Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue insisted he has some ideas, ways to address what has gone from a concern to a crisis in Cleveland. His team’s defense is just not working anymore, but Lue is holding onto hope that he will be able to unveil some wrinkles when the postseason tips off next month.
"We gotta hold back,"Lue told reporters. "We can’t show our hand because these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to adjust to what we do. So, we’ve just got to play our normal defense until we get there and then we’ll see what happens."
It’s a bit of an absurd claim in an NBA in which every team has scouted every X and O their opponents have, down to the way the ball boys squeegee the floor. There are not a whole lot of times that a team pulls something out in the playoffs that makes opposing coaches stare in slack-jawed disbelief.
But Lue has reason to maintain his calm. The Cavs are the defending champs, coming off back-to-back Finals appearances, and are the favorites to again win the Eastern Conference. Sure, they’re 7-9 in their last 16 games heading into Monday’s tiff with San Antonio, but the Cavs have been wracked with injury all season and weathered some rough times in past years before strong postseason showings.
There’s something bigger at play here, though, something working against the Cavaliers as they sputter through March. It'ssomething a bit bigger than the bumps and bruises of this season. It’s history.
Should Cleveland close the year with much the same defense we’ve seen lately, and still earn a spot in the Finals in two-and-a-half months, the Cavaliers will earn a special place in modern league history: They’ll be, statistically, the worst regular-season defensive team ever to reach the NBA Finals.
Currently, the Cavaliers rank 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency, according to NBA.com, not the kind of territory that breeds Finals contenders. In fact, only one other team since the league expanded to divisional play in 1970-71 has finished in the 20s in defensive efficiency in the regular season and still made the playoffs. That should ring a bell in Cleveland. It was the 2015 Cavs, ranked 20th in defensive efficiency two years ago.
Of the 92 teams that have played for the NBA championships since 1971, only 11 have finished outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Adjusting for the fact that the league has expanded from 17 teams to 30 over those years, only five teams — the 2015 Cavaliers, the 2001 Lakers, the 1998 Jazz, the 1983 Lakers and the 1981 Rockets — have been in the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency and still wound up in the Finals.
Defensively, it is an uphill climb for Cleveland. The roster is old, and the Cavs are capable of playing decent defense, except when they are asked to move anywhere with any sort of speed.
"You get them in motion and they have a hard time with that,"one Eastern Conference scout said. "They look like a group that has heavy legs all around, they don’t move laterally or stop your passing lanes. I think some of it is effort and maybe they’re holding back. I think they’ll be better in the playoffs. But pick-and-rolls, things like that, it’s a weak spot for them."
That’s the thing. The Cavaliers are a terrible defensive team when it comes to guarding transition, allowing 1.19 points per possession, worst in the league. But they’re pretty good at guarding most of the typical halfcourt stuff, which gets more important as the game slows down in the playoffs: fifth in stopping isolation plays, eighth in guarding spot-up shooters, 14th against post-ups, first against cutters.
The pick-and-roll, though, is the staple of playoff basketball. And with Kyrie Irving heading up the team’s PNR defense, the Cavs have been awful when it comes to coping with the play all year. Cleveland allows 0.91 points per possession in PNR plays finished by the ballhandler, which is third-worst in the league. They’re fourth-worst (1.09 ppp) when it comes to stopping the roll man on the play.
There are other problems with the defense that show just how lead-footed the Cavs’ defense is. They’re fourth-worst in both deflections per game (13.8) and loose balls recovered (5.9). They’re 26th in the league in turnover percentage.
Maybe Lue’s "what-me-worry?"stance is the right one with a veteran team like the Cavs. The East is light on teams with real contender experience, thanks to LeBron James. No non-LBJ team has reached the Finals in seven years. There are tweaks Lue can make during the postseason to change the Cavs’ pick-and-roll coverage and to hide Irving’s weak defense — having James and/or Iman Shumpert pick up the ball more, throwing in more aggressive traps from time to time.
These aren’t clever tricks, though. The Cavs have done all that before. There’s not much that Lue is going to do in the playoffs that opposing coaches have not already imagined or seen.
With the current state of the East, Cleveland remains a good bet to face a West foein June. But should the Cavs get there, they’ll bring the worst defense in NBA Finals history with them.