Is It Too Late for the Cleveland Cavaliers to Fix Their Struggling Defense?
By historical standards, the defending champion Cavs aren't playing title-worthy defense. Can they turn things around in the NBA playoffs?
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the defending NBA champions. They are also the owners of the eighth-worst defensive rating in the league.
That ranking may be an important indicator of how likely—or, in this case, unlikely—Cleveland is to repeat, given that the last team to win a title without a top-ten DRTG was the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers. Like those Lakers, the Cavs are defined by a dominant offense and a knack for playing on cruise control during the regular season. Unlike those Lakers, however, the Cavs haven't improved their defense over the month of March, and show no signs of turning a corner heading into the postseason.
Indeed, Cleveland doesn't appear anywhere close to being a good defensive squad. The Cavs have held opponents under 100 points just three times since March 1. They have the NBA's second-worst DRTG over the same span. They've had a handful of high-profile matchups against San Antonio, Chicago, Miami, and Washington, and in each game they were run off the court.
As the playoffs approach, let's take a closer look at why Cleveland is struggling on defense:
The Cavs' defensive issues begin in transition. John Wall feasted on Cleveland in the open court a few weeks ago, with 15 of his 37 points coming on fast breaks. For reference, only six teams average at least 15 fast-break points per game.
Some of the Cavs' struggles in transition are due to a lack of effort and focus, a recurring theme when digging into Cleveland's overall defensive shortcomings. But much of the blame can be placed on personnel. The Cavs have a lot of bad backcourt defenders, particularly at point guard. Kyrie Irving often puts up little or no resistance against opposing point guards with a head of steam, while Deron Williams simply isn't mobile or quick enough to contain some of the league's speedier guards. Watch how little resistance Wall gets from those two:
Cleveland also is not very sharp with rotations and switches, and that's especially apparent in transition, where defenders are forced to make quick reads at full speed. Below, watch how J.R. Smith allows the ball to get below the three-point line before he steps up to stop penetration, the first sin on the play. Tristan Thompson attempts to hedge the pick-and-roll, his typical assignment for ball screens at the top of the key, but since the ball is already near the free-throw line, the hedge is pointless, allowing a wide-open LaMarcus Aldridge to roll to the rim:
In the next clip, Williams does a nice job of keeping his body in front of the offensive player and preventing the fast-break layup—but with Richard Jefferson trailing the play, Smith is forced to help off of the wing to tag Jason Smith at the free-throw line. J.R. is completely turned around as he sinks to tag Jason, with his back to his man out on the wing. He then makes a pointless reach for the ball before having to turn all the way back around to close out on a wide-open Bradley Beal. Too late:
Jefferson could have made this play much easier on Smith and read the rotations sooner, but the possession was doomed once J.R.'s feet were scrambled. In the same clip, Kyle Korver also gets inexplicably turned around; he just wasn't the one exposed on that play. For championship contenders, these sorts of tiny details matter—and with two weeks left in the regular season, the Cavs' defensive footwork is light-years away from playoff form.
Despite their deficiencies in transition, the Cavs still rank No. 16 in opponent fast-break points per 100 possessions, and No. 20 in opponent points off of turnovers. Those numbers aren't elite, but they also mean Cleveland isn't getting completely killed in transition.
On closer review, however, there's another problem cropping up as a result of the Cavs' transition woes. Per inpredictable.com, Cleveland ranks No. 19 in DRTG on possessions following defensive rebounds and turnovers, but rises to No. 11 in DRTG on possessions following made baskets. Why are the Cavs significantly worse on plays when their defense isn't set?
One possibility: Cleveland relies heavily on cross-matchups. While LeBron James plays the second-most minutes per game in the NBA, the Cavs try to preserve his energy during the regular season by hiding him in weaker offensive players. Cleveland also tries to hide Kevin Love and Irving whenever possible, switching the former onto the weakest opposing pick-and-roll player, and the latter onto the weakest opposing guard.
The Cavs have very few two-way players. Iman Shumpert is used primarily as a defensive stopper, and is hit or miss (usually miss) on the offensive end of the floor. Channing Frye, Korver, and Irving are excellent on the offensive but liabilities on defense; Frye and Korver in particular get targeted in pick-and-rolls and isolations whenever they're on the floor.
How does this tie into transition defense? Almost every Cleveland lineup features one player who needs to be covered for on the defensive end, and that leads to a lot of cross-matching. When opponents sprint up the floor, it's less likely that the Cavs will be able to rearrange defenders into favorable matchups, and more likely that the team's subpar defenders will be exploited.
Cleveland lacks a rim protector. The front office brought in Andrew Bogut and Larry Sanders as last-ditch band-aids, but Bogut played all of a minute for the Cavs before breaking his leg, and Sanders is still shaking off retirement rust in the D-League. (It's anyone's guess if he'll be able to contribute in a playoff series after not playing high-level hoops for years. Perhaps Jusuf Nurkic's revival in Portland provides hope that rim intimidation isn't as affected by rust, or timing, or being out of shape as other basketball skills.)
As such, Cleveland plays an aggressive defensive scheme: if you can't stop opponents at the rim, try to disrupt them before they get there. As the season has worn on, however, this strategy has produced diminishing returns; since January, the Cavs' steal rate has plummeted:
The Cavs also hedge pick-and-rolls in order to keep speedy guards from getting into the paint with a head of steam. Problem is, Love is often the player hedging, and he isn't particularly fleet of foot when fully healthy, never mind when he's working his way into game shape after missing six weeks for mid-season knee surgery. Speed is essential when hedging—the defender has to read where the screen will occur, and jump out in front of the play at the exact right moment. Jump too soon, and the pick-setter will slip the screen for an easy roll; jump too late and the guard will split the hedge and drive into the teeth of the defense.
In the clip below, Love is a bit late on the hedge, and Irving doubles down on Cleveland's disadvantage by being completely late fighting through in order to pick Wall up on the other side. The entire point of hedging is that it forces the ball handler to take a longer route than the defender, thereby making it easier for the defender to keep pace—only somehow, Irving still manages to get beat:
When Love is able to wall off the drive, he is still too slow to recover back to his man in time to prevent the pass over the top:
Cleveland's opponents go to this action a lot when Love is on the floor. In this clip, Manu Ginobili doesn't even fake that he's trying to come off of the screen. He knows from the start that Love will hedge, and that Pau Gasol will be open on the roll. This was a set play to start the half and it got the desired result, even though James made a solid rotation to prevent the easy dunk:
The Spurs opened their throttling of Cleveland last Monday by putting Tristan Thompson in the same pick-and-roll at the top of the key; similar to the clip above, they knew exactly where the play was going before it began. Kawhi Leonard waits for the hedge, and then throws the pass to the rolling big; this time, the Cavs make one more read. Love steps up to contest the roll, but Irving is a second too slow. As a result, Dewayne Dedmon gets the easy slam. And this was the first play of the game!
Most teams work their way toward defensive cohesiveness over the course of the regular season; by the time the playoffs arrive, all five guys on the floor are on the same page. The Cavs, however, still suffer basic communication breakdowns on almost every play. Watch how James and Frye misread this fairly straightforward double high screen-and-roll:
James appears to point at Frye to warn him that Ian Mahinmi is about to roll to the rim, but inexplicably follows Mahinmi rather than closing back out to his man on the wing. Washington's play call is simple and, in a way, brilliant; it takes advantage of the Cavs' inability to communicate and understand their assignments in real time. Smith fakes the roll to create the "switch," but then immediately cuts back to the wing as Mahinmi rolls, fostering defensive confusion.
Even when the Cavs "lock in" on the defensive end, their defense only improves from a complete sieve to a leaky bucket. They can force opponents to make two, three, sometimes even four passes, but their focus and execution seems to fade the more the ball moves.
In the clip below, Cleveland was coming out of halftime down by 20 points to San Antonio and desperate to claw back. The Cavs opened with a few nice defensive possessions and started this possession with a dozen great closeouts, rotations, and recoveries—only to throw it all away in the final three seconds of the shot clock:
Plays like this aren't rare. This is the level the Cavs reach at their peak. In the clip below, Cleveland has successfully defended for half of the shot clock; Leonard is falling out of bounds, and the Cavs are in a perfect shell around the offense. But Irving inexplicably fails to cut off the kickout pass and then uses horrible defensive footwork to make a 360-degree turn on the closeout, all of which leads to an easy blow by and layup:
Irving's defensive footwork is consistently poor. Here, he fails to keep his butt to the baseline on the help side and loses sight of his man, Kelly Oubre. He doesn't call out the weak-side exchange, either, and by the time Williams notices, Oubre is sprinting past him for the rebound:
In the clip below, watch Irving mosey back into the play, only to assume his job is to stand at the free-throw line and watch as his four teammates scramble to defend five guys:
James is a much better defender overall, but he is equally inconsistent in his effort. In this clip, he completely ignores the box-out and allows Oubre to waltz in for the easy putback. Oubre had two of these in the final six minutes of close game:
James' inconsistencies are even more maddening since he is the Cavs' leader as well as one of the league's smartest players. Here, he calls out the Wizards' play well in advance, and prompts Love to switch so that he can take the pick-and-roll assignment. James then completely cuts off the ball handler, forcing him into an unfavorable pass—only to quit on the play, miss his rotation to the corner, and then miss the box-out, giving up the putback as time expires:
The good news for the Cavs? They almost certainly will shift into a higher defensive gear once the postseason starts. Their core players likely will be healthy, and their rotation will shrink, with Frye and Korver playing fewer minutes. Moreover, the Eastern Conference isn't particularly strong; Cleveland may be able to use the playoffs to round into defensive form, at least before a Finals rematch with Golden State or a showdown with another Western contender like the Spurs.
That said, a higher gear might not be enough. Right now, the Cavs are so far from playing championship-caliber defense that it's fair to wonder if they can get there in time. If they can't, they'll have to win as a Lakers-like outlier. Maybe they will. Maybe they won't. I wouldn't bet against James, but I wouldn't bet against precedent, either. History indicates that teams this porous don't suddenly figure things out in June.
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