So we’re two games into the playoffs, and Lebron says the Cavs are close to “flipping the switch.” Maybe he’s right, and we should know better by now than to doubt the King. but so far the Cavs seem very much like the flawed defending champion they’ve been all year.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first - JR Smith getting hurt is unequivocally good for the Cavs’ short-term prospects in these playoffs. I’m a lifetime Gold Club member of TeamSwish but facts are facts: JR has been TERRIBLE for the Cavs this season. I mean he is KILLING them. In 41 regular season games this year JR posted a GameScore over 10 (10 is the theoretical average for a starter) exactly nine times. The Cavs record in those games? 9-0. Meanwhile he posted a GameScore under 2 in fourteen games, and the Cavs are 4-10 in those games.
What does it mean to have a Game Score under 2? It’s not good; I can tell you that. It certainly isn’t something a starter for a championship contender should be doing more than a third of the time he steps on the floor.
The problem is that the Cavs probably need a healthy, engaged JR Smith to have a shot against the Warriors in the finals - he’s integral to their Curry defense strategy, which is going to be all the more important this season due to the presence of Kevin Durant, which takes away the option of slotting Lebron onto Curry in most sets. The Cavs probably don’t have anybody else who can guard Durant, so Lebron is going to have to do it most of the time.
But for now, yes, without question, the Cavs are better with Iman Shumpert starting in place of JR Smith. Shump is a “mistake player” who commits a lot of costly errors, but so is Smith, and Shump has actually been a slightly better shooter than JR this season. Shump’s defense has slipped over the past few seasons but he is still regarded as a decent backcourt stopper who can slide up and guard wings (which JR really can’t do.)
So, on to the rest of the team. First things first - the idea at the end of the regular season was that the Cavs and Tyronne Lue had some sort of secret plan to fix the defense. It looks like that plan is still under wraps because YE GODS the defense against the Pacers - one of the weakest, least complicated offenses in the 2017 NBA playoffs - has been atrocious.
The 2017 Cavs allowed opponents to score about 110 points per possession. That’s bad! But they’ve been worse in the first two games against Indiana, surrendering over 118 points per 100 possessions. That number extended over an entire season would be substantially worse than the worst NBA defense. In fact the difference between the worst NBA defense what the Cavs have done in two games defensively against the Pacers (in Cleveland, let’s not forget) is about the same as the difference between the worst NBA defense (the Lakers, BTW) and the tenth-best defense (the Thunder.)
Part of this is some hot shooting from Indiana - they likely won’t shoot 43% from deep or 50% from the floor in this series, and Paul George certainly won’t continue his absurd 56% mark from beyond the arc (much of that on difficult, contested pull-up jumpers.) But just watch the games and you’ll see an absurd number of missed assignments, miscommunications on switches, sloppy rebounding and general confusion that is not going to fix itself just because the playoffs have started. It’s not an illusion. The Cavs are a bad defensive team, and historically speaking bad defensive teams just don’t win titles and certainly don’t successfully defend them.
But why are the Cavs so bad? On paper they shouldn’t be. Lebron is an excellent defender even if his effort and concentration do slip at times, and he can guard all five positions so you can slot him anywhere you need to in order to get the best matchups for your other guys. Kevin Love is much-maligned as a defender but he really isn’t terrible - he is big enough to guard most big guys and while he’s not your first choice to switch onto a shifty wing or backcourt player he CAN succeed in those positions, and together with Tristan Thompson and Lebron he makes up what should be an excellent rebounding frontcourt.
So what’s left? Oh yeah - the backcourt. You’d expect this would be where the problem lies, and you’d be right. Kyrie Irving, who rehabilitated his reputation last season with some good defense in the Finals, and JR Smith, who has become thought of in the last couple seasons as a very good perimeter defender despite a prior reputation as lazy and uninterested, have appeared to revert back to their old bad habits. Basically any screen that involves one of these two defenders is an instant crisis for the Cavs defense, and the Pacers have treated Kyrie with utter contempt, swinging the ball to his man any time he’s matched up against someone with a shred of offensive ability. He contests horribly, doesn’t recover well, has bad timing on his help, it’s just a mess.
Behind those two guys they have Shumpert and then other atrocious perimeter defenders like Deron Williams, Kyle Korver and Richard Jefferson (who has been awful all year and hopefully will see zero significant finals minutes, but who the Cavs are relying on for big minutes at the moment.)
Shumpert should help a little now that he’s been plucked from the end of the bench to the starting lineup, but he won’t help much and here’s why: bad defenses are as bad as the worst mismatch on the floor, and JR, as bad as he was, usually wasn’t the worst mismatch. That’s Kyrie, or Deron Williams when he’s on the floor, or Richard Jefferson when he’s on the floor. Korver should probably go on this list too, but he is SO incapable of guarding people that you don’t really see him that often when there isn’t some terrible Pacer for him to hide on.
So in the end a team full of bad defenders is going to be bad defensively. The Cavs just don’t have enough good defenders to pull together a good defense. They don’t have to stay THIS bad - far-worse-than-the-worst-NBA-defense-bad - but they aren’t going to suddenly become good. This is who they are. It’s depressing, but it’s reality. The Cavs need to outscore people.
Now, that said, a lineup of Kyrie, Shump, Lebron, Love and Tristan Thompson really ought to be able to stop people. It’s not a murderers row of fearsome defenders for sure, but it isn’t bad. Eventually it seems like this lineup is going to emerge as the only viable go-to lineup for defending opposing starters, and the rest of the rotations will adjust to reflect that. But the quesiton still looms as to what the Cavs are going to do when Lebron is off the floor. Right now they are getting absolutely crushed when Lebron sits (usually for Richard Jefferson who in case you’re just joining us is terrible), in fact his on/off splits are troublingly similar to what we saw from the 2009 Cavs. That was back when Lebron was still being blamed for the Cavs woes since he “didn’t know how to win” but 2009’s playoff run for the Cavs in hindsight was Lebron attempting the absolutely Sisyphean task of building a lead over the course of 20 minutes and then seeing that lead instantly barfed up in four minutes every time he tried to sit down and have a drink of water.
That same thing looks to be happening in these playoffs and it’s ominous. As good as Lebron is, he can’t do it all. The playoffs are too long and too hard and at some point he runs up against the limits of physics and biology. The Bucks especially are well-positioned to take advantage of a tired Lebron and force the Cavs to the wall, should they get past the Raps and into a second-round matchup with Cleveland.
The Cavs should be starting a competent defensive unit tonight against Indiana, and if Kyrie plays well it could be a downright good one. They need to establish that unit, get everything they can out of it, and use it to build some semblance of a decent defense going forward. They also really need to sweep this series to get Lebron some rest, because he’s not going to get much while the games are going on, that much is clear.