While champagne corks flew in the Warrior locker room last June, narratives of a valiant Finals performance flew around the runners-up. The popular reasoning for why the Larry O’ Brien trophy currently resides in Oakland is the obvious one: the title-deficient Cavaliers had the odds stacked up against them when 2 of their all-stars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, were deemed too wounded to participate on the NBA’s largest stage. However, a more dissentient narrative began to emerge.
The 2014-2015 Cavaliers were bogged down by ISO-laden mush over and over again. Against the versatile Warriors, who remarkably possessed several players with the uncanny ability to defend multiple positions, that sort of offensive strategy seemed doomed from the start. Instead due to injury, they trotted out a lineup focused on thwarting the Warriors’ offense by suppressing Curry at the 3 point line due to Thompson’s trapping ability and making the MVP work due to Dellavedova’s off-ball defensive prowess from Game 2 onwards. The unit of Dellavedova-Shumpert-James-Thompson-Mozgov allowed the 2nd ranked Warriors to score 93.1 points per 100 possessions, which would have placed them at 29th. Therefore, did this defensive oriented unit actually provide Cleveland with the better opportunity to come out victorious?
While the anachronistic lineup provided GSW with a real scare, it ultimately didn’t possess enough offensive firepower. Obviously, that’s where the absence of Love and Irving plays a role. However, their defensive arsenals don’t contain the aforementioned skill sets that made Curry and GSW sweat. With a combined ~$32.5M allocated to them this year, if Cleveland desires to be considered a legitimate title threat, they need to construct a plan that allows them to executive at a top notch level defensively with Irving & Love on the floor. And they certainly have done that thus far.
After allowing a porous 104.1 points per 100 possession, which placed them 20th defensively, that number has dwindled to 99.1, which has skyrocketed them to 4th*. The return of Irving has not induced a decline in defensive play, as CLE’s DefRtg since the PG’s first game is 99.7*. In order to compensate for a lack of sheer defensive talent, the unit needed to operate as if it is connected by a string and to hinge on unpredictability by showcasing various schemes. Cleveland has mastered both of these elements.
When teams utilize screens, whether it be on or off-ball, in order to foster a 2 on 1 advantage, Cleveland has multiple strategies to snuff the threat. When a ball-handler accepts the on-ball screen, the Cavaliers’ most frequented counter-attack is to have the big man ice or sag back. Rather than allowing for this to be a 2 on 2 encounter, Cleveland has their off-ball defenders relinquish space from their original assignments in order to crowd the roller. This allows the 2 defenders involved in the pick & roll to swarm the ball handler without the worry of the easy pocket pass to the roll man. With the constant horde of defenders impeding the ball handler, Cleveland has only allowed said players to shoot 39% out of the pick and roll.
Thus, encompassing the roll men forces the ball handler to whip the rock to his shooters on the perimeter. If a pass is made, Cleveland’s off-ball defenders are highly cognizant of crowding the ball-handler’s space while maintaining manageable distance from and a straight-line angle to their original defender. Therefore, they’re able to recover and close out the airspace. This awareness has resulted in the Cavaliers surrendering only 21.7 3-point attempts per game, which is the 5th lowest mark.
Irving and James both cover Green on his path to the basket and then recover back to their original assignments.
If the shooter is tremendously potent from deep and thus requires a strong fly-by to convince said shooter from pulling the trigger, the Cavaliers will throw another defender to thwart the shot or drive attempt. Cleveland’s magnificent at “helping the helper”, a huge reason why they give up the 3rd fewest wide-open shots (attempts where the closest defender is >=6 feet away). Not only do they flourish in these situations while orchestrating organized defensive maneuvers, they also provide timely aid for their teammate’s miscues for losing awareness of his man off-ball or surrendering a favorable angle to the offensive player.
Dellavedova gets stuck on Pachulia in transition. But Thompson comes to his help, and Smith plays zone to cover both Matthews and Parsons. Once Pachulia makes his decision, Smith feasts.
Dellavedova and Smith botch the coverage on the Curry back screen. But James picks Livingston up, and Thompson runs James’ original assignment off the 3-point line.
This ability illustrates Cleveland’s inclination to understand what the offense is prone to do and to thus swarm the next most likely receiver. That is also exemplified by how they execute another defensive strategy for the pick and roll: the trap. As mentioned earlier, Thompson’s agility allows him to be awfully effective at extinguishing the ball-handler’s path to the rim 30 feet away from the basket and therefore forcing the ball out of his hands. However, the Cavaliers additionally ensure that the only pass available is the most difficult one aka to the player furthest away from the ball-handler. With Thompson’s pressure, that’s a terribly difficult connection to make even for the most adept playmakers.
Lastly, another defensive scheme that Thompson’s lateral quickness allows Cleveland to tap into is switching the pick and roll. Although Thompson’s not of Draymond Green’s caliber, he is competent enough where with some help, an area in which the Cavaliers have proven to be very proficient, the switch can pose to be tremendously effective. Not only does Thompson partake in switches, one will see Cleveland have their perimeter defenders, primarily Lebron James, switch off ball movement as well. It forces the offense to settle to isolation play when they were expecting to rely on ball movement to generate an open look, which again exemplifies why the Cavaliers flourish in forcing opposing offenses to hoist contested shots.
Thompson switches multiple actions, which eventually results in this contested fadeaway from Porter.
If the Cavaliers are to return to the Finals and are healthy, they will naturally be deemed to have greater odds to capture their elusive championship. As we noticed against their pathetic performance against the Warriors on MLK day, there are certainly some large chinks in their defensive armor. However, the overall improved play on that side of the ball will still exponentially enhance those chances.
*Since written before MLK day, all stats are pertaining to play prior to the GSW game.