The Cleveland Cavaliers have been an awful defensive team over the last few years. It has been frustrating. Wide open looks on the perimeter have become routine. Lazy effort in transition, a staple. A complete lack of any semblance of a defensive system or overarching philosophy, a given. Luke Walton was asked to guard power forwards, consistently. Rookies like Tyler Zeller and Dion Waiters were either bullied or not able to learn new defensive concepts, without the team doing much in the way of trying to make things easier for the young players.
Was the problem coaching? Byron Scott certainly didn't put the focus on team defense that someone like, say, Mike Brown does. The 2012-13 Cavaliers, with young players playing key roles, didn't improve throughout the season in a way that would instill confidence in the teaching abilities of the former coaching staff. But the blame doesn't belong to Scott and Scott only. Just recently Kyrie Irving was quoted in Dime magazine admitting that defense is largely effort, and that his body wasn't in the shape it needed to be in to give the effort Cavaliers coaches were looking for last season. And frankly, Byron Scott wasn't the general manager of the Cavaliers. It wasn't his fault Anderson Varejao got hurt and the rookie Zeller had to step into a starting role. It wasn't Byron Scott's fault that the Cavaliers best option to back up Tristan Thompson was Luke Walton. Waiters didn't make strides defensively last season, but he surely did offensively.
Whether the issue was coaching or personnel (and the answer is likely both), Chris Grant took steps in the offseason to fix both. The first was the extraordinary decision to bring back Mike Brown, widely considered one of the best defensive teachers in the NBA. Brown is famous for two things: living in the film room and watching tons and tons of game tape, and skill in teaching concepts. To combine these two traits isn't common; they involve completely different skills. It is one thing to be able to isolate breakdowns and strengths while watching video. It is another to have the motivational and interpersonal skills to be able to communicate those issues on a basketball court within the practice setting.
And right off the bat, Brown has lived up to his reputation. At summer league, Brown took Cavaliers players there like Dion Waiters to his hotel room to watch film. At practices he lectured on defense. Already in training camp, the theme has been consistent. Whether or not the team buys in, Mike Brown is selling the team on his trademark five-guys-on-a-string defense. So far Irving, Thompson, and Waiters have shown an eagerness to listen- but we heard the defense would improve last season, too. The result? The Cavaliers finished 27th in the NBA in defensive rating, which measures how many points a team gives up per 100 possessions defended.
But the Cavaliers hope that their defensive improvements won't come solely from Mike Brown's tutelage this season. First, the Cavs should improve from within. Waiters is a year further removed from the zone defense. Zeller has added weight, and already was a solid defender in terms of positional defending (he drew a lot of charges last season). Tristan Thompson is already a solid man defender who is versatile and strong enough to guard multiple positions. A defensive system could turn him into a monster on that half of the court. He still has untapped potential as a rim protector, as well. Kyrie Irving has reportedly reworked his body to be able to to shoulder a bigger defensive load. And Anderson Varejao, for now, is healthy. While Thompson and Varejao might not protect the rim at a high level, if both are healthy they should be able to anchor a decent team defense. And instead of Tyler Zeller playing in excess of 30 minutes a night, he can have a much more manageable role.
And Chris Grant made some additions to the roster that can also pay off. Whatever you think of Earl Clark or Alonzo Gee as starting NBA small forwards, they are both probably actual NBA rotation players. Gee shouldn't have to log ridiculous minutes totals because the backup is a miscast C.J. Miles or a malcontent like Omri Casspi. Clark is long, energetic, quick, and rebounds well for his position. With Walton and Zeller playing such heavy minutes, the Cavaliers were both terrible in allowing opponents to shoot well from the field, and at getting rebounds if the opponent did miss. With Varejao, Thompson, and now Clark, the Cavaliers should be an above average rebounding team. (Note: whatever you think about how Bennett will defend this season, it is hard to imagine he fares much worse than Walton, and he projects to be a solid rebounder.)
There is, of course, the elephant in the room of Andrew Bynum. While Bynum doesn't have a reputation for playing great defense, he is monstrous and when engaged can disrupt shots defensively. While Varejao sometimes has struggled matching up with the huge centers of the NBA, Bynum wouldn't have this issue.
Earlier this summer, Bradford Doolittle of ESPN wrote that the Cavaliers project to be the single most improved team in the NBA this season. A huge part of this is expected defensive growth. His projections see the Cavaliers raising 18 (!) spots from 27th in the league in defensive rating to 9th. Quite simply, that seems like a lot to ask. The Cavaliers are still young. They have to learn a whole new defensive system. Who knows if Varejao or Bynum play for extended stretches of the season? Earl Clark basically has about a month of looking like he is functional enough offensively to get real minutes in the NBA. Alonzo Gee's defensive metrics are shockingly average. Like so much of the Cavaliers, your attitude on this depends greatly on whatever point of view you choose to adopt. It will be fun to find out.