Train Kept a Rollin': Cavs Improve to 8-1 by Stinging Hornets

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Paranoia served humans well when a brief lapse of attention or perhaps inopportune small talk could be the difference between making it back to the tribe alive and being tiger finger food. It’s less useful in modern society where the threats are much less immediate and small talk almost unavoidable.

As a result we humans spend way to much time considering hypothetical dangers instead of enjoying the moments of peace and prosperity. This is particular true of Cleveland Cavaliers fans. If you look hard enough you can find some hairline cracks in the hull, that could easily turn into a breech. Yet with an 8-1 record and a humming offense, it feels foul-humored to linger to long on the deficits of what’s been a great start to the season.

Yesterday afternoon the Cavaliers beat the Charlotte Hornets (6-3) 100-93 by winning the fourth quarter 29-20. Both teams were shooting under 40% entering the fourth. Then the Cavaliers made 11-21, including 3-4 by LeBron in the first six minutes of the quarter when the Cavaliers took a lead they’d never relinquish, 86-78 on a three, accounting for 7 of the team’s first 15 points.

Channing Frye closed the deal with three consecutive hoops including his fourth and fifth threes and the Hornets were vanquished. Always a good defensive team, they’ve added veterans with three-point range in Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum, Marco Balinelli and Spencer Hawes the last two years, beefing up one of the worst long-range shooting teams. They’ll be a force to be reckoned with this year, especially with the quick Walker. (The Cavs held him to 3-11 in the second half.)

It’s too early to make much of an 8-1 record one way or another. Sure the Cavaliers set some record for nine consecutive games with 10 or more threes. But we know what regular season records amount to. They’re playing well, but it’s also clear the team is aware this is just the regular season. There’s no sense they’re at the top of their game yet, whatever the results. Their defensive attention (or more precisely physicality) still wanders at times.

As we noted last week, their offensive efficiency’s near the top of the league. They’re currently third at 109.4 points per 100 possessions (pCp). They also have the ninth best defense (101.7 pCp), for the fourth best net efficiency (+7.7 pCp) behind the Warriors (8.3), Hawks (11.2) and Clippers (14.8).

They’re only 11th in effective FG% (eFG%) which is related to the fact that more than 40% of their shots are threes. Lue has said he’s comfortable with that, and indeed the team is shooting 37.1% from three (5th in NBA). Only the Rockets shoot a higher percentage of threes.

While it’s mildly troubling how easily they can fall into shooting threes and not always attacking closeouts, they’ve balanced it pretty well in the early going. The best evidence of that is that despite shooting so many threes, they’re 10th in free throws/game and 15th in free throw rate. Sure, you’d like more free throws, but to be shooting the 2nd most threes and still be shooting an average number of free throws in pretty impressive.

The Cavs are shooting just about as well at the rim as they did last year, and they’re shooting better than last year from 3 (36.2%); the difference is they’re shooting worse on in-between shots (5’-9’) and midrange shots, the latter of which have very few assists, suggesting they’re more dribble pull-ups, generally the least efficient type of offensive shot.
Kyrie Irving (2.7 threes/game), J.R. Smith and Channing Frye (3 apiece) for two-thirds of the team’s threes. That threesome is shooting 41% (8.7-21.3); the rest of the squad is shooting 31% (4.5-14.4). Which is to say there’s still room for improvement shooting-wise, despite their gaudy numbers.

Indeed, the Cavs are only shooting 35% on threes with the defender 4’-6’ away (aka “open”), 12th best in the league. They’re also 12th best (39.1%) when defenders are 6’ or more away (“wide open”), confirming what many had noticed – they’re missing a lot of open threes

(And no open shots aren’t all Dunleavy’s, though he is shooting 23.1% on an 1.4 wide open threes per game. That can’t continue, right?)

LeBron Polishes Secondary Moves

It’s still very early to look at stats and too early for us (anyway) to look at lineup information very intently. However our eyes were hinting at a couple themes that we’ve found some hard evidence of.

The first is LeBron’s changed approach on the floor. While it’s easy to see he’s being more of a facilitator. He started playing off the ball more last year as he began to trust Kyrie to take the scoring mantle (see, “Lue’s attack guard”).

Clearly that’s continued apace. He’s averaging the same number of shots/per game (17.7) he did his last two years in Miami, and he’s averaging more assists than any year in his NBA career (9.1).

More subtly, he seemed to be taking a different variety of shots. Comparing this year to last, we see he’s shooting (2.8%) more catch & shoot attempts, (2.1%) more pull-ups than last year, more 3s from above the break, and more in the paint, but not the restricted area.

This tracks with a tendency we’ve noted and attributed to LeBron working on the second line of his offensive arsenal. His go-to move is still the drive to the front of the hoop, which he did at greater frequency than any time in his career, maximizing those opportunities. But the regular season is a better time for honing other aspects of his game, and with enough trust in his co-stars it seems James is working on some of his less efficient aspects.

Not necessarily successfully yet. You may have noticed James backing players down in the lane more and doing post-up moves. It seems to us on more than a few of these opportunities he could get all the way to the rim, but we suspect he’s re-activating his post-up game on the block from the Miami days.
He’s also working on his jump shot some with a slightly higher percentage of spot-up and post-up moves at the cost of less isolation. Meanwhile his tremendous fastbreaking has only increased in frequency with Lue’s demand for pace, pace and more pace.

He’s not shooting very well on the pull-ups or paint shots not at the rim – but that’s what practice is for. At least his 3-point shooting from above the break (where he gets most of his threes) is up a couple percentage points, and his catch & shoot percentages are terrific.

Love’s Adaptation

It’s hard not to be impressed with Kevin Love on both ends of the floor. The chance to workout in the offseason allowed him to come back with a better sculpted upper body after wearing away most of his size coming to Cleveland where he expected to run more than they did. Now he seems we suited to threaten the three, but still attack closeouts and beat guys to the rim off the bounce, or back them down and score in the post or draw the foul.

Love seems even more willing to drive this year than he has in the past but he’s much much more effective. The numbers bear that out. Last year he was only making 1.3 drives a game and creating .78 points/drive. This year it’s up to 2.3 drives/game and 1.10 points/drive. He’s also averaging 2.9 post possessions/game which he turns into .92 points/post opportunity. Last year he got 3.9 but only turned them in .72 points per chance.

He’s not getting as many paint opportunities as last year (1.8 vs. 2.6) but he’s also not sitting out at the three-point line as much. Last year 45% of Love’s shots were from three. It’s a third lower so far this year (30%). Those are all strong positive signals for Love even if he’s shooting one of his lowest 3-point percentages (33% currently, 36% last year/career).

Probably the most important thing for Love is that he’s getting more than two more shots/game (14.8 vs. 12.7 each of last two years), and 7.6 free throw/attempts a game, less than a free throw off his last three years in Minnesota when he was The Man.

We took a look at last year and this year’s shot charts just to see what they showed for the big three.
Nothing specific jumped out other than how you can see them settling into their preferred areas. Love is getting almost all of his touches on that left side, while most of Kyrie’s success is occurring on the right side of the court, while Jame’s midrange game looks a lot more positive and balanced on both sides of the court, though he clearly likes to operate in the same areas that Love does.

Better Frontcourt Defense

Love has also turned his defense around. It’s apparent watching him, the effort and awareness that was sometimes lacking. Whether it’s the championship, the kudos for The Stop, greater team defensive chemistry, or Channing and RJ in his ear is unimportant, just know that he’s reducing opponents’ 2-point shooting by 4.2%, second best on the team behind LeBron James (-5.9%), and a smidge ahead of J.R. Smith (-4.1%).

On a similar note, Tristan Thompson has continued his surprisingly steady growth as a rim protector. He’s reducing opponents’ shooting within 6’ by 5.4%, compared to improving it by 0.3% last year, and reducing it by 1.6% and increasing it by 1.7% the prior two years.

It’s also worth noting that despite playing just 28 minutes/game he’s defending more shots than anyone in the league (16.7, Draymond Green and Steve Adams next with 16.1 and 15.4 respectively). Tristan’s also blocking 1.7 shots per game, almost triple last year’s (0.6) rate.

Asked about it after a recent game, he explained that there was no specific offseason regimen, just better timing. (We have heard that he softened the rebounding focus in favor of greater rim protection, but that’s nothing he offered.)

Weakness in the Pick & Roll

We were tempted to post some game shots and video from Sunday’s game, but it’s still very early in the season and we don’t feel it’s worth getting worked up about yet. They’ve continued to have trouble bottling up opposing point guards.

This was an issue last year as well when they allowed and average of .81 points per possession (ppp) to ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll, and it accounted for 17.7% of their defensive possessions (according to Synergy Stats, found at That put them at 15th in the NBA
This year the Cavaliers are the worst team in the NBA in this early going allowing .99 ppp and accounting for 18.2% of their defensive possessions. (Plays to the roll man occurred 7.3% of the time and were worth 1.06 ppp, which is 13th in the league. (None of these numbers include yesterday’s came against the Hornets.

The Cavs have faced some very quick, effective point guards in the past few weeks in Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry, Dennis Schroder, John Wall, James Harden and Kemba Walker. On the other hand, that can’t be an excuse because it’s a point guard league, and even if you grant them a little clemency…. we’re talking dead last. That’s not a great starting point.

They’ve had real success putting Iman Shumpert on the point guard this week, first on Wall and yesterday on Walker. He isn’t a bad companion to Kyrie in that he can allow Irving to play off the ball, guarding a less dangerous “2”. Shumpert is hooting lights out, including 50% from three, along with 1.8 steals/game.
Given how well he’s playing and that he doesn’t need to initiate the offense much of the time when on the floor with James and Irving, one wonders if Cleveland man have to consider elevating Shumpert to the starting lineup to alleviate Irving of some of his defensive responsibilities. Of course, this would require an actual backup point guard to emerge from somewhere.

While Shumpert has been from meh to awful in that role, it's not his fault: he is not an NBA-level distributor. Given the desire to push the ball all the time, an actual backup point – even for just 10-14 minutes/game would seem a necessity at some point. The fact that Shumpert has done so well to start the season really almost begs that he be put in a more natural position to succeed.

In the meantime the team will continue to trap when they can to limit the damage on the pick-and-roll. (That's less of an option when Channing is on the floor.) However their weakside rotations seem to be a little slow so that second pass out of the PnR seems to be finding a lot of wide-open shooters.

The inability to stop penetration or effectively corral the roll guy (The Hornets big men got a couple easy ones that way) created a certain inevitability to the open shots that the Hornets sunk. (Charlotte shot 44% on their 41 uncontested shots, 33% on their 54 contested ones.)

In the Final Analysis

It’s something to be aware of, but it shouldn't rise to the level of a concern yet. The team is 8-1, and the offense is sharp. The languid, indifferent energy that plagued them much of last season has largely been squeezed out. Lue was spot-on in believing a faster pace on offense would create more energetic action. The team’s doubled down on his philosophy adding five more possessions a game in pace and last night accumulating 7 secondary (“hockey”) assists by seven different players.

They don’t always look as attentive as you might like, but they know where they’re going, because they’ve been there. And they have the confidence of knowing even if they get off the road and get turned around, they’ve found their way back from 3-1. They can do just about anything. Let’s just hope it doesn’t go to their heads. So far, so good.

Toronto’s in for a return engagement on Tuesday, having lost to the Cavaliers the second game of the season 94-91. They’re 7-2, their lone other blemish a loss to Sacramento a week ago. Pay special attention to Lucas Nogueira who has looked really good and energetic in the last four games after barely playing in the early going. He's a relentless athletic seven-footer who had five block shots and got time ahead of Jonas Valanciunas in crunch time this weekend.

That’s followed by a road game against the Indiana Pacers, who have been without Paul George with a sore ankle and was day-to-day as of Monday. The back-end of the back-to-back on the road is a tough game, but the Pacers haven’t been playing very well and the Cavaliers owned their point guard, Jeff Teague, last year in Atlanta.

We'll be at the Q on Tuesday for the Raptors matchup. We'll be posting live analysis, video and snark. Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne. Also, check out the website,, where we're selling our definitive tale of the Cavaliers' 2016 Championship season. E-books are already available, pre-orders are going on for the hardcover edition, which includes 16 pages of color photos. Tell you friends to visit the easy to remember satellite site,

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