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The Cavs Can’t Defend Themselves

Slam Online

The Cavs have had a horrible start of the year on defense, but the issue runs much deeper than early season adjustments.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are a defensive horror show. This isn’t some revelatory statement, but it needs to be said.

You, like many others, might brush off Cleveland’s struggles as an older team with some understandable early season rust. You might think that since we’ve been down the road of panicking over Cleveland’s defensive inefficiencies before, it’s much too early to worry about them now, but this time it’s time to be concerned.

If you are one of those hypothetical people, you will very likely point to last season as Exhibit A. Last March, we worked ourselves into a frenzy over whether Cleveland’s defense finally meant the end of LeBron’s Eastern Conference supremacy, but the Cavs responded to this worry by steamrolling over the rest of the conference.

The playoff “switch flipping” narrative is easy to make, but the thing is, it didn’t really happen. Cleveland’s DRtg actually fell by two points in the playoffs to 112.2. Everything that plagued them defensively during the regular season persisted in the playoffs, we just didn’t notice until they faced another historically dominant offense in the Finals.

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Once their star point guard demanded a trade this offseason, Cleveland had an opportunity to retool their roster to address those inefficiencies; but instead, they only increased them.

In trading away Kyrie Irving, Cleveland received Isaiah Thomas (maybe the only point guard in the league worse defensively than Irving), Jae Crowder, and Ante Zizic. Getting a plus defender back in Crowder helps, but his positives are more than canceled out by the additions of Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, and Jeff Green.

Through 11 games, the Cavs only have four “positive” players. LeBron James and Kevin Love are the obvious first two, the others are Kyle Korver and Channing Frye. All four of those players (even LeBron) aren’t positive because of their defense, but because their offense has been so good that their defensive shortcomings have been negated. In fact, the only Cav with a DRtg under 110 is Ante Zizic, the 20-year-old rookie who has played only 21 minutes this season.

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When an offense attacks a defense, their goal is to find the weak spots. If offenses find a particularly vulnerable area, they’ll attack and attack until something changes. While this is pretty simplistic, it is a key to almost every offense. Against most defenses, this would mean utilizing pick-and-rolls or off-ball screens, but against the Cavs, it often means just attacking them directly.

About nine percent of Cleveland’s defensive possessions end in an isolation play for the opponent. With the Cavs averaging about 99 possessions per game, that means nine or 10 times a game Cleveland will see something very similar to this:

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This play is really just a mess. Crowder provides very little resistance, Rose guards no one, and LeBron stands there with his feet in cement. Dennis Schroder easily makes the lay-up, but he could have just as easily passed to either corner for an open three. Cleveland allows a league-worst 1.22 points per isolation because of plays just like this, and teams will continue to spread Cleveland out and easily attack them one-on-one.

If it were just isolations that give Cleveland trouble it would be survivable, but it’s not. The Cavs are giving up 1.14 points per transition possession and force a turnover on fewer than 10 percent of those possessions. In fact, Cleveland forces the fewest overall turnovers in the league. Opponents just aren’t fazed by any facet of Cleveland’s defense.

The lack of pressure doesn’t only mean fewer steals, it also means more assists. A lot more assists. Right now Cleveland is on pace to give up more assists than any team this millennium!

If those open shots aren’t at the rim, they’re from deep, where the Cavs are allowing the fourth-most attempts and by far the highest percentage in the league at 42 percent. While 40+ percent is probably unsustainable and no team has ever finished the year with an opponent three-point percentage higher than 41.1 percent, it does speak to just how easily teams are getting up good shots.

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Marco Jose Sanchez - AP Photo

So now we’ve made it to the conclusion. We’ve gone through the all of the problems and how bad much trouble they’re in, so now there’s a clear answer to the problem, right? Well…not really.

The simplest fix, in theory, would be that Rose, Love, and others all figure out how to play even league-average defense, but that isn’t going to happen. If you want to hope that a group of 30-somethings all figure out defense a decade into their careers, be my guest, but I wouldn’t waste your breath. The only real option Cleveland has is to make a change to a roster that clearly isn’t working.

If we assume that trading LeBron is out of the question, Cleveland isn’t left with many options. Love, Thomas, and Crowder all have value and someone probably would take Iman Shumpert, but the only asset that moves the needle is the Brooklyn pick. In a market usually starved of available top-10 picks, that Nets’ pick would have huge value if Cleveland decided to trade it; but that would be an astronomical gamble.

That pick is Cleveland’s future. If you trade away the pick now, but don’t win a title and LeBron leaves this summer, you mortgaged your future only to end up with nothing. But, if LeBron thinks you didn’t go all in for this season, that could very well push him out the door once again.

In reality, no matter who Cleveland could trade for, the defensive problem likely won’t change. The Cavs have so many bad defenders up and down their roster that this has become a systemic problem. They’ve been conditioned into believing defense doesn’t matter until the Finals and honestly, it probably doesn’t. But this team can’t just wait to “flip a switch” right when they need to, because it didn’t work last year and it won’t this year either.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

When was the last season LeBron James finished a season with a DRtg >110?
Created 11/8/17
  1. 2009-10
  2. 2015-16
  3. 2016-17
  4. He Never Has

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