There were times last season that the Cavaliers' offense was borderline unfair. Led by by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, they posted numbers that were sometimes patently absurd and settled in as the 4th best in the NBA for the entire year at 107 points per 100 possessions. The scary thing for the the rest of the NBA: They all had trouble staying on the court, and they were doing a few things that were just plain counter-productive.
Being available is kind of a big deal
I don't need to tell you this. Not as the Cavs start the season with Kyrie Irving being extremely cautious with his broken kneecap to prevent what some rumblings call a rushed playoff recovery. Not with LeBron James taking extra rest, and receiving another anti-inflammatory shot for a back that has carried the weight of so many for so long. Not with Kevin Love making his return to the court today, after 4 long months of rehab and watching his undermanned team desperate for his help in the finals.
The Cavs largest issue this season will be health, without question. The status of Iman Shumpert, Anderson Varejao, and Timofey Mozgov -- all working their way back from injury or into shape after rehab -- looms, but they will only truly be title contenders with James, Love, and Irving on the court. This might mean 55 wins instead of 65, or maybe an even lower number. Whatever the case, keeping minutes low will be a top priority.
Last season, it was impossible to get Kyrie or LeBron off the court as the team couldn't sustain offense at all when both were off floor. When LeBron was on the court, the Cavaliers scored 112 points per 100 possessions. With Kyrie, 111. Those would be good for by far the best offenses in the league. Removing either player drops that number down to an even 100, which would equate to the 25th. The issue is simple, it's one I've frequently bemoaned, and it's one the Cavs have corrected with the signing of Mo Williams. Outside of James or Irving, the Cavs just didn't have anyone capable of initiating offense. For example, as the pick and roll ball handler Kyrie ranked in the 86th percentile. Thats very good. LeBron ranked in the 66th, that's good. Mo Williams (not listed on this chart) ranked in the 67th, also good. Matthew Dellavedova -- miscast as an initiator out of necessity -- ranked in the 10th, the third worst mark in the entire league; ahead of only Nick Calathes and Dante Exum among players with more than 100 such possessions. This played a big part in Kyrie and LeBron ranking 3rd and 6th respectively in minutes per game at 36.4 and 36.1. Kevin Love was further down the list at 33.8.
The mission for the Cavs is clear: Use Williams, Richard Jefferson, and if they can find some kind of young super durable minutes sponge at power forward (anyone know one of those waiting on a contract?) when they can to keep these guys healthy and off the court as much as possible for when the games actually matter. It's hard to undersell the addition of Williams to this cause, given how bad every measurable offensive number paints the Cavs reserve point guards from last season.
Work Kevin Love smarter, not harder
I've previously mentioned the highlights of the Cavs offense last year, but not all of the warts were on the subpar backups they employed. Two of the worst things the Cavs did on a regular basis originated from their 'Big Three', and finding a way to improve there, or remove those possessions altogether will be key.
We'll start with Love. Last year I recoiled at the idea the Cavs were using him incorrectly. Certainly for Love, they probably were. For the team though, I didn't think this was the case. He got a lot of post up opportunities, and among players posting 200 or more, he was the second most efficient player in the league scoring .98 points per possession (PPP). Certainly Love could have been afforded more of those chances, as his 295 such possessions put him several hundred behind most heavy use post players, but for the Cavs it just wasn't a very smart idea. While .98 is a great number on post ups, it's a somewhat average number compared to other looks the Cavs frequently generated, and best saved for when a team tried a small ball four.
The other thing nobody liked was that Love was spotting up so much. Love spotted up more than any Cavalier, with over 100 such possessions than the next closest, J.R. Smith. This demonstrates the futility of the post ups, however. On spot ups, Love generated 1.12 PPP, much better than the .98 he created in the post. The Cavs as a team are a hotbed of good spot up shooters, as we can see below.
The post ups aren't what is galling about those far more efficient numbers above though. What REALLY hurt the Cavs was using Love as a roll man. It wasn't good, it wasn't average like LeBron ISO's (more on that later), it was just flat out BAD. As a roll man, again Love had far more attempts than someone who rated among the leagues best. Where in J.R. Smith's case you could say the extra attempts can somewhat explain the marginal drop in PPP, there is no such silver lining in the gulf between Tristan Thompson (and Anderson Varejao and Timofey Mozgov for that matter) and Kevin Love. Love ranked in the 29th percentile, shooting a paltry 37 percent and providing .83 PPP on rolls. Thompson, for comparison, provided 1.23 PPP on such plays. In fact, literally every single Cavalier who participated in such plays with the exception of Shawn Marion scored at least 1 PPP. That includes Kendrick Perkins and James Jones. This stands out as the only bad action the Cavs ran frequently, and on its own solidifies any claim the Cavs were using Love improperly thus making me very wrong last year. Perhaps this is somewhere where Love shows major improvement, but with all of their other bigs from last season ranking so effectively on rolls, and Love being so good in spot up situations, it makes little sense to run this action with him.
Love should be returning to action today, so it will be interesting to see how they plan to get him some of his familiar old looks as they vowed to, and if this means these rolls are going to be removed.
LeBron is great, but less LeBron can also be great
This next point almost seems like heresy, but the numbers and team desires support it. The Cavs need to get the ball out of LeBron's hands more. Ideally this is accomplished by him spending more time on the bench, but even in the normal offense, he needs to assume a larger off ball role.
The big culprit is isolations. James wasn't bad in isolation attempts, ranking in the 75th percentile at .93 PPP, but that number isn't great. For context: In his time as a Cavalier Dion Waiters ranked directly behind, at .92 PPP. What makes this undesirable is the sheer number of these possessions (458) and the fact that Irving was far superior. Irving's 1.09 PPP ranks him 1st among players with 200 or more such possessions, but his 243 possessions pale in comparison to James', despite playing in 6 more games.
Now, LeBron is still LEBRON, of course. Still, Irving has developed into one of the most complete scorers in basketball, and it would be wise to use him more. Like we saw above, James actually rated as the Cavs 4th best spot up player at 1.15PPP. Using him in this fashion more -- provided the numbers remain strong -- would help James find rest periods during the game. Mo Williams fits in here as well, as his isolation attempts would put him in the 88th percentile while in Minnesota, and 96th while in Charlotte. He didn't have as many attempts, but he is an offensive weapon the Cavs would be wise to utilize in their efforts to keep LeBron healthy.
For whatever reason, LeBron only participated in 12 pick and rolls as the roll man for the entire season. I don't understand this. He was in the 98th percentile, pretty much the best in the league at 1.42 PPP, but the sample is so small that it is basically meaningless. Why didn't he do this more? In the playoffs he participated in exactly 0. So who knows. Seems like something that would be effective.
As an aside, a fun playoff oddity: The very best roll man in the playoffs in 13 such possessions was Matthew Dellavedova. No joke, 100th percentile. I dunno.
The Cavs have strengthened the depth around their three stars, but the team will only go as far as they're able to carry them. Hopefully the team can find a way to lighten the load. If the few issues we've looked at get addressed we could be looking at a historic offense, which sounds like a whole lot of fun.
** all stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats and NBA Media.
** all charts made by me
** play type definitions can be found here. Note that "Roll man" includes Pick and Pops and Slips also.