Fixing defensive downfalls remains job No. 1 for Cavaliers

VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses what the Cavs must do to shore up their defense

CLEVELAND – It sounded like the old Steve Martin joke, advising people how to be a millionaire and never pay taxes (“First, get a million dollars. Then…”). Someone asked Gregg Popovich how he and his San Antonio coaching staff get players not known for their defense to “buy in” to the Spurs’ system so they uphold that team’s stingy reputation.

“I don’t bring anybody in like that,” Popovich said after the Spurs’ shootaround session Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena. “Except maybe [Marco] Belinelli. He’s trying.”

Even the trigger-happy Belinelli got vetted through Tom Thibodeau‘s five-guys-on-a-string tactics in Chicago for a year before Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford signed him in July 2013.

The Cavaliers imposed no such prohibitions when they came together this offseason, parts being bolted around LeBron James in a flurry of trades and free-agent acquisitions. The incumbent backcourt of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters had no particular defensive chops. Power forward Kevin Love racks up formidable rebounding numbers but otherwise hadn’t shown much defensive proclivities. Center Anderson Varejao is energetic and aggressive in the paint, but Love and Tristan Thompson aren’t bonafide rim protectors. Shooters Mike Miller and James Jones are, well, shooters. And even James’ defense seemed to slip a notch in his last season with Miami.

Through nine games, Cleveland’s defensive rating of 108.3 was tied for fifth-worst in the league. That’s not just worse than his Heat team’s performance last season (102.9), it’s worse than the 2013-14 Cavaliers managed (104.8) on their way to a 33-49 record.

The Cavs have given up 100 points or more seven times, and their defensive effective field-goal percentage of .536, which adjusts for the premium on 3-pointers, is third-worst in the NBA, better only than the Lakers (.551) and Minnesota (.559). The breakdowns in Cleveland’s schemes are clear, from zone coverage to pick-and-roll misdirections to some poor or lazy individual habits.

So while everyone has focused on the blending of offensive styles and responsibilities of James, Love, Irving and the rest, Cleveland opponents have found it awfully easy to score – a flaw the Cavaliers can’t afford to ignore.

“I don’t think it’s something you learn on the fly,” James said Wednesday. “I think it’s something you work on every single day. You teach it, you preach it, you demand it. I didn’t come [into the NBA] as being a big defensive guy. I played defense and my high school coaches did preach it, and we knew in order to win, we had to defend. This is a different level.

“When [former Cavs coach] Mike Brown came to this team, that was just his whole mindset, saying, ‘If we don’t defend, we can’t win.’ And he preached it every day. It was just instilled in us as players. You’ve got to teach it, you’ve got to preach it, you’ve got to demand it every single day.”

Sounds like current Cavs coach David Blatt is there now, too.

“You have to raise the level of expectation,” Blatt said the other day, “and the level of accountability, and you have to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes if you’re not blessed with great individual defenders, your principles have to be that much stronger, and your helps and your court recognition have to be that much better. And that’s why it’s taken us longer in that area of the game than on the offensive end.”

San Antonio, by contrast, ranks third in the NBA in defensive rating (96.0) after finishing fourth (100.1) last season and tied for third (99.2) two years ago. A team whose main pieces have been together for multiple seasons might be expected to have an edge, though effort and priorities matter as much or more.

The Cavs’ familiarity will grow, but it’s on them to drag the defense along. Bumping up Shawn Marion‘s minutes has helped some, and there has been chatter about pursuing Timberwolves wing Corey Brewer in trade. Still, a roster overhaul is unlikely and any defensive makeover will require lipstick (and more) on what so far has been a pig.

“Defensively we just need more than anything to just trust each other,” Love said. “We’re all capable, especially as a team. We’ve got to take the individual battle. But at the end of the day, we need to trust each other that we need to help each other out.”

VIDEO: LeBron James is driven to get the Cavs back to winning consistently



  1. Jugular says:

    goes to show that even with Lebron in the line up doesn’t mean a Jordan like team is coming up =P 15 points only is just showing that he’s not the reliable go to guy

  2. harriethehawk says:

    I like their commercials “Let’s Go Cleveland” better than their basketball games.

  3. thespectator says:

    we all knew this before the season started that the cavs will have d issues. i believe though by the time playoffs come around the cavs will be a solid defensive team. until we see lbj panicking about defense, cavs are ok. its what 10 games in? they will be hovering around 500 til all star break and then they will get rolling. theyll prolly finish 3rd or 4th seed. i expect them to be in the ECF and go to a game 7 against the bulls and make it to the finals, against the spurs. spurs will repeat and we will head into the off season. simple.

  4. Kirby Record says:

    Cleveland is not an elite team yet but it did play The Spurs dead even most of the game and lost be 2. Nothing to panic about. But they must learn defense to beat the best consistently. The two biggest challenges so far were Chicago and Spurs, and they beat The Bulls and had good chances against the Spurs. So anything can happen only ten games into the season.
    I love the silly comments about this being some kind of major victory for the Spurs, who have exactly been burning the league up themselves.

    • #dwade#flash says:

      you are right! but do you know that Spurs was missing some key players on the game right?
      players who gave the heat a lot of trouble last year, both from defense and offense

  5. Indiana'sownLarryBird says:

    Defense is a team thing thats how good teams win, and to win in the Playoffs you need to play good team D in the half court, it’s early but the coach better adjust the game plan, this is the NBA not Euro ball.

  6. Flexy says:

    This will remain a problem fo rthe Cavs as the leadership or “James” didn’t seem to think the defensive aspect through on his recruiting venture. Here is the convo that I think happened James: “Ok, lets get a bunch of the best shooters in the league, big and small, and we will win. whos with me? Did I mention I’m the king?”

    • h says:

      They brought in marion, Waiters is not a terrible defender, verejao is a solid defender, james is very good when he wants to. Irving and love are not very good. Irving got schooled by lawson couple of days ago, it was imbarrasing to watch, he didnt stand a chance.

      But defense is all about team and teamwork, just like offense, if you work together you can be a solid defensive team without crazy defensive talent.

  7. dustydreamnz says:

    How on earth are they still favourites?