The Cleveland Cavaliers love isolation plays.
Part of this is because it's easy. Early in the season, the Cavs were installing a brand new offense, and struggling to find a cohesive relationship for generating offense between LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving. Guys didn't know where to be offensively, and talent was often overriding strategy - and that usually leads to guys running ISOs in the backcourt.
As the season has progressed, the offense has gotten more cohesive across the board, but the Cavs are still running a ton of plays that end in isolations, especially at the end of games. This can be frustrating, for many reasons. ISOs are easy to defend. They usually don't end in an open shot. And they lack the aesthetic value that swinging the ball around and creating an open look do. It's just a guy sizing up his defender, taking him off the dribble, and either powering through them for a layup or rising up for a mid-range jumper.
However, the Cavs have been one of the best teams in the league at creating offense via isolation this season, and doing so at volume. The Cavs run the most isolation plays in the league, per NBA.com per play data, at 11.6 percent of possessions ending in an isolation. That's a lot. Only the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers are also isolating at a rate over 10 percent, and neither of those teams are any good at it. The Pelicans score 0.84 points per possession (PPP) on ISOs, putting them in the 55th percentile in the league, while the Lakers are scoring 0.81 PPP, good for the 31st percentile. Let's get Kobe's take on that number:
The Cavs? They're scoring 0.95 PPP on ISO plays, second in the league behind the Los Angeles Clippers, and putting them in the 96th percentile of teams. Their scoring frequency (The percentage of possessions they score at all on these plays), is a league-leading 44.6 percent. That's far better than most teams, who hover around 40 percent.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Cavs have two of the best players in the NBA at creating off ISO plays. LeBron James is an all-time great at the ISO game, and he's scoring 0.96 PPP on isolations, and these account for about a quarter of his overall possessions, per Synergy. He's fantastic at getting to the basket out of these looks, particularly driving to his right, where he finishes 65.4 percent at the rim. He's also lethal when he isolates off a defensive switch, scoring 1.27 PPP in this scenario.
However, that pales in comparison to Kyrie Irving, who's creating 1.11 PPP off ISO looks, per Synergy data. He's scored 200 points on 149 shot attempts, and has an eFG% of 53.4 percent on these looks. On a minimum of 40 possessions, here's who's been better than Kyrie on ISO looks this season:
-Dirk Nowitzki - 1.27 PPP on 45 possessions
-Kevin Durant - 1.24 PPP on 87 possessions
-Mike Conley - 1.12 PPP on 41 possessions
So, Kyrie only trails three players who isolate with regularity, and he has done that on more than DOUBLE the number of attempts. He's good from everywhere - from the left side he's scoring 1.28 PPP, from the right he's at 1.22, and from the top he's scoring 0.97, which still rates as very good, per Synergy. The most ridiculous ISO stat I can find for Kyrie? On ISO jumpers without a dribble, Kyrie is 28/53, good for 1.46 PPP. That's second among all players.
So, LeBron and Kyrie are pretty great at Isolation plays. naturally, they carry near 70 percent of Cavs ISOs that are run. However, there are other solid ISO scorers on the roster. Dion Waiters actually rated as "very good" via Synergy, scoring 0.92 PPP, which was in the 75th percentile of players. J.R. Smith has been decent as well, scoring 0.75 PPP which is average. And somehow, Matthew Dellavedova has scored 0.91 PPP on his eleven ISO looks this season, rating him as "very good." Even Synergy likes to tell jokes.
So the Cavs are solid at scoring on ISOs, but does that mean that it's the best offense they can use? ISOs are conventionally less effective than other play types, so even being good at them can mean that they aren't your best option. Well, below is a table of the Cavs' scoring efficiency and frequency for each of their five most common possession-ending play types:
|Play Type||Frequency||PPP||Synergy Assessment|
|P&R Ball Handler||17%||0.81||Good|
The Cavs are actually running a higher percentage of PNR than expected as it ends about 23 percent of the team's possessions if you count roll man finishes (6.1 percent). As you can see though, the Cavs' ball-handlers are not nearly as effective finishing out of this set as they are creating one-on-one. This could be due to the cramped spacing associated with a PNR roll, as the perimeter guy will have to contend with both defenders and usually the lumbering Mozgov rolling to the rim. In ISOs, Kyrie or LeBron have a little more space to work with. The Cavs also turn the ball over on 17% of PNR looks as opposed to just 8% of ISO plays, which is interesting. The Cavs also score better out of ISOs than post-ups, which shouldn't surprise anyone, as post-ups are inefficient by nature, and Love is one of the top post-up guys in the league at .994 PPP.
That leaves spot-ups and transition as the only plays the Cavs run regularly with a higher scoring efficiency than ISOs. Transition barely counts, because it's not something that happens out of a half-court set, and in Synergy, it's kind of a catch-all for everything that happens out of a fast break. Spot-ups, meanwhile, while they are more efficient, don't always have to come out of ball movement and sophisticated offense. An ISO where the ball handler gets into the paint can collapse the defense just as well as a PNR can if that player is an elite threat, and that can create kick-out opportunities for spot-ups. They do call it the drive-and-kick for a reason, after all. And this is reflected in the Cavs' Synergy stats, too; the Cavs actually score slightly better on passes out of ISO looks (0.95 PPP), compared to passes out of the PNR (0.93 PPP).
The Cavs have an ISO-heavy offense, and it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing thing to watch. The PNR is in vogue, and the Cavs don't generate a high amount of spot-up opportunities from ball movement like the San Antonio Spurs or the Atlanta Hawks. However, the Cavs are still scoring at 110.6 points/100 possessions, good for 5th in the league, even if their offense is ISO heavy. They rely on two of the best isolation players in the league to generate offense, and their ISOs, as well as the shots they create off ISO looks, have fared better this season than the shots they've created out of the PNR.
While there are ways the Cavs could generate better PNR looks (running Love more as the roll man, dumping off on off-ball cuts more, etc.), their efficiency in ISO looks supports that they're doing something pretty effective by trying to go one-on-one at high frequency. While it remains to be seen what they can accomplish in the playoffs with this plan, in the regular season, ISO-ball has treated the Cavs' offense well.