Monday, August 25, 2014

Love To Cleveland: Now What?

Two of these guys will be wearing different jerseys next year. But they'll all be wearing the same one.
By Bennett Corcoran (@SportsBennett)

The Cavaliers have a much different team surrounding LeBron this time around than during his last stint in Cleveland. With Kyrie Irving inking a five-year maximum extension this summer and Kevin Love officially heading to the Cavs, LeBron now has the opportunity to play alongside two young stars in his hometown.

Although it’s easy to jab at the lack of playoff experience for Love (and Irving for that matter), it’s also easy to use this as an excuse to overlook his individual accomplishments. Love was everything to Minnesota. This is a guy who was third in the NBA in win shares (14.29), better than Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Joakim Noah, Dirk Nowitzki, and a slew of other household names who don’t hear those types of criticisms.

One of the best players in the league last season, Love will contribute by splashing open jumpers and tenaciously crashing the glass. The number of attempts from deep will likely decrease this season after Love hoisted 505 threes in 2014, the sixth-most in the NBA. However, the quality of looks will increase with playmakers like LeBron and Irving around, and fewer attempts from three could lead to more offensive boards, as Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland suggested a few weeks ago.

Love’s defensive rebound rate was third in the NBA last season at 29.4% (per NBA Stats). Miami was last in the NBA in offensive and defensive rebounds per game last season, and their minus-3.4 rebound differential ranked 26th (per ESPN). It’s scary to think about how many extra possessions LeBron will have this season with Love on the Cavs, and the offensive juggernaut that will likely ensue.

As frightening as it is to picture LeBron with a legitimate 20-10 guy, a third star in Irving will help elevate this offense to an elite level.

Irving is no longer the lead man, perhaps relegated to the third option after the Love trade. Fortunately for Cleveland, Irving made the Team USA roster for the upcoming FIBA World Cup, and his experience playing alongside other rising stars will help him adjust to his new role on the Cavs.

That trio alone could get the Cavs deep into the playoffs. But in today’s NBA, teams must surround their superstars with proper supporting casts and develop the necessary team chemistry to succeed.

Soon after LeBron announced his decision to return, Mike Miller and James Jones followed suit. Factor in the addition of Love as a perimeter threat and the few guys remaining from last year like Dion Waiters, and this team is well stocked from distance. After finishing in the bottom half of the NBA last season in three-point field goal percentage and attempts per game, the Cavs will progress in these categories with an influx of shooters, especially if Ray Allen hops on board. The presence of LeBron as a distributor will naturally create plenty of open looks.

Although their star power has many Cleveland fans dreaming of a championship, the team’s defense could prevent them from reaching that stage this season.

The recent signing of Shawn Marion aims to bolster the this area based on his reputation as a stopper, something LeBron can attest to given their matchup in the 2011 Finals.

While on/off splits are losing faith in Marion’s defensive ability (the Mavs were 5.8 points better per 100 possessions with Marion sitting, per Basketball-Reference), this is likely due to coach Rick Carlisle’s lineup configurations last season. Carlisle often staggered the minutes of his starters, playing Dirk Nowitzki with the second unit. This forced Marion to share the floor more with Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, two mistake-prone defenders. In fact, the trio of Marion, Ellis and Calderon logged over 1850 minutes together last season. Marion and Ellis alone were on the court for just over 2250 minutes together, about 900 more minutes than Marion logged with Dirk. Calderon wasn’t too far behind Ellis either, recording about 1950 minutes with Marion in 2014. By playing heavy minutes with a Calderon-Ellis combination in an attempt to accommodate their frequent lapses, Marion’s defensive metrics naturally receded last season.

It’s perplexing why Marion wasn’t swooped up earlier this summer by a contender as a veteran defender off the bench. Marion is 36, but he is capable of guarding the opposing team’s best offensive player, taking some pressure off of LeBron to do it all on the defensive end of the floor.
However, Cleveland’s defensive concerns extend beyond the wings, as it remains to be seen whether this team can defend the paint.

Critics harp on Love’s defensive woes, defining him as a stat-padder that hustles for rebounds instead of making the proper rotation or contesting an open shot. While Love is certainly flawed as a defender, he is making strides on that end of the floor, and a pairing with the defensively challenged Nikola Pekovic was never really going to work.

Pairing Love with a rim-protector would be ideal, but starting center Anderson Varejao has never been much of a shot-blocker throughout his career. A Love-Varejao pairing would be ferocious on the boards, but Varejao’s shaky medical history raises questions as to how much time the two will spend on the floor together. Varejao played over 1000 minutes last season for the first time in four years, and he still missed 22 games. Brendan Haywood is currently slated as the backup center after a cost-cutting trade shipped Tyler Zeller to Boston, and Cleveland’s defense was 7.1 points worse per 100 possessions with Tristan Thompson playing. Despite the new additions, interior defense remains a real concern.

The Irving-Waiters combination in the backcourt also struggled to mesh last season, particularly on the defensive end. The two combined for a 106.6 defensive rating (per NBA Stats) and had a net rating of minus-6.2 when the pair shared the floor. Separating the pair and inserting Jarrett Jack into the starting lineup did little to solve the problem. The Cavs still allowed 5.9 more points per 100 possessions when Irving played in 2014 (per Basketball-Reference). Even reserves like Matthew Dellavedova lack the athleticism to halt today’s wave of dynamic point guards.

The Cavs were in the middle of the pack in terms of defensive efficiency last season under Mike Brown. With a new coach in David Blatt and a complete roster overhaul, it’s difficult to predict what adjustments will be made and what system he aims to establish.

While this team could very well possess best offense in the league, I still think the Cavs are a big man away from beating a healthy Chicago team. I previously discussed why I thought the Bulls were better off standing pat than pursuing Love based on the depth added this summer without compromising the team’s stellar defense. A quartet of Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic could leave Cleveland’s frontcourt overextended, especially if the fragile Varejao is sidelined again.

Perhaps a deadline deal for a big man could put Cleveland over the top. The Cavs still have some non-guaranteed contracts that were not included in the Love trade, such as Erik Murphy, John Lucas III and Malcolm Thomas. Cleveland also didn’t send out any of their own draft picks in the trade (the first rounder sent to Philadelphia is Miami’s pick), so the Cavs are still ripe with assets despite boasting such a strong core already.

I expect the Cavaliers to aggressively pursue opportunities to acquire another big. After inquiring about Timofey Mozgov earlier this summer, it’s only a matter of time before Cleveland bolsters its frontcourt depth. Until then though, I’m still penciling in Chicago as the favorites to emerge from the East despite the incredible offensive firepower in Cleveland.

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