Defensive concerns have been a big talking point through the Cleveland Cavaliers' rough start to the 2014-2015 season. The defense has given up too many looks at the rim, the perimeter defense has been inconsistent, and certain players, like LeBron James at the beginning of the season and Kevin Love throughout the season, have really been frustrating on that end.
However, the Cavs' defense has really turned it around in the last two weeks. The Cavs have allowed over 100 points just once in their last six games, and allowed a season-low 74 points in last Monday's win over the Orlando Magic. Per NBA.com's stats page, they've allowed just 98.2 points per 100 possessions in their last six games, a number that is roughly equivalent to the Memphis Grizzlies' defense, which is fifth in the league this season. Currently the Cavs sit at a 106.6 defensive rating for the season, which is 16th in the league, and far better than the 112.3 mark that the team posted in their first nine games.
The Cavs do have some glaring weaknesses in their defensive strategy, still. They're allowing the 6th-worst percentage in the league at the rim, at 55.5 percent for the season per SportVU data. They haven't been rebounding at the rate we expected them to be, and they aren't forcing a ton of turnovers either, ranking at 15th in the league in opponent turnover percentage. At the individual level, Love has been a liability, the pick-and-roll defense has still been off, and they're having trouble stopping good low post scorers and elite point guards. These are probably going to be themes throughout the season, even if marginal improvement can be expected.
So among all of these issues, how have the Cavs been able to generate improvement? They've switched to what appears to be a more conservative scheme, focusing on limiting the NBA's most efficient shots-The three-pointer and free throw. The Cavs look like they're allowing teams to take advantage of their weaknesses, but limiting opponents elsewhere, and over the last two weeks, it's gotten the job done.
For example, the Cavs have committed the second-lowest number of personal fouls in the league this season, at 18.8 per game. This has positives and negatives for the defense. Much like the Minnesota Timberwolves last season under Rick Adelman, the Cavs' bigs don't challenge opponent drives to the rim if they're out of position, and it leads to an inflated conversion rate at the rim. However, it also means that opponents don't get trips to the line. The Cavs are giving opponents just 20.5 free throw attempts per game (third-lowest in the league), and only Portland, San Antonio, Toronto and Indiana have gotten more than 23 attempts at the line against Cleveland. 23.3 is the median for the league.
Trimming off three attempts per game from average seems like a minor detail, especially when contested shots seem like the better alternative. However, the Cavs have been awful at contesting shots this season anyway, and removing potential trips to the line is actually the more effective route to take, especially if you don't have a skilled shot blocker. Let's compare the Cavs to the Denver Nuggets, for example. The Nuggets are allowing the league's second-lowest percentage at the rim, at 48.9 percent. Per Basketball-Reference, they are also allowing the league's most trips to the line, at 29.7 attempts per game. The Nuggets give up 10.1 makes at the rim per game for 20.2 points, and another 22.9 points per game at the line, so their total points allowed per game at the line and rim combined is 43.1. The Cavs, meanwhile, allow 12.1 makes at the rim per game and 16 at the line, bringing their total to 40.2. Obviously pace is a factor here (The Nuggets have about four more possessions per game than the Cavs do), but the Nuggets have a horrible defense (25th in the league in efficiency) while contesting shots at the rim well, and the Cavs are league average with a horrible percentage allowed at the rim. I find that interesting.
Perhaps more important, however, is that the Cavs have been phenomenal at contesting perimeter shots over this span of defensive turnaround. Over the last six games the Cavs' opponents have hit just 33.3 percent of their threes, and they're taking just 17 per game, a number only the Bulls allow less than on the season (and by less than, I mean 16.9). The Cavs have played better on and off-ball defense on the perimeter, and their rotations have been such that opponents are scoring more on cuts to the basket than getting open looks outside, which has made three-point looks harder to come by. This was particularly apparent in both Washington games, where the Cavs basically dared John Wall and Bradley Beal to beat them off the dribble by playing tighter on the Wizards' other shooters. That worked once for the Wizards, but in the second game it was a lot more successful as the Cavs' pick-and-roll defense was better. The Wizards don't take a ton of threes anyway, but they only got 23 attempts off combined in the two games, hitting nine.
The Cavs also have adopted a blitzing pick-and-roll scheme, an aggressive look that looks to accomplish the same thing; they give up looks at the rim, but by trapping the opposing point guard, they eliminate the threes off the pick that killed the team last year when Kyrie Irving would lose his man and give up wide-open outside shots. It also forces quick decisions that can lead to turnovers, and prevents the guard from attacking the basket if it's communicated correctly. It does mean that the roll man gets a clean look if the second big's rotation isn't timed right, but they reduce the effectiveness of a lot of the other options this play provides with the additive of solid perimeter defense off the ball, which the Cavs have gotten lately.
This strategy is a solid one for the Cavs to keep using given their personnel. They have two pretty good perimeter defenders in LeBron and Shawn Marion, and no rim protection to speak of. The need for a rim protector or another good on-ball perimeter defender has frequently been brought up as the only way the Cavs could get better defensively, but the Cavs have gone another way, by letting that shot go and eliminating chances for opposing chances to get open threes and free throws, taking away other efficient shots. Not every team that has a good defense has good rim protection, and not every good rim protector makes for a good overall defense. The Cavs have opted for a more unconventional approach, and in the last couple of weeks, they've excelled at it.
There is a question of whether this defensive turnaround is sustainable. The Cavs have created this success against the Spurs, Wizards twice, Raptors, Magic, and Pacers; the only consistently good offense they've played is Toronto, who shelled them for 110 points. Whether they can keep that production up against an elite pick-and-roll offense like Dallas or a good three-point shooting team like Miami remains to be seen. There's also a precedent for this style of defense to be wildly inconsistent; it's a very similar gameplan to what Charlotte has done under Steve Clifford, and they were a top-10 defense last year, but have cratered to 24th in defensive efficiency this season. However, the scheme has been a decent fit for the personnel, and it's led to a string of sub-100 point nights for opposing offenses. Let's see if the Cavs can keep that up for a little longer, because even with a league-average defense, the Cavs' offense might be good enough to achieve success.