Coming into the season there was concern over how the Cavaliers would fare on the defensive side of the floor. Those concerns appear to be valid as the Cavs have been torched early this year. The Cavs are allowing teams to shoot 64.3 percent within five feet of the rim, which is fourth worst in the NBA (all stats as of the conclusion of the Magic game). But are their defensive woes a direct result of the failures of Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson? Is it because the Cavs can't defend the rim? Or are these shortcomings a result of something else?
When one dives into the NBA.com player tracking they see that the issue is not quite as simple as Thompson and Varejao failing to deter shots at the rim. Opponents are shooting 51.4 percent on shots at the rim when Thompson contests (50 percent within 6 feet) and 48.9 percent when Varejao contests (unfortunately that comes with a 60.9 percent on contested shots within 6 feet). As a point of reference, opponents shoot 51.6 at the rim on shots contested by Anthony Davis and 60.7 percent on contested shots within 6 feet.
The stats also appear to point towards opponents second guessing taking to the hoop at times. While I haven't found a way to accurately gauge the number of drives a team allows in a game. I noticed that the Cavs surrender the fourth most amount of field goal attempts in the league from within five to nine feet of the rim, but are tenth in opponents field goal attempts within five feet.
The question then becomes, if the Cavs centers are both deterring the number of drives to the rim and are effectively defending contested shots. Then why was there so much discrepancy between the teams field goal percentage allowed at the rim and the individual defense of the centers? And what changed to cause those numbers to start to align?
Part of that can be attributed to poor defense from Kevin Love. While his effort has improved this season, he is still allowing 61.1 percent at the rim this season and 65.7 percent within 6 feet. His defensive deficiencies have been well documented and are the unfortunate price that needs to be paid for his all-world abilities on the offensive side of the floor and rebounding. But that still doesn't fully explain the teams woes at the rim.
One cause for these issues could be the amount of penetration that the Cavs are allowing. Poor defensive effort from LeBron James, regression in defensive abilities in Shawn Marion and an absence of a consistent desire to defend from Dion Waiters all seem to be contributing factors to how easy it's seemed at times for opponents to penetrate the defense. When you allow easy drives to the hoop, it forces the team to rotate and scramble to recover. If the team fails to do this properly, it can result in open looks for the opposition. The Cavs wings have failed to consistently keep their man in front of them on the perimeter and it's resulting in the breakdown of the teams defense.
Another glaring flaw in the teams defense is how they've defended the pick and roll. Kyrie Irving has made a major adjustment in the amount of effort he has allocated to the defensive side of the floor, but it's apparent that his inability to defend the pick and roll was not solely due to lack of effort. It still remains the weakest aspect of his defensive game. That weakness is compounded by the poor match of the Cavs defensive schemes and their personnel. David Blatt has had the Cavs aggressively hedge the pick and roll. This strategy has not meshed well with the poor foot-speed of Anderson Varejao and has resulted in the him getting tangled above the three point line on many occasions. The problem is not just with Varejao, but it's with him that we see far too many possessions end up like this:
It seems like every hedge by a Cleveland big on a ball screen or handoff ends up like this, and not just tonight: pic.twitter.com/hfcTgJ3LLj— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) November 15, 2014
Plus sometimes the Cavs just don't know what to do when defending the pick and roll:
Hard to tell whose fault this is as both Cavs defenders jumped towards middle of floor right before Moz set screen pic.twitter.com/JVOiYM2q0a— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) November 18, 2014
If the Cavs were to be less aggressive in defending the pick and roll they would be less likely to be burned by easy penetration. By playing the drive they may surrender more three point looks coming off the screen. But if I was coaching the team, I'd rather be burned by those looks off the dribble than surrender easy drives that result in kick-outs for open threes or an open drop-off under the basket.
With the absence of elite defensive personnel on the team, the Cavs must stay away from gambling on defense and try to let opponents beat them over the top. By remaining in position and keeping their man in front of them the Cavs would then force teams to beat them from the perimeter. If teams want to get in an offensive shootout, the Cavs certainly have a roster that is capable of putting up points. But it's important for them to limit the amount of quality looks the opposition gets in order to reduce the responsibility of the offense. The easy looks will only stop once the Cavs start improving their effort on defense, find a stopper at shooting guard and alter their defensive schemes. The formula to improve their defense exists, they just need to follow it.