The Cavs Are Cruising; We Break Down Why

The way the Cavaliers beat the Hornets, you feared protective services were going to show up. Charlotte, who lost 129-90, had a playoff team last year, and after a rough start had won 8 out of 9 before running into the woodchipper that is the post-Trade/LeBron R&R Maroon & Gold

Everyone on the Cavs scored and the scrubs played the entire fourth quarter. You kept waiting for them to let up after unleashing a 23-4 scoring torrent for seven minutes midway through the first quarter. That respite never arrived and the Cavaliers kept pummeling the Hornets . On one hand, you’re really proud, and on the other, you hope there isn’t brain damage.

It was such a brutal shellacking, showing more than a few clips could risk this column’s PG-13 rating. However, after suffering through that 1-7 shitshow that preceded this little five-game win streak we feel deserving of a little candy. (Short memories from daily deadlines prevent much of the local media from remembering the team had won 12 of 15 before Varejao went down, a major component of their Chicken Little bit prior to LeBron’s return.)

In the process, we’ll discuss what’s working so well for the Cavaliers.

1. Defense

It has and always will be about defense for the Cavaliers. Not only are championships won with defense but with two great open court scorers in Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, good defense leads directly to points. Further, this isn’t a team that creates a lot of turnovers, at least not yet. (For the season they create 14.3 turnovers game, over the last six games that 13.3.) So it’s more about stops than turnovers.

Now a big narrative we see is about the difference Mozgov has made. There’s no denying it, but it hasn’t showed up where you’d think it would, calling into question the theory a bit. While your eyes may tell you that Mozgov is altering a lot of shots and that’s made a big difference, the stats don’t fully bear that out. Sure he’s getting blocks that are resulting in transition points, like here for Kyrie.

Yet their number of blocks per game since Mozgov’s arrival has dropped from 4 to 3.3/game. So what, he plays more position defense than block shots. Well, for the season the Cavaliers are allowing a 2nd-worst 62.4% within 5 ft, which only drops to 61.4% (good for 4th worst) since T-Mo’s arrival. The number of attempts has gone down a smidge from 28.2 to 27.5, a drop that would take us from 10th to 7th.

They’ve actually been a lot worse at allowing shots from 5-9 feet, at 9.6/gm, 7th worst (though their defensive FG on those has been #10), and this has dropped precipitously to 6.8/gm a 30% drop (allowing about the same FG%). Meanwhile their field goal percentage from 15-19 ft, which for the season is allowing a league WORST 44.2%, has over the last 6 games dropped to 36%, which would be good enough for 2nd in the league if replicated all year.

Now look at the evidence – slightly lower FG% around the rim, and the number of block shots a game has gone down the last six. But what has changed dramatically? The number of times guys get within 10 feet, and how guys shoot from 15-19 ft. Does that sound like better guard play or better center play?

Kyrie Irving, Season vs. last 6 games
% of shots allowed within 6ft: 24.4% vs. 19.7% (2.7 v 2.2)
% of shots allowed within 10ft: 36.2% v. 27.3% (4.0 v. 3.0)
Differential FG%* allowed <6 / <10 / >15 / 3s (season): +6.9% / +8.7% / -.9% / -3.1%
Diff. FG% allowed <6 / <10 / >15 / 3s (last 6 games): -21.4% / -4.4% / -7.2% / +0.1
(*Difference between player’s regular % from that distance and when Kyrie covers him.)

You can certainly see it. Kyrie’s fighting through picks and staying in front of his guy with fervor unseen in his Cavalier career. For the second night in a row his quick hands on defense and J.R. Smith’s quick thinking led to a highlight reel play.

I guarantee you the difference is not J.R. Smith, who in the last six games has offered a 9.3% improvement for anyone shooting on him, which shoots up 28% if you get him within 10 feet of the basket. LeBron has posted a dramatic improvement on the perimeter over his season-long efforts: -11.6% shooting from >15 feet vs. -0.3% for the season. (It’s come at the expense of a higher % allowed within 10 ft. +3.4% since his return vs. -2.4% in roughly the same number of attempts a game.)

So LeBron has definitely turned up his defense on the perimeter, which the eyes can tell us. Here he pressures the Hornets’ Gerald Henderson into a travel.

But the increased intensity that Irving’s brought is pretty much off-the-charts and just what he needs to enter the conversation of the league’s best point guards. His offense is there, his defense is the last thing to come. Questioned about Kyrie’s defensive resurgence, Coach Blatt gave a milquetoast response about liking Kyrie’s defense all season. Pshaw!

But whoever-said-what-to-who-shot-when? is really immaterial. Indeed, the intensity Kyrie’s now bringing in spades ought to be praised, were it not for the unfathomable insistence that he’s been showing this all season. He hasn’t, but he’s showing it consistently every night since LeBron’s return.

If I were prone to sportswriterly conjecture, I’d guess LeBron personally challenged him to step it up (and if so, in a far gentler way than Michael Jordan ever did). But who knows, and really, who cares? He’s playing hard and should be commended because it’s made a huge difference in this team. When Iman Shumpert replaces the porous J.R. Smith on defense, this team could potentially reach an even higher defensive level.

Not that the King is always necessarily focused in – indeed, Kyrie’s defensive intensity may have surpassed James’ as this play from early on demonstrates.

2. Rebounding

It gets passingly mentioned how well the Cavs are rebounding, but the offensive rebounding is absurd, and Mozgov has made a big difference in that. It should be noted that we’re still not a very good defensive rebounding team. Indeed. over the last six games we’ve actually gotten worse, and this is something that bears watching, allowing opponents 27% of offensive boards, up from 25.7%.

That’s a small price to pay for what tap-tappin’ T-Mo brings. Since he’s joined the team, the Cavaliers have jumped from an 11th best 27% offensive rebound rate to 34.8% more than 6.3% better than the league leading Utah Jazz. This has produced 18 second chance points a game since LeBron’s return, versus 12.9 which has us 17th in the league.

Mozgov’s addition has also meant more offensive rebounding opportunities for Kevin Love, who’s getting 1.5 more offensive rebounds the last 6 games compared to the rest of the season.

This is super important because the team isn’t getting extra possessions through their defense – they just don’t force enough turnovers. It also limits the other team’s ability to fast break, help to keep opponent players from leaking out.

3. Offense

The Cavaliers want to play with controlled pace but they barely play with any at all. When they’re humming, the ball gets into the frontcourt quickly, and lately they’ve been able to score off the first or second action, not even requiring a lot of ball movement, so good has their individual play been. Indeed, their % of unassisted plays has gone up to nearly 50% from around 40% where they’re pretty middle of the pack.

The pace has gone up a little, and they’ve started getting more fastbreak points (with fewer turnovers!), jumping 12.5/gm (15th) to 17.5, which is good enough for 4th in the league. Here you can see them pushing right off a basket, displaying the Cavs’ recent aggression pressing the action.

But what’s even more striking his how much. Their eFG% rate (which accounts for more pts for 3s) is up 5 points from 50.6 to 55.2, higher than the Golden State Warriors. Not only that ,but the team is drawing fouls near a league-best rate, jumping from 30% of field goal attempts to 33%, highest in the league.

Give some credit to J.R. Smith. How often can you add a 15 point/game scorer who’s making 40% of his 8(!!) threes a game – Smith’s numbers with the Cavs. (Only Klay Thompson shot more in that stretch.) That includes a sick 44% on catch & shoot 3s. He’s also getting 1.5 steals. His skill allows them to run some action for him as on this play which ultimately features J.R. coming off two screens for a top-of-the-key three.

It does showcase how much Blatt has utilized the additional options his new offensive weapons provide. (To me, it also showcases how dysfunctional Dion Waiters was for the type of offense they’re trying to run, not to mention defense.) Here, Mozgov is especially useful, as a guy who sets punishing picks and can easily roll to the basket, as LeBron’s found. You’d think they were long-lost brothers as quickly as LeBron’s taken to finding him.

The fact that this has come from a combination of things – better pace, offensive boards, and defensive intensity – is encouraging because it means they backslide in one aspect without compromising a finely running machine.

Of course, they ran off 8 straight wins earlier this season. What makes this different is that streak was driven primarily by their offensive prowess and only intermittent defense. The defense the last four games has been suffocating, holding each opponent below 35% in the first quarter in amassing leads they in most cases never looked back from.

For some strange reason, sports reporters always seem to be asking about how things feel or what were you thinking when. Maybe they think they’re “Dr.” Joyce Brothers. Subsequently, their analysis always seems to go back to some emotional turning point, like we’re watching a Hollywood movie, not real life.

In my experience, change happens not all at once, but in dribs and drabs until something is gradually transformed. These small incremental changes may not make as good a story as they went bowling together and suddenly camaraderie was born. Or, the team was bummed out how poorly constructed the lineup is, and that’s why they weren’t playing hard. But these sound like post-hoc explanations fueled by leading questions and a need to fix the evidence to a narrative.

We’re sticking with the idea that Blatt was never in danger, except maybe of falling off Rich Paul’s Christmasmas card list. That the defense which has been missing all year long started to show up when the guys responsible for the point of attack started taking their jobs seriously. (And yes, we’re looking at you Kyrie and you, LeBron, to a much lesser extent.)

There’s no denying it helps adding a center after playing 10 games without a legitimate one – because for all his moxie, Tristan Thompson is simply too small to be a starting center on a championship team, something that was probably equally true of Varejao, and why the team has been seeking Mozgov since June. No big news there.

The got beat several times after losing Varejao, adding several new players and LeBron taking a break to address a sprained back and knee. How is it the explanation is that they had some burning bush moment and not just gotten the right personnel and some practice (during the West Coast trip) to get everyone on the same page?

The feeling here is that the team was starting to gel before Andy’s injury, and took a step back in the wake of that. But with LeBron’s return, and a seriously invigorated Kyrie Irving, not to mention Kevin Love’s continued season-long improvement on defense and a new good shooting scoring guard to replace the lousy shooting Dion, the team’s results started matching the talent.

They’ll receive another test on Sunday when the Oklahoma Thunder bring superstars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and our own former malcontent Dion Waiters to town. They’ve won seven of eleven — all their losses on the road to the Hawks, Rockets, Warriors and Kings, a pretty solid bunch. With the red-hot Pistons and Trailblazers on deck, the next three games should be a good referendum on just how far they’ve come and how consistent they can be.

I’ll be covering the game tweeting live video. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read my column the next day on the Cleveland Scene blog.
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