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Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and LeBron James are anchoring a surprisingly stout Cleveland defense

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It wasn't really supposed to work this way

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cleveland Cavaliers assembled the talents of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love onto one roster, there were a number of normal and rational reactions. If you were a Cavs fan, for example, joy was an acceptable feeling. Excitement over what promised to be a devastatingly effective offense proved to be well-founded. Lineups with those three players, plus either Timofey Mozgov or Tristan Thompson, scored at record rates.

It was also just simply a very good team. The Cavs made it all the way to NBA Finals despite weathering some serious injuries, and even stole a couple games from the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. With Kevin Love out of the playoffs after the first round, and with Kyrie Irving missing time, the Cavs became what no one thought they could be a year ago today: a defensive minded team that outgrounded and outworked the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, and then for the first three games of the Finals, the aforementioned Warriors.

Most of that came from necessity. The Cavs healthiest players, after LeBron James, all happened to be the team's best defenders: Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, and Matthew Dellavedova. Scoring was difficult, but the Cavs beat teams up on the glass and made them work for every basket. At the beginning of the season, the question was whether or not that could keep up with Kevin Love and eventually Kyrie Irving working back into the rotation.

So far, the results have been positive. Heading into Tuesday night's games, the Cavs had the NBA's sixth best defensive efficiency rating. There are caveats. The Cavs have had one of the NBA's easiest schedules, and have played the Philadelphia 76ers three times. After Wednesday's tilt with the Knicks, the schedule toughens up through mid-January. We will know more by then. Even so, let's take a look at how they've gotten where they are.

The centers

Heading into training camp 15 months ago, the question many asked was if the Cavs could put together a functional defense with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and no rim protector. Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson did some nice things defensively, the thought process went, but neither could protect the rim. Everything changed, or so the narrative goes, when Timofey Mozgov entered the fold in January. To a certain extent, it did. Anderson Varejao had struggled, and then suffered a season ending Achilles injury. The Cavs had two functional bigs with Love and Thompson, and then were playing Brendan Haywood.

Still, even before Timofey Mozgov arrived, the Cavs had lineup combinations that were working just fine defensively. For example, Cavalier lineups with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson were outscoring opponents by 24.2 points per 100 possessions in 240 minutes prior to January 8th, 2015. Defensively, that lineup was holding teams to a very good 97.5 points per 100 possessions. If you applied that number to this season's defensive ratings, it would put the Cavs second in the NBA.

None of this is to discount what Mozgov did last season. It gave the Cavs another option in the frontcourt, and it was a very good one. A major part of the Cavaliers' title hopes rely on Mozgov duplicating what he did last season, when he virtually played Andrew Bogut off the court in the NBA Finals, and helped spur a run of crazy regular season success for Cleveland.

There's a ton to unpack here (thanks Jacob!), and we won't get into all of it, but let's focus on a couple of points.

  1. There's a lot of noise in these numbers, but it's clear that the Kevin Love and Timofey Mozgov combination was more effective last season than it's been this season. Mozgov is returning from a knee injury, and is perhaps just now rounding into form. He's been dunking less, and he seems a half step slow. Let's hope he gets that jump back. He's only playing 19.5 minutes per game, and it's hard to argue he has earned more time. If the Cavs want to reach their defensive potential, he'll need to earn it.
  2. Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson lineups, on the other hand, have taken a nice step forward. We could also look at it like this:

You might be thinking, look, you said this was going to be about defense. The best three man defensive lineup in the NBA allows 87.9 points per 100 possessions, and it's comprised of Matthew Dellavedova, LeBron James, and Tristan Thompson. We knew coming into the season that Thompson was a good defensive player. When he guards power forwards, he is near elite, but he comes with the added utility of being able to guard both centers and quicker wings.

Regardless of what style of defense you want to use to counter an offense's pick and roll action, Thompson is going to be able to execute it fairly well. Straight switch? Trap the ball handler? High hedge and recover? Drop back and hope the guard takes a midranger? Thompson is capable on each measure.

The question, of course, was what type of rim protector Thompson could be. It's been a small sample, but the results this season have to be encouraging. According to Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus' rim protection metrics (updated through 12/20), he's 7th among power forwards and centers who play more than 19.8 minutes per game in position adjusted points saved per 36 minutes. That's a mouthful, but it's also pretty fantastic. He's affecting more shots at the rim, and it's paying off. We will see if it continues moving forward.

It's worth noting that Seth cautions against solely looking at the position-adjusted number. If you look purely at the raw points saved/36 minutes, again with players logging more than 19.8 minutes a night, Thompson rates 7th in that measure as well.

Another metric, this one with a lot of noise, comes from SportsVU tracking data. When opponents are taking shots within 10 feet of the rim and Thompson is the closest defender, they are shooting 10% points less than their expected field goal percentage. Among players who have defended 100 such attempts, just two rate above Thompson.

I'd expect all of these numbers to level out a bit for Thompson. He hasn't been this good in the past, and while he's getting to an age where you'd expect his defensive abilities to really start to come to fruition, a good dose of tempered of enthusiasm is probably helpful. In the meantime, though, he's making a hugely positive impact on the Cavs defense. Heading into Wednesday night's game with the Knicks, opposing teams are scoring just 94.3 points per 100 possessions when Thompson plays, a team best mark.

What's LeBron up to?

This one is both easy to chalk up, and very surprising. James is the Cavs' minute leader, and opponents are scoring just 95.3 points per 100 possessions when he plays. He is taking much fewer plays off, gambling less, and is more consistently dialed in. Over the last few years James' defense has not lived up to its stellar reputation. It's early, but he has been great on that end thus far. In the 343 minutes James has not been on the court for the Cavs this season, they are surrendering a ridiculous 108.5 points per 100 possessions.

There might be some worry here: LeBron's usage offensively is up, and he seems to be putting in more work defensively. With the schedule heating up a bit, Kyrie Irving's ability to swallow up possessions will be valuable.

And then there are the guards

On the one hand, noted defensive sieve (I don't actually think he's a defensive sieve) Kyrie Irving has been out. In his absence, the Cavs have gone to Mo Williams and Matthew Dellavedova. While Williams has provided an offensive spark at times, it is Dellavedova who has really shined. We don't have nearly as many good defensive metrics for guards (I should have said at the beginning of the article that there aren't too many great defensive metrics for individual players, at all), we can look at how teams defend with certain players on the court.

Delly is a part of many of the Cavs best defensive units, and is doing it while making open threes and facilitating offense fairly well. Teams now game plan for Delly lobs to Tristan Thompson. When you already have Irving, James, and Kevin Love, their ability to connect and force teams to counter it will and has proved valuable. Defensively, the Cavs give up 9.8 points per 100 possessions more when Delly sits.

The Cavs are likely to see some regression from Tristan Thompson and LeBron James defensively. They might see if from Matthew Dellavedova as well; it just isn't likely the Cavs are that good defensively and the competition gets a bit tougher. They do get help from Iman Shumpert's return, though, and improvement from Timofey Mozgov seems likely. So far, it looks like the makings of a championship-caliber defense.