Mike Brown is a defensive-minded coach.
He loves it, he preaches it, and he has been largely successful at getting teams to play it at a high level. In the press release following his decision to bring back Brown, Cleveland Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert said that Brown "instills a much-needed defensive-first philosophy in our young and talented team that is going to serve as our foundation and identity as we continue down the path of building the kind of franchise that competes at a championship level for many years to come."
Thirty-four games into the 2013-14 season, it is clear that the Cavaliers are still far removed from a championship caliber defense. There are nights, usually when the team plays on the road, when there is a complete lack of defensive focus and the team gets run out of the building. But overall, the progress has been undeniable. A year after finishing 27th in the NBA in defensive rating and giving up 109.4 points per 100 possessions, Mike Brown's team ranks 16th and gives up 105.6. That's a pretty huge jump.
But there is still a long way to go.
Frank Vogel spoke before the Cavs loss to his Indiana Pacers about the Cavs' desire to improve defensively and compared the situation to his own in Indiana.
"I think experience and continuity are really big. This [the Cavaliers] is a young team. It’s difficult to do that [instill a strong defensive culture] with a young team. We have defensive talent on this team. Guys that have natural defensive ability, instincts that have nothing to do with that I'm doing. In terms of schemes, that becomes a big part of it. Continuity of being in one coach’s system, having teammates that have been together 3, 4, 5 years."
Experience and continuity are something the Cavaliers have in short supply. Anderson Varejao is the only player on the team that can claim both veteran status and a history of working within Mike Brown's system. When asked about the importance of basketball IQ, Vogel immediately brought up David West:
"David West is the leader of that. He is our middle linebacker, the quarterback of the defense. Roy [Hibbert] and Paul [George]they, get a lot of credit for their length and abilities defensively. But David West from from an intelligence and basketball IQ standpoint really drives the defense."
With the youth and inexperience of this Cavs team, it's going to be difficult to find the quarterback of the defense overnight. Varejao is perhaps the most likely short-term candidate to take the role, but even he plays a different position than he did during Mike Brown's previous stint in Cleveland. Long-term, you hope Tristan Thompson can grow into that role. Thompson may never develop into the shot-blocking power forward he looked like he could be at Texas, but quarterbacking a defense and communicating different schemes to his teammates could be more valuable. It won't happen overnight; Vogel stressed continuity.
Over the summer, Mike Brown made it seem as though he felt that, with his coaching, defensive ability and talent simply wasn't that important. He pointed to strong defenses from his first stint in Cleveland that included Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall. Vogel's comments above seem to directly reject this notion.
Luol Deng might be just what the Cavs need.
Still, the Cavaliers do have a few key players who possess great defensive upside, starting with the newly acquired Luol Deng. Sam already has some great stuff on Deng's defense in his piece from earlier today. What I would simply add (or perhaps just amplify) is that the Cavaliers are adding a veteran who understands defensive concepts, plays hard, and can defend just about anyone in the league. Even if he isn't a long-term presence in Cleveland, his impact on a young Cavs team that still needs to learn to buy in every night could be substantial.
And one player that still needs to learn to buy in every night - and has all of the ability in the world to defend - is Dion Waiters. According to Synergy Sports, Waiters' man is scoring .97 points per possession, good for 313th best in the NBA. Not good. It doesn't account for everything going on in a defensive scheme or with what offenses are trying to do, but Waiters' biggest struggles according to Synergy meet the eye test: he gives up 1.12 points per possession on spot up shooters. All too often Waiters is slow closing out or gets caught ball watching.
Waiters is still learning to give full effort every night. There appears to be progress. Here is Mike Brown on Waiters defensive performance on Saturday night against the Brooklyn Nets:
"He is getting better defensively. He understands and knows what he needs to do on that end of the floor. Last night I thought he struggled in the first half and we addressed it at halftime. Some of the same things he did in the first half, mistake wise defensively, he didn't do in the second half. He got blown by a couple times by Paul Pierce, [Andrei] Kirilenko, and even Alan Anderson in the first half. Dion’s got great feet, he’s got a strong body. In the second half ... I couldn't find a single possession in the second half when it happened to him. We didn't change anything defensively. He locked in and did his job."
For those wanting Waiters to start, it sounds as though Brown is waiting for performances like what happened in the first half in Brooklyn to become a less frequent occurrence. He clearly still believes in Waiters' defensive upside:
"Dion has the body and athleticism to be a very, very good defender. There is no reason I shouldn't hear announcers talk about his defense when I turn on the TV ... he has the capabilities of being a great defender. He is in the process of growing on that end of the floor."
The Cavaliers are slowly building a defensive culture. Luol Deng should help expedite the process a bit. The results are already promising. If the team buys into Mike Brown's message, and gives the young players time to grow together as a defensive unit, they will be well on their way.