Cavs Book Final Guest, Andrew Bogut, Checking How Mainsail Sets

click to enlarge Korver's Become Cavs Most Reliable Option
Korver's Become Cavs Most Reliable Option
Two deep blasts from the ship’s horn punctuate the early spring air like an exclamation point signaling imminent departure. After grueling months in the regular season’s dry dock, the S.S. Cavs Repeat neared launch, amply provisioned and finally fully staffed. The championship banner furling in the breeze wants company and that’s the kind of desire LeBron James hates to leave unrequited.

The ship hands, quite honestly, look bored, which plays a lot worse to spectators than nervously active but in practice is a lot closer to sandbagging. Nobody needs to show these guys how to hoist the Wine & Gold jib or swab the deck with the Eastern Conference. They’ve “been there, done that” with the ferocity of a jaded teen. Attempts to reason with their indifferent transition D, porous defensive board work or spates of iso- dribble-mania receive an invitation to talk to the jewelry.

Monday’s arrival of Aussie agitator Andrew Bogut completes a midseason bench transformation worthy of Extreme Makeover: Hoops Edition. Like two years ago, GM David Griffin consummated an early January deal that looked better and better as the weeks rolled on. Kyle Korver pulled off his librarian bun and glasses revealing a long-distance Hawkeye where once stood Jim Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas. (Maybe it’s the haircut.)

The lack of practices and Korver’s slow integration into the offense initially clouded the value of the move, contributing (with injuries) to a bad January. James publicly bitched about the lack of help and it was hard not to sympathize. Close watchers of the Cavs have been bemoaning their lack of a shot-blocker and secondary ballhandler since the start of the season.

Griffin went so far as to call Kelly’s Temps to stage an open audition won by Jordan Farmar, which spoke to the talent level involved. Still, Griffin passed on signing anyone for another week, presumably having already picked up on the subtle seismic waiver reverberations that would eventually manifest as Derrick Williams.

Perennial disappointment and 2nd-overall 2011 draft pick Derrick (“Due Bills”) Williams escaped his past and committed to a supporting role with a fervor and athleticism unseen in these parts for many moons. His ability to set beefy screens then roll to the basket and pull up or finish strong (often drawing fouls) nicely complements the more arc-bound shooters of the second unit.

Contrary to last year’s unsatisfying Joe Johnson safari, the NBA’s annual flight of the crown-hungry veterans lavished love on Cleveland like closing time amidst the beer-goggled.

The addition of Deron (“Overdue Bills”) Williams, the ring-seeking 32-year old former Maverick, filled the long-standing vacancy at backup point, and Bogut completes the renovation, finally putting the Cavaliers on par with the best teams in the West. Perhaps they’ve even birdied their foes with the deepest bench in the league. Now let’s talk about “Strength in Numbers.”

Admittedly, it’s sometimes hard to imagine this is the y’ar’nes crew and Warriors-dream-crushing vehicle that the league has ever seen after watching them spitting seeds (or the bit) against mediocre foes (Welcome to Miami!) rather than bullets.

But life’s always been more about how you perform in a crisis than how you get the groceries. The Cavs can get lost on their way to the mailbox if LeBron doesn’t accompany them, but when the lights come on and he’s by their side, they sparkle.

Like the cold weather, if Cavs fans can just persevere for another month they’ll enjoy a prodigious reward.

Counting the Minutes

Absent the drama of a playoff race, that anxious angst has transformed some fans into clockwatchers, eye LeBron James’ minutes as warily as a dieter does a Danish almond puff. He’s second in the league in minutes-per-game (37.6) and will soon be first, since the leader’s now out with an injury. The guy with the third most minutes-per-game is already out for the season with a knee injury.

Is talking about this making you squeamish? While it’s true that Kyle Lowry (37.7) and Zach Lavine (37.2) are on the shelf (Andrew Wiggins, John Wall and Jimmy Butler are #4-#6), it’s also worth mentioning that James is only 16th (2106 minutes) when we start speaking total minutes. That’s one spot ahead of Marc Gasol (2065) who is seven-foot, a year older than James, and coming back from an injury to his foot.

Which is to say, it’s entirely possible everyone’s over-reacting about James’ minutes. He’s one of the most physically gifted players to grace the sport, and as such he deserves some benefit of the doubt. It’s just unnerving to watch Clark Kent race Jimmy Olsen around the block when such playful shenanigans seem wholly unnecessary and pointlessly risky.

With the bench finally properly staffed, it’s presumed James is due for some spin-down. He actually sat for the first time since the day after Christmas a week ago on Saturday in Chicago, a stretch of 26 straight games. (Then he sat again in Miami a week later.)

While that’s hardly sufficient, we’ll take it as a down-payment. Looking over the last few games, his minutes have actually begun to subside, that ridiculous game in Atlanta (where he logged 40 minutes, many while the team was blowing a 25-point lead) is more the exception than the rule.
James’ minutes peaked at midseason right around 40 minutes and have slid back since then. Presumably that will continue. It’s also worth noting that some wags complain that the furor over James’ minutes is overstated since he takes plays off, particularly on defense.

There’s probably some truth to that, and it’s worth noting that he registered his lowest defensive efficiency during that 30-game stretch with one game off. It’s also notable that it’s been improving the last ten games as James appears to be sidling into playoff gear. (Just check the rise in his shooting percentage over the last 20 games.)

The Lazarus Effect, or The Death Lineup’s Second Coming

There was a moment – just about two years ago now – when the Cavaliers second team was rolling. They had a variety of lineups involving Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson (who came off the bench at that point) and Iman Shumpert (back when he really did play defense) that just crushed opponents.

Those lineups are below (with the standard small sample size warnings) as a reminder how devastating that squad that generally started the second quarter really was.
Last year the bench didn’t perform as well or as consistently, and this year was even worse. So many times this year the team would run up double digit leads in the first ten minutes of the game. Then they’d only to lose them over the next six: The next final two minutes of the first and first four minutes of the second period, when Lue patchworked his way through a series of leaky bench rotations.

With the arrival of Williams and Korver, Lue finally stumbled on something that worked, pairing them with Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson and LeBron James. That pairing has outscored opponents by 35 points (per 100 possessions, aka pCp). They don’t offensive rebound, but they’re solid on the defensive boards even with Frye. (The overall length of every being at least 6’8” undoubtedly contributes.)
What’s nice is that Lue is clearly aware. He’s used it for eight minutes in the five games he’s tried it, which is substantial. The lineup makes a lot of turnovers, but is shooting a ridiculous 75.8% EFG, akin to making three-quarters of your twos or half your threes, and notably has a 105.67. Only two lineups manage a faster pace – Irving/Jefferson/Korver/Love/Thompson and Felder/James/Korver/Jefferson/Fry – and neither is within 20 points (pCp) of them.
Note Korver’s presence in all three. He’s certainly not a fast or athletic guy but his ability to get loose in transition clearly enables a faster pace, and probably opens up early offense. Opponents must take such care to account for Korver at the arc in transition or as a trailer; it opens up other parts of the floor to cuts or penetration.

What’s even more shocking is this: That’s the Cavaliers’ best defensive lineup all season, nearly a point better than Irving/Shumpert/James/Jefferson/Thompson. It’s a very small sample – it’s just five games. One other warning – this lineup got killed by the very athletic Milwaukee Bucks team (-31.5 pCp), suggesting limits to its effectiveness.

This is probably because that lineup takes advantage of the squad’s athleticism to switch almost everything, something they do in the playoffs but generally shy away from during the regular season because of the energy it requires.

(This is another factor in why the Cavaliers defense is so much worse in the regular season than the playoffs. Others include the more specialized defensive wrinkles and better attention to the strengths /weaknesses of particular players in a series than in the “This is Wednesday so this must be Chicago” regular season world.)

We discovered almost a third of the lineup’s time came against the Knicks, as we were looking for clips, so that also tempers the enthusiasm a tad, however we still like what it offers in terms of rangy quick players with a certain amount of athleticism. (Lue tried this same lineup with Deron “Overdue” Bills replacing Frye and James/Due Bills holding down the frontcourt.)
We pulled some video from the lineup’s game against the Knicks to reiterate a couple points to A/V accompaniment. First, that a bit of Due Bills’ value comes from his ability to hit the three, which is not one of his strengths historically. But if he can sink that three from above the break after the swing-swing with average consistency it will be huge.

Second, note how easily Korver comes open. Williams sets a screen in transition before the opponents has picked up Korver and James finds him on the weakside taking advantage of the out-of-place defender. Then after a corner Frye three, Korver comes over a double screen in transition for an open three. They run a variant on the out-of-bounds play that produced the Frye three, but this time Frye takes the smaller defender on the switch to the hoop. Finally, the Knicks turn their backs on James as they defend the Korver double-screen, which opens the lane to James.

The fact that the team ran each of the plays and its counters successfully showcases the versatility of the scheme and the players alike. Expect to see several variations of this lineup with Deron Williams running it.

Rejoicing For Overdue Bills

Joining in the renaming fun, we passed on D Will I & II in favor of calling Deron “Overdue” Bills because of the season-long need for a backup point guard. Through the year we pondered what damaged goods we might get to fill the hole. Madman Lance Stephenson? Rehabbing Mario Chalmers? The incomparable Jordan Farmar? Finding Overdue Bills under the tree is like expecting to have a Juggalo explain magnets and getting Bill Nye instead.

Though Williams is getting older, he’s put up strong numbers all year for Dallas, and we quivering with anticipation at his ability to provide a second ballhandler and allow James to play off-the-ball as he did when Dellavedova led the second squad. As anyone who’s watched LeBron for any length of time realizes – he makes unstoppable cuts and dives toward the basket – so long as someone gets him the ball, and he’s nearly as dangerous as a rolling screener.
As you can see, he’s been comparable in efficiency to James and Irving on several key play types including spot-up, post-up and the pick and roll. His ability to run the pick-and-roll makes him one of the most well-rounded true points guards James has ever played with.

Add to that the fact that he’s big enough to post-up small guards and is still, even at 32, a decent defender. His DFG percentage is +1.8 this year and was -0.4 last year. By way of comparison Irving is +4.5% this year and was -0.6 last year. Of course there are issues with DFG% so it’s worth noting DRPM (defensive real plus-minus) has Williams ranked 63 of 90 points guards with -1.31 and Irving is 69 with -1.59.

(Somehow Kay Felder is only -0.93 which sort of calls the whole system into question. On the other hand, DeAndre Liggins is +.90, 10th among all guards, which seems about right.)

We have a lot of hope for Williams, despite the defensive questions.

Welcome Our New Aussie Mascot

For nearly as long this season as Cavaliers fans have implored the heavens (aka GM David Griffin) to bring them a point guard, a rival faction has called for a rim protector. The need is fairly obvious and grew in importance when Chris “Birdman” Anderson’s wings were clipped by a season-ending injury.

While many teams lack an effective big to make the Cavaliers pay for using the undersized Tristan Thompson in the middle, there are a few, most notably the San Antonio Spurs, who possess a stable of bigs.

The need’s dictated by Cleveland’s deficiency in the pick-and-roll. They are the worst – no hyperbole, the WORST – team in the NBA at defending ballhandlers allowing .93 ppp (followed by the Suns, Hawks and Trailblazers). They’re also 21st in opponent FG% within 5 feet, allowing 60.3%, though they do at least allow the 12th fewest.

Nobody on the team is great, but Thompson has improved markedly over the years to now where he’s actually pretty effective. TT’s no Rudy Gobert (-13.1 DFG%), Kristaps Porzingis (-12.8) or Draymond Green (-11.8) but Tristan’s not far behind at -10.6%. Last year Thompson was +0.3% and -1.6% the year before. For comparison, Mozgov was -6.9% both years in Cleveland.

Now add to this equation Andrew Bogut. He was -9.6 in 26 games this year and -9.9 the year before in Golden State. He’s a bona fide leviathan who alters shots and knows how to rotate defensively. He’s also 26th in the league in “screen assists” with 3 per game in just 22 minutes/game. It’s not outrageous – Zaza Pachulia has 3.4 per game in three less minutes – but its emblematic of Bogut’s ability to set good hard screens.

He’s also – it probably goes without saying for Cavs fans – is terrific at grabbing or fouling players coming over his screens without getting caught.

However Bogut arrives wearing a Handle With Care tag. After leaving the NBA Finals in Game 5 with a knee injury, he’s struggled with knee and a recurring hamstring problem already this year. While recent cautious Mavericks treatment may have been to preserve a trade asset it’s difficult not to wonder just how “whole” Bogut really is.

He’s struggling offensively where his field goal percentage (47.5%) is his lowest in five years, well off his career rate (53.6%). He’s also blocking just 1.5 shots per 36 minutes, his lowest rate in eight years. Last season for Golden State it was 2.8 blocks per 36 minutes. That’s a helluva drop-off. On the other hand his 13.4 rebounds per 36 is the second best rate of his career, and we all know how badly the Cavs need to improve their rebounding.

One final note of fear: Bogut is shooting 27% from the free throw line, making him a death-defying late game option.

Final Analysis

The new additions pose a challenge for Lue who will soon be balancing a returning J.R. Smith with the recent additions and trying to forge a rotation. Coach Lue likes to experiment which gets into the way of consistent roles at times, but also reveals insight into how he can use them in the playoffs. For the first time since James’ return, the Cavaliers have the type of fully stocked cupboard that allows a coach to mix-and-match according to the opponent’s matchups.

Early returns suggest that Korver will be almost a sixth man. Derrick Williams has earned time though much of it has come with Kevin Love convalescing. It’s unclear how much of a role Due Bills will have when Love returns, though his size and athleticism makes him unique among the bench bigs.

Richard Jefferson has apparently been nursing an injured hand all season, something he revealed in the postgame this weekend. The break afforded him needed rest. He’s shooting 54% the last 10 games, including 37.5% from three, indicating he may have rediscovered his form.

We wish we could say the same about Iman Shumpert, who’s shooting under 30% during the same stretch. If Overdue Bills performs as well as he did with the Mavericks, Shumpert could be odd man out once J.R. Smith returns. Between the Pipe Layer, Korver and Overdue Bills, there just aren’t like to be many minutes to spare.

With all these new pieces the floor product isn’t probably going to take a step backward from its fine February play. And that’s alright. The talent’s there and even if they surrender the top seed during this horrific 12 road game month, the kind of talent and experience on hand should assuage most worries.

We say most worries because this team’s defense scares us shitless. Over the last 15 games they’re allowing 112.5 pCp, 29th in the NBA during that time. It’s one thing to have a middle-of-the-pack defense that you expect to improve during the playoffs while the offense carries you.

Being one of the worst defenses in the NBA won’t go anywhere, no matter how many threes you can make.

We want to give a shout-out to one of our readers, Nathan Maggelet of Akron, who has created a fun little site, You can not only peruse the future Hall of Famer and potential GOAT's historical stats, but see where he projects to land on many all-time lists (points, assists, rebounds, etc.), and even find a prognostication of when he might surpass certain statistical landmarks. It's a fun exercise that helps put his greatness in perspective.

We’ll be on The Ohio State University-Newark Campus on Tuesday signing copies of my book, King James Brings The Land a Crown at Adena Hall Gym (1159 University Drive) from 5:30pm to 7:30pm as part of an event sponsored by the campus bookstore and the student activities group. You can hear us every Monday at 11am on the Defend Cleveland Show talking Cavs with Michael James on WRUW 91.1.

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