Is There Anything Fixable About The Cavaliers Defense?

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It’s safe to say that the preseason East favorite Cavaliers have found themselves in a strange place so far in 2017-18. Their 5-6 start has been downright shocking, considering their strength of schedule ranks 26th in the entire league. They’ve lost to the Hawks, Pacers, Magic, Nets, Knicks and Pelicans all in a 10 game stretch, which in its own right is unimaginable. And while it’s natural to ask the question, “what’s wrong?” in such a scenario, the more interesting thing about these Cavaliers is we know exactly what’s wrong. Defense. The Cavaliers own the glorious honor of the worst defensive rating in the entire league at 111.7. And they also have surrendered 110 points or more in nine straight games which is the second longest streak in franchise history.  Yikes. There was reason to believe the Cavaliers defense would struggle this year, but nobody could have imagined they would be this terrible. So let’s get down to it, and ask the hard questions. Is this train wreck fixable? Well, partly.

An interesting trend about the Cavaliers start to the season is that they don’t do everything terribly. It’s just that what they do bad at, they do really bad at. More or less, they are average in the majority of defensive categories. They are 19th in points allowed off of turnovers. 13th in second chance points allowed. 10th in fast break points allowed. 19th in points in the paint allowed. 13th best at defending post ups in terms of points per possession (PPP). And unbelievably, they’re 2nd best at defending the roll man on the pick and roll and first in defending the ball handler in terms of points per possession (PPP). Not too bad, huh? I guess there is hope, after all.

Hope probably isn’t the right word. I’m not sure many teams with championship desires like the Cavaliers simply have hope for an average defensive effort every night. And I’m not sure how many teams with championship desires would consider an average defensive performance on a given night a victory like these Cavaliers would, but I’m sure it’s not many. Anyways, let’s focus on the fixable but perplexing. Currently the Cavaliers are experiencing way too much miscommunication and lack-of-effort plays than they would like. These errors have created far too many defensive breakdowns in the early going. For example on this play below J.R Smith and Dwyane Wade get completely lost in traffic.  

The Cavaliers have played less minutes this year with both Kevin Love and the now injured Tristan Thompson on the floor. Clearly, they want to be more versatile on the defensive end.  It’s one of the major reasons they brought in Jae Crowder and Jeff Green, both forwards who theoretically should be able to guard multiple positions. As a result they’ve been switching almost everything off-ball this year. But more switching requires more communication. And it’s clear the Cavs haven’t come close to mastering it. In the clip above J.R Smith and Dywane Wade become disoriented. And it’s not even a complicated set run by the Hawks. Neither gets picked. Neither has to maneuver around a screen. They both just lose track of where they are.  And J.R. Smith fails to follow Kent Bazemore across the court to the opposite wing. Two miscommunications, a mental lapse, and suddenly there are three Cavs standing around two Hawks, and a wide open three point shooter on the opposite wing.

Here’s a sequence where Jae Crowder literally just falls asleep on the switch at the top of the key.  And although Victor Oladipo misses the shot, it’s a good reminder of how easy it is to screw up on defense. One little transgression or mental lapse can lead to a wide open shooter. And though Crowder does recover well, it's still leaves Oladipo with a better than good look. Obviously, the good news is that these mental errors are fixable. Even the worst defensive teams can improve through communication and effort. The bad and perplexing news is that these little mishaps shouldn’t be happening this often in the first place, and it’s fair to wonder what exactly is causing them. Is it a chemistry issue? Is it just configuring all the new parts?  Whatever the case be, and we probably will never know, it’s concerning moving forward not just because it’s leading to easy points for the opposition, but because there’s no justifiable reason for this team to look this discombobulated and unprepared.

Of course, communication issues do not tell the whole story. The Cavaliers are getting killed in isolation plays, as they rank 27th in defending them in terms PPP. They also rank dead last in opponent three point percentage and in PPP when defending spot ups. What’s worrying about these struggles is that they are directly related the Cavaliers personnel. It’s hard to put together a good defense without good defensive players.  Sometimes it’s really that simple. The Cavaliers have really tried to stretch that module over that last couple of years by bringing in a lot of offense first players. It hasn’t really worked out this year. Kevin Love (391st), Jae Crowder (370th), J.R Smith (394th) and Derrick Rose(393rd) all rank towards the very bottom of individual defensive rating in the league. And when you look at the rest of their roster, it’s hard to find a lineup that doesn’t have a gaping hole.

One of the main problems I have found with the Cavaliers defense this year is their inability to consistently limit penetration from opposing ball handlers. Opponents are getting into the middle of the Cavaliers defense with extreme ease in all sorts of ways. This makes total sense when you connect their troubles with isolation, opponent three point percentage, and defending spot up shooters.  Middle penetration causes the defense to collapse hard towards the paint, which will lead to open looks for spot up shooters, especially from the three point line.

On this play Dennis Schroder takes Derrick Rose off the dribble quickly, and finds his way into the paint. The defense clamps down, as they should, the ball gets kicked out, and a poor closeout leads to a wide open three pointer. This problem is nearly un-fixable for the Cavaliers because it all has to do with Rose’s inability to contain his man. This clip is the first of three straight possessions in which Schroder sliced into the heart of the Cavs defense for points. If you can’t limit that initial penetration you’re going continue to give up easy buckets on every level of the defense. The scary part for the Cavs is that this is a team wide problem.

Here’s a pick and roll with Lance Stephenson and Thaddeus Young. Young sets a soft pick.  Stephenson goes to his left, sliding an easy pass to Young. Wade can’t cut off the passing lane. Kevin Love does a bad job trapping the ball handler, and by the time he recovers Young already has a full head of steam and is halfway to the tin. Again, easy penetration leads to an easy bucket.

Here’s Victor Oladipo working on J.R. Smith.  Domantis Sabonis slips the screen.  Oladipo dribbles right by the trap set by Kevin Love and J.R. Smith and into the paint. And the rest is history.

Again, we see the same thing in this sequence. Love and Rose fail to contain Schroder.  He easily makes his way into the paint. The defense clamps. The ball is kicked. Three points.  

Over and over again the Cavaliers give up easy penetration into the middle of their defense.  And over and over again they give up open looks on the perimeter. It’s all connected to the fact that their perimeter defenders, and their trapping big men, do a terrible job of keeping ball handlers in front of them. If you can’t stop the ball, you can’t stop anything. What’s worse is there’s nothing tactical about this issue. It’s about skill. Sure, better communication, effort and rotations should help, but it can’t solve the fact that J.R. Smith and Kevin Love can’t keep anybody from driving past them.

Where exactly the hard nosed defense is going to come from is a mystery at this point. The reality is the Cavaliers can’t put together a lineup that poses significant resistance to opposing offenses because they only have three above average defenders on their roster, Lebron James, Iman Shumpert, and Tristan Thompson (now injured). As a result whenever the Cavaliers defense takes the court there will always be something to take advantage of. Right now, it’s penetrating the paint. The Cavaliers did nothing to improve their personnel issues in the off-season, and right now they are paying for it. It looks like they’re going to need a trade to improve, and that’s a going to be a hard proposition considering they don’t want to give up assets knowing that Lebron could bolt in a year. Who knows? Maybe they can figure it out.  But right now it looks like they’re just going to have to rely on Lebron heroics if they want to make it to a fourth straight Finals.