Down in the Dumps
On November 9th, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Houston Rockets 113-117, pushing their already-disappointing record down to 5-7 on the year. After kicking off the season with an impressive win over the (admittedly Hayward-less) Celtics, the Cavs went 4-7 against a slate of mostly weak Eastern Conference teams.
Perhaps even more concerning for the Cavs’ outlook, lineup and rotation changes threatened to disrupt their veteran chemistry. For a team that prides themselves on “flipping the switch”, all did not seem well in the Land.
Ty Lue’s decision to start Wade over JR Smith quickly backfired, damaging JR’s confidence while also taking Wade out of his ideal role of the team as a bench playmaker and creator. Injuries (and ineffectiveness) to Tristan Thompson and Tristan Thompson disrupted the Cavs rotations, pushing Jose Calderon, Jeff Green, and Iman Shumpert into larger roles. While LeBron continued to perform his best Superman impression, no one on the rest of the team gave any indication that they might be up for the task of beating the Warriors or even the streaking Celtics.
Since that fateful Rockets game, the Cavs have done nothing but quiet their doubters for a month straight. The winners of 11 straight games, the Cavs roll into their December 4th matchup with the Bulls with the league’s fourth best record.
Advanced stats show that that the Cavs’ improvement has been driven almost entirely by improvements on defense. Owners of the league’s worst Defensive Rating (113.1) through November 10th, the Cavs have bumped their defense to a wholly respectable 103 since, good for 13th in the league. Offense was never really the problem - that will always be the Cavs strength. They were 3rd in the league in Offensive Rating before November 10th (109) and have been 4th in the league since (112.9). It’s the dramatic improvement on the defensive end that really fueled their huge increase in Net Rating and gives hope that they might be able to “flip the switch” again this spring.
Reasons for Improvement
As mentioned earlier, improved defense across the board is the single biggest factor in the Cavs improvement. Prior to November 10th, pretty much the entire team stunk it up - no individual player clocking in at 15 minutes a game or more recorded a defensive rating below 105.5 (a lackluster number in and of itself). The Cavs starting lineup in particular was horrendous, with James, Love, Smith, Rose and Crowder averaging a 116.8. In essence, the Cavs starting lineup was turning every opponent they faced into the Warriors.
Since November 10th, the entire lineup has dramatically improved their numbers. Five players now sport defensive ratings below 100, and the much-maligned Cavs starting lineup has universally improved.
The Cavs can also point at the three ball as being a key part of their turn around. Not only are they shooting it for a higher percentage (38.9%, up from 35.1%), they have taken nearly 6 more three point attempts per game. As a team stocked with solid shooters, this change in shot selection allows them to be more efficient scoring the ball, doing more with the same number of possessions each game.
The Cavs have also gotten lucky with rest during their 11-game winning streak. They’ve only had to deal with one back-to-back, leaving them with plenty of rest for most of their games. A grueling early season schedule (3 back-to-backs in 12 games) led them to drop games they probably wouldn’t have on a normal schedule, like losses to the Magic, Nets, and Knicks that were part of a 6 games in 9 days swing.
|0 Days Rest||3||144||95.7||111.4||-15.7|
|1 Days Rest||4||192||118.3||116.6||1.8|
|2 Days Rest||4||192||112.1||114.9||-2.8|
|3 Days Rest||1||48||100||97.1||2.9|
|0 Days Rest||1||48||107.9||97.2||10.7|
|1 Days Rest||8||389||111.3||105.3||6|
|2 Days Rest||2||96||122.3||96||26.3|
Lineups and Players
Sometimes subtracting a negative is just as good as adding a positive. Such is the case with Derrick Rose, who has done as much good through his absence as any other Cav has done through their presence. No longer an offensive threat, and continually a defensive liability, Rose recorded the worst Net Rating on the team (-12.6) before taking some time off. In his stead, other, more efficient, players (and of course, LeBron) have been able to able to fill Rose’s role and represent a significant net upgrade on the 27 minutes per game Rose was playing.
As another big positive, it seems like the Cavs have finally found their own “lineup of death”. Boasting LeBron at the point and surrounded by shooters (Korver, Smith, Love) and an all-time slasher (Wade), this hybrid lineup boasts a staggering Net Rating of 44 over the 32 minutes it’s played. Time will tell how well this combination stacks up against some of the league’s best units (the Wizards starters, the Warrior’s death lineup, and the Celtic’s mini-death lineup for example), it has been extremely potent thus far and may be the Cavs best combination of shooting and overall versatility.
The Cavs appear set for continued success as long as they can sustain their defensive intensity. Perhaps they won’t - that is what tends to happen to older teams full of veterans. But the fact that old guys like Wade, Korver, Green, and Frye have demonstrated they can defend at a high level of close to a dozen straight games should give Ty Lue a lot of confidence in his team’s ability to “turn it on” when it matters.