This kind of sequence has become way too common for the Cavs and if they don’t clean it up soon they’ll be lucky to make it out of the Eastern Conference playoffs let alone challenge the Dubs in the Finals. This is a simple pick and roll that Cleveland should know how to defend considering they’ve seen it approximately one trillion times throughout the years yet the Cavs surrender all their basic principles like a Buddhist monk in Las Vegas. In this one play we have no communication, poor fundamentals, stupid risk taking and a lack of teamwork on the floor.
Communication and the absence of it is perhaps the root of all their defensive woes so far this season. When studying the film you see it all the time with this team and it begs the question of whether this squad isn’t utterly apathetic now. They have the look of last season’s Clippers team, one filled with talented players who didn’t want to play with each other any longer built around a culture of negativity and uncertainty. Examples like this or that suggests this is a team that’s totally checked out.
The Cavs cannot even stick to simple defensive principles that youth YMCA teams understand. They don’t stop ball, they do not get back in transition and they show no discipline whatsoever. The best adjective I could use to describe this defense is flaccid but now that I read it over even that seems too generous for this impotent defense.
Pick and roll defense which we already covered earlier continues to be a problem for the Cavs. Teams are shooting 47% eFG against the Cavs in the pick and roll and their defense suffers from an epidemic of breakdowns in this action. Defenders often show too hard, help defenders take bad angles and assignments are missed. If the Cavs can’t cover this basic action they might as well not show up at all.
The Cavaliers nonexistent effort is the most inexcusable aspect of their defense thus far. That is the one thing Cleveland has total control over and the blame lies squarely with the players. The Cavs cannot even bother to box out, even inside the last minute of a close game. That should never happen.
This should never happen!
Isaiah Thomas has mentioned that the Cavaliers “…don’t practice”, per Bleacher Report, and that explains a lot of their issues because it looks like most of the players don’t fully understand their rotations, what their responsibilities entail and how to talk to each other on the defensive end of the floor. Coach Lue should emphasize more practice time going forward or at least walk through basic defensive tactics during shootaround if LeBron prefers not to put more miles on himself in practice.
The good news is that these issues are fixable and could conceivably go a long way toward constructing a team that has a realistic shot of dethroning the Warriors. The Cavs don’t have to turn into the Bad Boy Pistons or ‘96 Bulls to challenge for a championship, all they need is a defense that can bend without breaking. No one can shut down the Warriors but it’s possible that they can be contained. A smart defense that’s committed, fundamentally sound, communicative and putting forth maximum effort mixed in with LeBron James has as good a chance as anyone in the league. The blueprint is there for Cleveland but it’s up to the team whether they’re willing to work toward building a championship defense.