HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Cleveland Cavaliers are a brand new team. LeBron James is coming home and Kevin Love is coming soon.
The pair joins a roster that went 57-107 over the last two seasons, with a point guard that’s thought of as a star, other unproven young guys, and a pair of centers that have dealt with injuries.
It’s up to new head coach David Blatt to bring it all together on both ends of the floor. But it’s also on the players to make the necessary adjustments so that the whole isn’t less than the sum of the parts. The Miami Heat didn’t quite figure out their identity until the end of their second season together, and they didn’t have as many players who were used to having the ball in their hands.
Who’s taking a back seat?
The Cavs will now have four guys – James (5th), Love (9th), Kyrie Irving (13th) and Dion Waiters (22nd) – who ranked in the top 25 in usage rate last season. At least two of those guys are going to have to say goodbye to the basketball.
Usage rate = Percentage of his team’s possessions that a player ended (via field goal attempts, free throw attempts, assists and turnovers) while he was on the floor.
In a chat at USA Basketball camp in Las Vegas last week, Waiters admitted that he’s still more comfortable with the ball in his hands. But he acknowledged that things are going to change now.
“I got to find a way to score,” Waiters said, “and I got to find ways to make the team better if I don’t have the ball.”
But Waiters should be more prepared for an adjustment than Irving. When the two shared the floor last season, it was Waiters’ usage rate that took a dip (from 29.5 percent to 24.4 percent). Irving’s usage rate actually went up a tick in those minutes.
Waiters can also look at his SportVU numbers to know that he can play off the ball. He was a very good shooter off the catch last season, but not so much off the dribble. His catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage (41.6 percent) was right with the Spurs’ Danny Green (41.5 percent).
Irving, meanwhile, is a rare breed, a guy who shot better off the dribble than off the catch. According to SportVU, Irving’s pull-up 3-point percentage (40.9 percent) was better than Kevin Durant‘s (40.7 percent) and Stephen Curry‘s (39.3 percent).
High-usage Cavs, 2013-14 3-point shooting, via SportVU
Rk1 = Rank among 86 players who attempted at least 50 pull-up 3-pointers
Rk2 = Rank among 166 players who attempted at least 100 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers
Rk3 = Rank among 74 players who attempted at least 50 pull-up threes and 100 catch-and-shoot threes
Yes, that’s LeBron James ranking No. 2 in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage. Of the 166 guys who attempted at least 100 catch-and-shoot threes last season, only Kyle Korver (49.9 percent) was better. So, James will likely be better at playing off of Irving than Irving will be at playing off of James.
But James is also the best finisher in the league. And, according to SportVU, the Heat scored 1.32 points per James drive last season, the fourth highest mark among 166 players who drove at least 100 times. Nobody in the league puts more pressure on the opposing defense when he’s attacking the rim.
So James isn’t taking a back seat to anyone. As a floor-spacing big, Love is a perfect complement offensively. Mike Miller played 82 games last season and shot 45.9 percent (seventh of 166) on catch-and-shoot threes. And Waiters should also be fine playing off the ball, though he said last week that he’ll be watching some Dwyane Wade film to see how to make better cuts to the basket. Wade is one of the worst 3-point shooters in NBA history, but still found a way to play off James.
“You can’t be one-dimensional,” Waiters said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll watch film, watch the things D-Wade did. It helped him.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s going to work out. I just got to make those cuts and try to play the right way.”
But it’s Irving that has a much bigger adjustment to make. Not only did he shoot poorly off the catch last season, but the Cleveland offense was more efficient with back-up point guard Matthew Dellavedova on the floor (104.7 points scored per 100 possessions) than with Irving on the floor (101.7).
Dellavedova was also pretty good (39.2 percent) on catch-and-shoot threes. The 23-year-old Australian went undrafted, but Blatt likes him, and he could be a key piece on a contender in just his second season.
Irving and James will need time together to develop chemistry, but Blatt should consider staggering their minutes, so they each get time to work without the other.
Either way, the Cavs should certainly be a top-five offensive team. And if things come together right, they could rank No. 1 on that end of the floor.
How well will they defend?
It’s defense that will ultimately determine just how good the Cavs will be. Miami’s offense was pretty ridiculous last season, recording the highest effective field goal percentage in NBA history for the second straight year. But they fell off defensively, ranked 11th on that end of the floor, and couldn’t stop the Spurs’ attack in The Finals.
It was James’ worst defensive season since before he was ever an MVP, in part because Wade wasn’t always there (playing just 58 games) to help carry the offensive load. With Irving and Love to help with the offense, James can put more energy on D.
But the defense starts with Irving at the top. Not only was the Cavs’ offense better with Dellavedova on the floor last season, the defense was much better.
Rim protection is just as important as on-the-ball defense. And in that regard, the Cavs have a questionable frontline. Love is a terrific rebounder, but not a guy who alters shots. Of 94 players who defended at least four shots at the rim per game in 40 games or more, only three allowed a higher field goal percentage. One of them was Love’s new back-up, Tristan Thompson.
Anderson Varejao is a good pick-and-roll defender, but doesn’t defend the rim all that well either. And he’s played just 146 games over the last four seasons (235 fewer than James). Brendan Haywood is more of a rim-protecting center, but missed all of last season with a broken foot.
(Speaking of injuries, Waiters said he’s lost about 15 pounds, from 230 to 215, having cut “the candy, the pizza, the chips” from his diet and “really getting after it” with his workouts. That could help him with his defensive quickness, but he says his main goal is to “get through a whole season without missing any games.” He wants to arrive at camp at about 210 pounds.)
Under Mike Brown, the Cavs did show defensive improvement last season, moving up to 17th in defensive efficiency from 27th in Byron Scott‘s last season. Blatt had defensive success with the Russian National Team. And James is obviously a defensive upgrade over any small forward they’ve had in the four years since he left.
But, for the Cavs, the path to a top-10 ranking on defense isn’t as clear as it is on offense. Historically, defense has been more important than offense when it comes to title contention. So how quickly the Cavs learn a new system and build chemistry on that end of the floor will be a more critical development than how well their stars play off each other offensively.