Cavaliers Rediscover Form, Still Looking for Defense

click to enlarge Sometimes LeBron looks soooo tired...
Sometimes LeBron looks soooo tired...
If you lived with the Cavaliers you might put a keystroke logger on their computer, or a GPS tracker under the bumper: You simply can’t trust them. Not until playoff time. It’s from that wizened perspective that we evaluate the team’s 3-1 record on their recent road trip which included games against actual contenders in the white-hot Washington Wizards (they’ve gone from “the grey” to the “white”, Gandalf would be proud) and the Russell Westbrook show in Oklahoma City.

They were good wins. How could you not be impressed with the OT victory over the Wizards with James fouled out. Though the Pacers game had stretches of indolence and indifference and the same went at times against the Thunder. It’s like the first half falls within their Siesta Time and they can’t present themselves until they’ve allowed the opponent to score at least 60 points.

With the All Star break fast approaching we thought we’d check in on a few things, including their latest free agent addition, Derrick Williams, the team’s efficient shooting, and the plight of LeBron James.

Hey Dude, Where’s My Point Guard or Rim Protector?

The biggest questions on everyone’s lips prior to Derrick Williams’ debut against the Oklahoma City Thunder were “what the hell?” or some variation on that. At a time when everyone knew the team either (and preferably and) a playmaker/point guard or a rim-protector, minutes-eating big, they signed someone that seemingly filled neither need.

First let’s address the needs then take a look behind door number two. The team’s already brought in the rogue’s gallery of free agent point guards and could conceivably be biding their time. Not exactly a line of suitors outside Mario Chalmers, Jordan Farmar and Kirk Hinrich’s door. Apparently the Warriors found Briante Weber useful enough to grab out of the D-League. And the seeming plum out there, Lance Stephenson, wound up signing with the Timberwolves despite providing defense, playmaking and modest three-shooting (about 30% much like Williams).

The point is that the Cavs knew what was out there and is comfortable sitting on their hands for the moment. Trades often send other guys into limbo. Perhaps the seemingly inevitable trade of Brandon Knight and possibly Darren Collison (he’s apparently on the block) might set loose a backup point. Orlando is looking to trade and Elfrid Payton could be going elsewhere taking someone else’s job. There are no centers lying around out there, per se. Potentially useful projects like Walter Tavares are out there, but most of those guys are useless in the pick-and-roll.

On the other hand, teams don’t pick-and-roll all game long, there are virtually no alternatives if Tristan ever gets injured or misses a game as Channing Frye is only a center in the ‘well, he’s tall’ sense of the word. Indeed, one of the most apparent reasons to bring in Williams is to pair him with Frye and allowing him to body up inside against the biggest defender. At 240-250 pounds, he’s a lot beefier inside than Frye and provides a more physical option.

Neither are particularly good rebounders, but Williams is at least capable, and averaged 7.5 rebounds per 36 minutes last year with the Knicks, his highest rate since coming into the league. Presumably he’ll be equally motivated. That’s still more like a small forward than a power forward, and isn’t going to necessarily compensate in that way.

Yet his ability to cut (1.35 points per possession cutting for the Knicks in 2015-2016; 1.05 for Miami this year) and roll (1.05 ppp for Knicks, only .76 ppp for Heat) makes him a better guy to team with and pick for James than Frye, when the second squad is in. (From watching it last night, Korver might be the best guy to pick for him since he requires so little room to get his shot off and defense has to adjust accordingly, leaving the King more room.) Using Williams in any lineups with Tristan will be tricky since he’s not a very good outside shooter.
He has some spots than he can exploit on the block and the baseline, and looks capable of developing that corner three. If he can make that at the 21-53 rate he managed last year, the Cavs will be dancing in the street. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that Williams has never posted great defensive efficiency scores with any team. On the Knicks he was a -7.5 net when on-court, on rivaled by the unforgettable Lou Amundson (-9.7) and Kevin Seraphin (-10.4). Similar story in Sacramento where he was -7.2 only ahead of Ray McCallum, Carl Landry and Ramon Sessions, his last year there after posting more middle-of-the-pack numbers the year before.
The Cavaliers used him curiously in his first game, playing him in lineups where he was a “4” with Thompson and Frye, featuring Korver, Irving and James. But he also played the three in an unusual lineup featuring Love, Frye, Korver and James. That makes Williams the kind of Thompson character in that he picks and plays around the basket while the other four surround the perimeter.

When Williams played in lineups with Irving Love and Thompson (with Korver/McRae) but no James, they got clobbered. But the lineups with James, Korver and Irving did outstanding offensively, averaging around 160 in offensive efficiency. They were not always so good defensively. That will be the thing to watch for Williams.

They clearly have high hopes for him given that they tried him guarding Thunder point Cameron Payne, with predictable results. But he did better with Oladipo and the mere fact that the Cavs were willing to try it speaks volumes for how they respect his athleticism.
He’s very useful in general to the second squad because he likes to cut and roll and he’s shown skill at it. Nobody else on the second team is much of a cutter or roll guy outside of Richard Jefferson, whose numbers Williams is poised to cut into. That’s probably a good thing. RJ is shooting only 30% from three after shooting 38% last year. Williams can shoot around 30% from three. League average is around 34-35%. Williams also does a very good job of drawing fouls (5.3 FTA per 36 minutes), though he’s only 71% from the line lifetime, somewhat minimizing that benefit. As you can see here, he’s got a quick first step and isn’t bad off the bounce.
While he doesn’t necessarily fit the most pressing needs of the roster, a guy with enough size to body up down low, who is a good cutter and roll guy and knows how to score is a fine addition to the second squad. It’d be nice if he was better defensively, but nobody on the team is. At least he's still young enough (25) to still grow and get better.

Otherwise we’re pretty much counting on a magic wand of enthusiasm and effort. It’s not impossible, but it’d be nice if any of the team's additions had at least some reputation defensively, especially with the way the team surrenders points in the paint. Williams also probably won’t help with the issues on the defensive boards. That’s going to be another group effort that we presume will begin with the playoffs.

But with that said, it seems abundantly clear that Griffin isn’t finished yet, and another big and a point guard are probably still in the cards with Birdman and McRae likely to go bye-bye, along with possibly another player depending on the size of the contract.

The Cavaliers can only absorb contracts $4.8 million or smaller into the Trade Exemption without matching the amount. That includes people like Jameer Nelson (second year left on contract at $4.7M), Devin Harris (second year $4.4M), Ben McLemore ($4M), Odonis Haslem ($4M) and Randy Foye ($2.5M). All have been mentioned at one time or another in trade rumors.

Cavaliers Are Certified Marksmen

The Cavaliers are getting open shots (from greater than 10’) at the second-best rate in the league. Over 44% of their shots are open (no one within 4’-6’) or wide-open (nobody for at least 6’). Only Dallas at 47.5% got more open/wide open shots. The Mavericks also have the least very tightly covered shots – that’s a defender 0’ to 2’ away – in all ranges at just 12.6%. The Cavs have third-least with just 15.8% of their shots. In a strange oddity, they are shooting the worst rate in the league on wide-open twos (for >10’) at 37.6%, much worse than their 42.2% rate on wide-open threes. However, they’re only taking 2.3 of those a game, versus 14.3 wide-open threes (behind only Houston and, strangely, Brooklyn, who both are over 15).

In last week’s column we talked about how the offense and defense performed compared to last year and the playoffs. We found that this year’s team was far ahead of last year’s offensively – with a third of the season remaining. While the fall-off of the defense gave up pause, we were encouraged at how efficient the offense had been, despite guys going in-and-out of the lineup. We think the best way to appreciate the changes is to look at the shotclock numbers, showing how the team shoots at different points in the shotclock.
Lue’s abjurations to push the ball were for good reason. While the team shot very well early in the clock (hell last year’s team shot relatively well whenever they shot), they didn’t have as many of those opportunities. Indeed, just about every team shoots better the earlier in the clock they shoot. This season they’ve increased their number of shots between the 22 and 15 second mark by a third, from 21.8 to 28.3. (The Cavs will forever trail in the 24-22 second area since they don’t create that many turnovers, a 17th-ranked 13.6 per game.)

While we thought the struggles in January might be related to declining pace we were wrong. While that may have been the case early in the season, the woes in January seem unrelated to the pace and probably more related to the hits to the team depth.

The one concern, if there is one, is that the team is 29th in points in the paint this year with 39.1 compared with, say the Thunder who are second with 49.5, or the Warriors who are fourth with 47.1. Of course the question with offense is always how much better can you get? Only one guy can score at a time, while defense is played by everyone, at least ideally.

What’s Up With LeBron

It’s been an interesting season for LeBron, who has been the offensive focal point like never before while shooting at his lowest career frequency as his assist rate has reached nearly its highest point, eclipsed only by his last season before The Decision.

James has also posted his lowest steal and block shot (bar one season) rates of his career to go with the lowest Defensive efficiency rating of his career. James’ high assist (and turnover) numbers prevent his Usage from scraping career lows (see, debut season), but he’s shooting almost three shots per 100 possessions (pCp) below his career rate, and at 23.8 fga/pcp, lower than his previous low that last season in Miami (24.5).

That James is averaging more points than his last two seasons is a testament to his increased efficiency. He raised last year’s two-point shooting percentage (.551) – his best as a Cavalier – by 26 points (.577), trailing only those last two years in Miami, which is also the last time James shot this well (.373) from three (vs. .406 and .379).

Kyrie’s offensive step forward has allowed James to take a step back from scoring and be more of a facilitator. Of course part of that is dictated by the Cavaliers’ lack of a second team playmaker to run the offense. (Miss you Delly.) Sadly that has him running up his largest minute totals since that first year in Miami – after which is missed nearly a quarter of the season, playing only 62 games the following year. (So let’s really screw next year’s regular season…)

But we aren’t going to litigate James’ minutes, which has already turned into a principal story line. There’s no doubt that James is a special physical specimen, and perhaps he has the kind of body that can take the punishment that Malone did. But he was a unicorn himself, and had played three years in the NBA than James when he played 38 minutes/game for Utah in 1995-96 at 32.

That season is interesting because the Jazz were down 3-1 to the Sonics in the Western Conference Finals. Utah came back and won the next two forcing Game 7 in Seattle, which the Sonics won in part because of a poor game from Malone, who shot 8-22, made four turnovers and missed six free throws while playing 45 minutes. It’s not a prediction, just a caution, especially after watching a gassed James miss two dunks and score just two points in the second half against the Thunder. He won’t have to deal with back-to-backs in the playoffs, but the cautionary signs are still the same.

But as we said, not going there. What we do want to talk about is the interesting transformation in James’ game over the last two years. We’ll start by looking at the shot charts for the past four years. (Chart courtesy’s extensive stats area.)
That last year in Miami (first chart) he had a solid mix of above average (green areas) areas from the rim to the three line. His first year in Cleveland his straight-away game was at least average but his strong (left) side was below average as was his usually somewhat deficient right-side of the floor game. Last year he bucked up that left midrange area and started taking everything to the rim. He took 784 shots in that area versus 543 the year before, a nearly 50% increase.

This year he dialed that back a bit, turning that left block area into a plus zone like it was in Miami. He’s also demonstrating his best three-point shooting in at least four year from the middle and right side above the break (aka, Kyrie’s Flash Fried Curry Zone). (Chart adapted from
As you can see, James took a ridiculous 46% of his shots at the rim last year and in the playoffs. He shot right about his career average at that, which made it pretty efficient. He also set a career standard for % of shots that ended in dunks during the playoffs. This year he’s rivaling his best years in Miami at that.

He’s dialed back the frequency of his drives compared to last year. That much is fact. We believe the reason is the way teams started defending him. His single-mindedness at going to the hole led teams to drop guys into the lane more frequently to clog his finishes at the rack. It was leading to more contact and less fouls/drive. Indeed, it almost seems like the more often he drove the less often they called contact. (The beginning of one chapter in King James Brings The Land a Crown is devoted to this theory.)

We think James decided he needed to diversify his game a little bit. We’ve seen a lot more of his little turnaround baseline jumper as a counter to laying off him on the left baseline/block area. James is actually taking a greater percentage of 10’-16’ shots than anytime other than his first two years in the league and his second year in Miami. He’s making more of them (45.2%) than any year but that one in Miami, when he hit 48.1%.

He’s done this while continuing to reduce his number of long range jumpers from 16’ or more, embracing the statheads who’ve shown this to be one of basketball’s least efficient shots.

This added jump shot counter seems to have opened the lane back up again. Even though he’s getting to the rim at the third highest rate of his career (all within the last four), he’s making a higher percentage than any year but those last two in Miami. Couple that with his third-best three shooting year (again behind those 28 and 29 year-old seasons in Miami).

Yet there is no free lunch, and even 32-year old LeBron has his limits. We suspect the energy put forth on offense, both running the second team and scoring, has sapped some of his defensive will.
We put forth to Steve Kerr the idea that LeBron deserved to be on the All-NBA team last year and Defensive Field Goal % (2nd best in league to the Clippers’ Luc Mbah a Moute) sure backed that up. He had his best year since they made such stats available and by a long shot. This year is more like previous years, except he’s facing more shots than ever before. Kerr brought this up answer my question, noting that DFG% can’t tell you the way the player fit in the defense or in many occasions a good defensive player prevents players from taking shots.

The fact that LeBron is facing more shots could be an indicator of the defensive quality, alongside a deep slip in defense inside 10’. For the first time in four years he’s allowed above 50% on two-point field goals. To be fair, that’s not all his fault, but the result of even more porous than usual perimeter defense, meaning he’s often picking up other people’s mistakes.

This is the issue with defensive stats – defense is so co-dependent it’s hard to separate out what’s going on. However you can also see that James is authoring his worst defensive efficiency rating (points allowed per 100 possessions while on floor) of his career, and as a result his worst net rating in a decade.

We also noticed that James is playing at the highest pace of his career by nearly five possessions/game (excusing last year). Is playing so many minutes of such high-paced basketball sapping his will and ability to play defense? They say a sure sign of exhaustion is the ability to hit free throws. Should we read anything into James’ lowest free throw shooting percentage of his career?

Final Analysis

The Cavaliers have just three more games before the break and we’re still not sure how this team’s squad sizes up. However this last week they’ve shown greater attentiveness on the court and more urgency. It still feels like James is playing way too much and that Lue needs to use his bench more efficiently. As everyone has said, a playmaker will help. We suspect that Chalmers is the fallback plan with hopes of something more. Who knows what they’ll do about a big, maybe they’re holding out hope like everyone else for a Bogut buyout. We’re skeptical.

On the whole, the team remains what it is – an extraordinary offensive squad which with Korver finding his way has looked as explosive as during last season’s playoffs. But the transition defense is wretched at times, and their pick-and-roll coverage brushes up against league worst.

The plan looks like to make the offense so good that they can get by with only marginal playoff improvement of the defense. Certainly none of the additions have addressed their paint protection or perimeter defense concerns. Griffin’s history with the Suns causes pause, but they did it last year so we give them the benefit of the doubt.

You can catch my columns with increasing frequency until the playoff starts and we crank it up full-bore. You can hear me every Monday at 11 a.m. on the Defend Cleveland Show with Michael James on WRUW 91.1, and you can find my book on this summer’s historic championship run at most bookstores throughout the state.

In fact, we’ll be signing copies of King James Brings The Land a Crown on Saturday 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Gathering Volumes in Toledo. We’ll be talking Cavaliers with all comers, and then heading back for the Denver Nuggets game.

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