The Cleveland Cavaliers are an elite offensive team. According to basketball-reference.com, the Cavs have the second most efficient offense in the NBA this season. Since January 15th, the team is scoring 111.5 points per 100 possessions, easily the best in the league. Only the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors are in the same ballpark.
The team employs LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. It makes sense.
But the defense has been another matter. Overall, the basketball-reference.com has the Cavs as the 18th best defense in the league. A popular talking point tends to follow the logic that it's extremely difficult to win a title if you don't have a top 10 defense.
Each of last 13 NBA champions and 23 of 25 have ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. Clips are tied for 17th ... and Cavs are 20th
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) March 30, 2015
So the Cavs are in trouble, right? Well, maybe. There are a couple different ways you can look at it. This post from Eraulli is a must-read, and comprehensive look, at what it takes for teams to be true title contenders. A couple conclusions he drew from the data:
The Cavs aren't in the top half of the NBA defensively for the season. But like so many things with the Cavs season, January 15th does represent a bit of a turning point. The Cavs welcomed back a healthier LeBron James, and have worked in additions J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov, and Iman Shumpert. All four have been helpful to the Cavs defense. The results have been positive, if not overwhelming:
NBA's best defensive ratings among playoff teams since 1/15: 1) MEM, 98.2 2) SAS 98.7 3) GSW 98.8 4) WAS 99.1 5) MIL 99.8 6) CLE 101.4— David Zavac (@DavidZavac) April 6, 2015
The Cavs are 10th overall in defensive efficiency since 1/15, a 38 game sample.— David Zavac (@DavidZavac) April 6, 2015
So the Cavs have been better, and even have a top 10 defense over 38 games. But this isn't a shut down defense, and while it hasn't been an easy schedule, the playoffs provides a different challenge. Teams with more experience and more chemistry and more continuity have a leg up. The Cavs are still getting to know one another. Having a slightly above average defense does not mean that you always play slightly above average defense. It means some nights you might be above average, and some nights you might be bad.
What the team does have, though, are more good defenders. LeBron James is not a consistent elite defender anymore, but he can turn it on for five and six minute stretches. Timofey Mozgov provides a physical presence and changes shots. Iman Shumpert disrupts passing lanes and plays with energy. J.R. Smith has been dialed in. Tristan Thompson has improved throughout the season and is competent against different kinds of players.
The presence of these guys has made things easier for the Cavs who aren't good defenders. Kyrie Irving has looked much more comfortable funneling his man into Mozgov on PnR's than he has before on defense in the NBA. Kevin Love's post defense is fine, and when his back has been right he's been predictably great at rebounding. Without an elite defender, it's going to be an all hands on deck situation for the Cavs. Everyone must pull their weight. This is where the lack of continuity could hurt. Eventually, this Cavs team could become a very good defense. Guys will gain trust, understand rotations, maximize strengths.
Perhaps most encouraging, though, is looking at the top defensive lineups the Cavs have put on the floor since January 15. If you look at three man combinations that have logged over 300 minutes together since then, you'll find that the best defensive lineups the Cavs have put on the floor include Irving and Love alongside Timofey Mozgov. Those three with any other combination of Cavs players are giving up 95.6 points per 100 possessions in 579 minutes. The second best combination is Shumpert, LeBron, and Thompson. In 318 minutes they are giving up 95.8 points per 100 possessions. Those are elite numbers, and seem to indicate that David Blatt can manipulate lineups to get defense both with the starters and bench.
My gut tells me it's going to come down to what kind of playoff defense the Cavs can get from Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. Overall, I think both are average to slightly above average defenders. I think they have plus skills that complement each other very well. But whether teams can exploit their weaknesses (Tristan's rim protection relative to other centers and ability of certain players to shoot over him, Mozgov's lack of mobility, slow feet, and, maybe, foul trouble) or whether these guys rise to the challenge may swing the Eastern Conference Finals, and, perhaps, the NBA Finals.
We will see.