The biggest concern many have with the Cavs' surprising 1-3 start has been David Blatt's rotation management. Starters are playing huge minutes, he's only going eight or nine players every game, and LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving's minutes are being weirdly staggered. This has been clearly taxing on players such as James, who looks visibly tired for long stretches of games, and Anderson Varejao, who we all know far too well is one banged knee from missing serious time, and more minutes increases that risk. With Matthew Dellavedova out due to injury, Blatt has some major problem-solving to do with his rotation.
However, it has been noticeable that Blatt is experimenting with little things over the course of the first four games. In the Chicago game, Dellavedova got heavy minutes as Irving saw foul trouble. In the Portland game, the Cavs attempted to rest all three of James, Irving, and Love at the same time, and also we got a Brendan Haywood appearance for a short bit while Varejao rested. In Wednesday night's tilt with the Jazz, Shawn Marion started and played a majority of the night at shooting guard, as the Cavs went super-big. Blatt is tinkering with the rotation every game, even though the larger and more systemic issues are still present.
This tinkering is healthy, and is something that many coaches will do early in the season to figure out their rotation. Things like figuring out how to stagger star players' rest, finding ideal lineups for young guys to grow, and discovering weird but effective bench units are what makes a team a well-oiled machine come playoff time. That process starts in November. However, as we learned last year, tinkering without purpose doesn't do anything. The Cavs under Mike Brown would throw out haphazard lineups that didn't have any consistency game-to-game, and it never really felt like they got anywhere towards building a rotation. For Blatt's rotation experiments to be successful, he has to learn something from them. That seems obvious, but Brown exists, so we must reiterate. Let's take a look at some of the things we've learned from NBA.com lineup data through four games.*
*Note: We're playing with incredible #SmallSampleSizeTheatre here. I realize this. That's why I'm not looking to draw conclusions from this. Simply just looking for trends, groups that warrant more time, and groups that might not.
Only four lineups have played more than 15 minutes together through four games, and all of those included James, Irving, Love, and two role players. The most frequently used lineup has been the opening night starting lineup: Kyrie, Dion Waiters, LeBron, Love, and Varejao. The lineup doesn't have favorable overall numbers, with an offensive rating of 98.7, a defensive rating of 104.5, and a net of -5.9. However, there are some positives to this lineup past the surface. These five assist on 63 percent of baskets, have an effective field goal percentage of 56.1, and are one of the Cavs' better defensive units, relatively. The problems? Turnovers (26.9 TO%) and poor offensive rebounding are taking away opportunities for the group to score, and that's killed them, particularly against New York and Portland's offenses. That sky-high turnover rate will drop, as the group gets more cohesive and they get more possessions together, and when that happens, this should be what we expected: A remarkable offensive fivesome that can get by defensively.
We can see that in the Cavs' best regular five man unit so far, which simply replaces Varejao with Tristan Thompson. In 16 minutes, that group has numbers more in line with expectations: An offensive rating of 125.2, a net of +7.6, and impressive rebounding numbers on both ends (44.4 ORB%, 75 DRB%) thanks to Tristan's rebounding crusade through four games. This group isn't even shooting well, either, with a TS% of 52.5. Again, small sample size, but both of these lineups make you think that the most common lineups this team is going to go to will eventually be deadly.
Lineups where Marion gets heavy minutes have been some of the Cavs' worst so far, in interesting ways. Wednesday night's starting lineup, with Marion in place of Waiters, has seen 17 minutes, and while the group has scored efficiently (110.5 Ortg), they are terrible on defense, and it's been one of the Cavs' worst lineups by net rating with a -9.5 mark. The reason here is explainable, because Marion at the two leaves no one who can guard a quick, explosive guard like Trey Burke, who had good success against the starters on Wednesday. The same lineup with Thompson for Varejao goes the opposite way, as Tristan is more mobile to limit penetration, but the offense craters due to lack of spacing. If Marion can break out of his offensive slump these lineups could be better, but so far the "Marion as a two" idea seems to be ineffective.
Looking at three-man groups, there's some interesting trends that have come up. Irving/Thompson/Love has been the Cavs' best three-man combination, as it's the only one that's played 50-plus minutes to post a positive net rating. The offense has been excellent when Love and Thompson share the floor, and while they don't play great defense together, these three score at a 110 Ortg, and they rarely turn the ball over. That's a useful group to play together against bench units that can't handle that pair on the glass. The Irving/Waiters backcourt also plays well offensively with Love, as these lineups commonly involve one-in, four-out lineups that allow plenty of space for both to drive. Irving/Waiters backcourts in general have actually scored pretty well this year, with an Ortg of 106.2.
Early threesomes that haven't worked well seem to center around LeBron and Varejao, LeBron and Kyrie, or Varejao and Kyrie playing together. In fact, the three of them together have combined to post a -21.1 net rating. The Kyrie/Varejao pick-and-roll defense hasn't been there, and LeBron and Kyrie are going through the James/Wade dance of struggling to divide the alpha scoring role evenly. It also appears that when these three share the floor, Kyrie and Varejao running pick-and-rolls is a focal point of the offense, and those looks haven't generated great chances so far. Because of these issues, Irving/Love/Varejao, James/Love/Varejao, and Irving/Waiters/Varejao have all put up double digit negative net ratings. While none of this is really indicative of definitive conclusions,
The Cavs' lineup data has shown a few trends that will hopefully be useful moving forward. The starting lineup and starters with Thompson have shown signs of being successful long-term, and there are rotation management strategies apparent here that could be useful. Perhaps the Cavs could stagger so that Irving and Love get time together with the second unit, and LeBron gets time to be the sole creator. Love and Thompson should continue to get time in order to work on their defensive cohesiveness. And Waiters, despite hot takery to the contrary, has been involved in several lineups that have been useful, and should continue to get solid time. Beyond incorporating more of the bench, and getting the big three adequate rest, hopefully some of these rotation moves can be tried, and the Cavs might see more success as a result.