RealGM Basketball

Cleveland Cavaliers BlogCleveland Cavaliers Blog

Cleveland's Blind Spot: Contenders Without A Top-10 Defense

The Cleveland Cavaliers will have no trouble scoring at an efficient rate with offensive talents like LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving sharing the floor. The real question is how good will the Cavaliers be on defense, particularly their interior defense?

Anderson Varejao is currently slated to start at the five and will be asked to provide a much-needed interior presence. He provides the Cavaliers with the high-energy type of player that they desperately need. The havoc he initiates on the defensive end will be a menace for opposing offenses down in block. Besides being a notorious flopper, Varejao has a knack for grabbing rebounds. Last year, he was the ninth best per 48-minute rebounder.

Varajao has had trouble staying on the floor, having only played in 146 out of a possible 328 games over the past three seasons. Varejao is entering his 11th season and closing in on 32, which makes it unrealistic to expect him to play more than 60 games.

Tristan Thompson will be coming off the bench for either Love or Varajao as a backup big, and looked upon to provide a tough interior presence. The knock on Thompson has been his inability to consistently play as a key contributor in the paint. Through Thompson’s three seasons in the league, his block rate has fallen from 3.3 to 2.2 to 1.1. It will be interesting if his initial success as a rookie in this area can be found again as he can expound more energy and agressiveness on that side of the floor.

David Blatt appointed Brendan Haywood as the team’s rim protector. For a big man entering the age of 34 and his foot injury that sidelined him all of last year, Haywood providing any sort of rim protection on a consistent basis would be absolutely absurd.

Even when James was playing in Miami, he did not win his first ring until they upgraded their rim protector from Joel Anthony to Chris Andersen. Just this past season, the Heat recorded their best defensive efficiency of 100.6 with Andersen on the court, and their third worse efficiency of 104.3 with Birdman on the bench per NBA.com. 

One of the main reasons Love was never able to reach the playoffs in the Western Conference was because he wasn't paired with a shotblocker. Similar to 2011 when Nowitzki had Tyson Chandler as his counterpart, it is impossible to play championship caliber defense without a rim protector. Last season, the Timberwolves ranked 29th in points allowed in the paint—2nd worse in NBA—at 46.1.

Over the past decade, only three teams to reach The Finals finished outside the top-ten of defensive efficiency. The 2006 Heat and Mavericks posted defensive efficiency rankings of 17 and 12 respectively. Last year, the Heat were only the third Finals participant to not finish in the top-ten, with a 102.9 defensive efficiency rating and 11th ranking. 

Assembling a championship caliber roster and reaching The Finals in the first year is a daunting task. The Cavaliers certainly have the pieces and talent to win at least 12 games in the playoffs, but the expectations to win without the proper personnel of a quality shotblocker is a challenge without a precedent.

Cavs Enter Win-Now Mode With A Machine Of An Offense

In the end, with LeBron James in his prime and the Eastern Conference wide open, the Cleveland Cavaliers went with the sure thing rather than rolling the dice on building a team with LeBron and a bunch of under-22 players. Trading Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a future No. 1 for Kevin Love not only dramatically improves the Cavs short-term prospects, it also accelerates the timetable for the rest of the team and puts them firmly in win-now mode.

After spending the first seven years of his career with a paucity of talent around him, LeBron’s charmed life continues, as he goes directly from a Big Three in Miami to a Big Three in Cleveland. While neither Love nor Kyrie Irving have ever made the playoffs, they have already combined to make five All-Star appearances and both are under the age of 26. The Cavs are now one of the favorites to win a title, although they still need to figure out the rest of their rotation.

On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest plus is the absurd amount of spacing they can put on the floor. Three-point shooting is the most important thing that players in LeBron’s supporting cast need to have and Cleveland has the winner of the three-point shoot-out in 2011 (James Jones), 2012 (Love) and 2013 (Kyrie). Instead of receiving the brunt of the defensive attention as the primary option on offense, Love and Kyrie will get a diet of open looks.

While they will have to adjust to having the ball in their hands less often, they should be able to make up for taking a fewer number of shots by increasing their overall efficiency. Last season, Kyrie averaged 17.5 field goal attempts and shot 43% while Love averaged 18.5 field goal attempts and shot 46%. In contrast, while playing next to LeBron in Miami, Dwyane Wade shot 54% on 14 field goal attempts and Chris Bosh shot 52% on 12 field goal attempts.

By the end of their fourth season together, the Heat’s Big Three had become a well-oiled machine, moving in unison and creating efficient looks at the basket on almost every possession. Here’s what should frighten the rest of the NBA - on paper, the offensive games of Love, Kyrie and LeBron fit better. Wade has never been a good three-point shooter while Bosh only added it to his game last season. Kyrie took five 3’s per game last season and Love was at 6.6.

The player in Cleveland who will have to make the biggest adjustment is Dion Waiters, as he goes from a second option to a guy who will struggle to get a consistent amount of shots on a nightly basis. Mario Chalmers, the fourth option in Miami, averaged only 7.7 field goal attempts a game, half of what Waiters averaged (14.3). If Waiters can’t improve as a decision-maker and a defensive player, he may end up coming off the bench and playing as a sixth man.

Upfront, Anderson Varejao should be a good complement to Love and LeBron with his ability to crash the glass and move without the ball. While he isn’t a great outside shooter, the amount of space that Cleveland can play it should make that a non-issue and he should make a killing rolling to the rim on the pick-and-roll. The question is whether he will make sense on the defensive side of the floor, as he’s never been a shot-blocker in his time in the NBA.

The defensive side of the ball is where the questions are and that’s where David Blatt will have to earn his paychecks. LeBron is the only player in their current starting five with much of a reputation as a defensive stopper and he took a step back in that department in the regular season, as he seemed to be conserving some of his energy and not going all-out on a nightly basis. With the personnel around him, he may not be able to do that in Cleveland. 

That’s why one of their most important additions might be Shawn Marion, as he can come off the bench and defend a number of different positions. While his defensive numbers began to slip last season in Dallas, he was being asked to carry the team on that side of the floor, too much of a burden for a guy in his 15th season in the NBA. As a 20-25 minute player with the Cavs, Marion could be invaluable as a guy who can plug up any holes that spring up on defense. 

Going forward, as Cleveland tries to build a roster around their new Big Three, the most important qualities they will need are guys who can spread the floor and defend their position. That’s the only way they will be able to compete with the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder - teams who can put lineups on the floor without a weak link on either side of the ball. As is, come playoff time, Blatt will have to juggle offense and defense off each other.

If the Cavs can’t find a rim protector, which won’t be easy given the amount of money they have committed to LeBron, Kyrie and Love, they can’t afford to have too many holes on defense. While the combined length and athleticism of Wade, LeBron and Bosh allowed the Heat to play small and clean up a lot of mistakes, that won’t be an option in Cleveland. Kyrie has a 6’4 wingspan, Love has a 6’11 wingspan and neither is a plus athlete for their position at the NBA level.

One of the biggest reasons for the Heat’s ability to hit the ground running was that LeBron, Wade and Bosh were elite players on offense and defense, which gave them a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of setting their line-ups and filling out the rest of their roster. LeBron is LeBron, but he will need help on both sides of the ball to win championships. How good can Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love be on defense? That’s what the Cavs ceiling will be.

LeBron Opens Up His Own Finishing School In Northeast Ohio

With LeBron James going home, the Cleveland Cavaliers' odds for a title are up to 9/2. It's an ambitious goal for next season, but they do have a stunning amount of talent. They could start a No. 1 overall pick at four positions - Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, LeBron and Anthony Bennett. Kyrie is 22, Bennett is 21 and Wiggins is 19. If they allow those three to grow next to LeBron, all they have to do is find a C. There's no rush - this could be the start of something special.

LeBron is not headed for a steep decline. At 6'9 260, he's one of the biggest and most skilled players in the league and he turns 30 in December. He can be a starter on an elite team for another decade - Karl Malone started on a team that went to the NBA Finals at 40. As long as LeBron stays healthy, the window is open. Instead of doing everything to maximize winning a championship over the next 2-3 seasons, they could try to win titles for the next decade.

If you were trying to win right away, the move would be to trade for Kevin Love. They could start with an offer of Bennett and Dion Waiters, but they would probably need to include Wiggins. The problem is that it would be hard to give up on a guy like Wiggins so early in his career. In 7-8 years, Wiggins will be the same age as Love as is now. When LeBron starts to enter his late 30's, Wiggins could conceivably be the guy he hands the reigns of the franchise too.

That’s what the end game could be for LeBron - not to bring one title to Cleveland, but to bring a franchise that could compete for titles well into the future. When LeBron watched the San Antonio Spurs dismantle the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, he saw what to strive for. He grabbed the best players of his generation four years ago - this time around, he's trying to get the best players of the next generation. This is his chance to be on a franchise like the Spurs.

If he stayed in Miami, he would have constantly been in a race against time. He's already watched Wade decline in front of his eyes and Bosh is beginning the downswing of his career. The Heat didn't have a lot of young talent and not much cap space to add more. They would have been getting worse every year and LeBron couldn’t stem the tide alone. In Cleveland, the tide is reversed. As he gets older, all the young guys around him will be getting better.

There are questions about the other No. 1 overall picks, but they would all be so much better next to LeBron. The same can be said for Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson - LeBron could get all these guys careers on the right track. To me, the idea should be as much size, athleticism and shooting ability around LeBron as possible, which means Wiggins, at 6'8 200 with a 7'0 wingspan, and Bennett, at 6'8 240 with a 7'1 wingspan, as the two guys next to him.

After the draft, Cavs GM David Griffin said he saw Wiggins as a big SG, where he has a dramatic size and athletic advantage over everyone he would face. The problem was that unless he was playing with a wing who was even bigger and more athletic than him, he would always get the opposing team's longest and most athletic perimeter defender anyway. Next to LeBron, that problem is solved. The potential of LeBron and Wiggins on the wings is absurd.

Waiters has the chance to be a very good player in this league, but he's a smaller SG who takes the ball out of Wiggins hands and push him down a spot in the line-up. Thompson, meanwhile, doesn't fit the way the NBA is going - he's an undersized power forward who can't protect the rim or shoot 3's. Waiters and Thompson would both be best suited for reserve roles, which means Cleveland could have a team with two No. 4 picks coming off the bench.

Bennett is another guy whose career could be transformed next to LeBron. As a combo forward, he was trapped between positions a bit, but that’s no big deal when you are playing with one of the most versatile defenders of all-time. He has lost a lot of weight, which was one of the main things holding him back in his disastrous rookie season. If he can shoot like he did at UNLV, he would be very overqualified in the role of Shane Battier or Rashard Lewis.

The main questions about Kyrie are his defense and distribution, but that’s no longer an issue. He can play the Mario Chalmers role, spotting up off the ball and living off the attention LeBron draws. To give a scorer that gifted so many open shots is almost unfair. One thing that made LeBron so deadly in Miami was his ability to get guys like Mike Miller rhythm 3's - an elite shooter is not going to miss often when can set his feet and get a good look at the basket.

The biggest concern is at center, the one position where they don't have a No. 1 overall pick. Anderson Varejao is a good player, but he doesn't give them a lot of size or rim protection, which could end up being their Achilles heel in the playoffs. With so many young guys next to LeBron, they will need a guy who can clean up mistakes. Whether it's dealing some combination of Waiters and Thompson or it's cap space in the next few years, they need to find a two-way center.

There are an awful lot of ifs between the Cavs and being a perennial title contender, but that's why LeBron is there. As he said in his open letter, he can make their young guys better. There wasn't anything he could teach Wade and Bosh - they were his peers. Kyrie, Wiggins, Bennett, Waiters, Thompson - these are guys who were in middle school and high school when he entered the NBA. LeBron could pay it forward in Cleveland and reap a tremendous reward.

In essence, he could run the best finishing school in the NBA, sacrificing the front end of his second stint with the Cavs to extend out the back. Tim Duncan is winning titles at 38 because he is playing with guys in their early 30's and 20's - you stay young by surrounding yourself with younger players. And if the Cavs become the Spurs, it's because LeBron was Duncan and Gregg Popovich in one person. That's what’s on the table for him in Cleveland.

The Human Element

The best players in the sport have transitioned from supermen to businessmen to being a business, man, at the same time the league as a whole transitioned from family owned teams to major enterprises. Like it or not, this NBA should be around for a long, long time.

NBA Mock Draft, Version 1.0

With the Cavaliers, Bucks, 76ers, Magic and Jazz owning the first five picks, we can begin to examine what will go into the decision-making process of the the first 14 selection.

On Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland's Favorite Son

Zydrunas Ilgauskas choosing to live in Cleveland in retirement is why nobody questioned retiring his jersey even if the rest of the nation raised a cocked eyebrow for honoring a historically mid-level talent. He’s the most beloved Cleveland athlete of the last 25 years, with only Indians great Jim Thome in the argument.

Why It's Too Early To Write Off Anthony Bennett

Anthony Bennett admitted to be being "as surprised as anyone else" when he was drafted first overall by the Cavaliers and the start of his rookie season demonstrated why. The undersized power forward is gradually starting to show flashes of the athletic talent that made him look like a lottery pick last June.

The Eastern Conference At The Deadline

The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).

Why The Cavaliers' Model Continues To Setup Failure

The logic of the Cavaliers trading for Luol Deng is entirely backwards. Cleveland seems to think making the playoffs proves they are a legitimate NBA franchise. The reality is you can miss the playoffs and be a legit franchise and you can make the playoffs and not be one.

Fix It: Cleveland Cavaliers

While the Cavaliers may lose a lot of games again this year, it is not for lack of trying, as they have paired their high draft selections with quality free agents in order to propel themselves toward the playoffs. They may not make it this year, but this team’s time is coming.

C.J. Miles Enjoying Shooting Role On Young Cavaliers

C.J. Miles is off to the best start of his career, averaging over 13 points and supplying Mike Brown with a potent shooter to surround Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack. The Cavaliers held an option on the final year of Miles’ deal this season, but exercising it was a formality and he’s cozied into playing part in the team’s core.

The Marquee Non-National Teams To Watch

While there are no direct criteria, my non-national teams have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

Top-10 Lottery Teams That Could Make The 2014 NBA Playoffs

The Pelicans, Raptors, Pistons, Wolves, Cavaliers, Blazers, Wizards, Mavericks, and maybe even the Kings and Bobcats could find their way into the playoffs if a number of things go right.

Top-Five 2nd-Favorite Teams

In an NBA so rich with talent and intriguing storylines, how can you limit yourself to just one team? These five squads deserve second billing in your hearts and remote-holding hands.

Cavaliers' 2014 Salary Cap Outlook

This season should provide the Cavaliers with plenty of opportunities to analyze the talent they have on roster, which will be necessary since they will need to make some tough calls if they want to preserve enough cap space to sign LeBron James outright.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

Cavaliers Moving Past Being Defined By LeBron's Departure

The luck of the lottery, combined with the Cavaliers' young talent has made the ending with James easier to move on from. These days, the disappointment of that situation is a memory more than a motivating factor for Cleveland.

Older Blog Posts »


Basketball Wiretap Headlines

    NBA Wiretap Headlines

      NCAA Wiretap Headlines

        MLB Wiretap Headlines

          NFL Wiretap Headlines

            NHL Wiretap Headlines

              Soccer Wiretap Headlines