Offensive creation, and versatility. When it comes to the Cleveland Cavaliers roster, these would seem to be the strengths. With LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, the ability to create efficient shots for the ballhandler or the players around them should never be in short supply. In time, James' responsibilities will hopefully tick down, but for now he's still a transcendent force that needs - and should have - the the ball in his hands.
Stacked around these all-world talents are either versatile role players, or guys who bring much-needed attributes, or both. Iman Shumpert isn't much of a shooter, but he can guard point guards and both wing positions. Tristan Thompson is an excellent PnR finisher and can guard multiple positions and defend PnRs in multiple ways. Timofey Mozgov is an excellent PnR finisher and can protect the rim. J.R. Smith brings needed shooting and decent defense, particularly when he's dialed in.
Added to that solid core are guys who will likely do just enough to be valuable. Matthew Dellavedova plays decent defense on ball defense, particularly in short bursts, and is good off the ball. He is a good spot-up shooter, which is important when you play with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Richard Jefferson might supply some of that shooting, and Anderson Varejao might space the floor a bit with his midrange jumper. Mo Williams can hopefully shoot spotting up, and provides dribbling as well.
So how does David Blatt navigate the waters here? He has options, pieces that fit together, pieces that don't. For example, the Anderson Varejao and Kevin Love pairing just didn't have enough rim protection or quickness, and the Cavs got diced defensively when they shared the court. Here are five lineup combos I'm looking forward to see.
Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and either Tristan Thompson or Timogey Mozgov
I'm already cheating! This is two lineup combos for the price of one! It's also the easiest, and they're the lineups that ran roughshod over the league for basically all of last season. Yes, all of last season.
Cavs scoring margin/100 possessions when Big 3 play with: Varejao: -.4 (441 mins) Mozgov: +17 (512 mins) Tristan: +21 (402 mins)— David Zavac (@DavidZavac) April 16, 2015
While looking this up, I actually found that Irving-Marion-James-Love-Thompson lineups outscored opponents by over 28 points/100 possessions in 112 minutes last year. That's a small sample, but it's nuts all the same and it happened before the trades for the New York guards and Mozgov. There are a few takeaways from all this. First, Varejao and Kevin Love just weren't a good fit. Not enough rim protection, not enough mobility. Thompson doesn't really protect the rim like you'd want from a center (yet), but he can obviously move his feet. Varejao and Love aren't great at either. Of course, Mozgov is your prototypical defensive center.
This may all seem basic. Of course lineups with James, Irving, and Love are going to be good! Except no, not really. Many wondered and continue to wonder if lineups with Irving and Love can defend at a high enough level. There is a ton of evidence to indicate that the Cavs run up the score with those guys on the court together - as long as either Thompson or Mozgov is out there as well.
Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, LeBron James, and Tristan Thompson
I am going to cheat again. Delly played 254 minutes with Shumpert and James, and the Cavs outscored opponents by 22.7 points/100 possessions in that time. Tristan Thompson played 340 minutes with Shumpert and James, and the Cavs outscored opponents by 21.3 points/100 possessions in that time.
I went with the four for a couple reasons. One, I think you learn a bit more with more players because there is less variation (there's just one other player out there that we are missing for context), but two, if I had gone with Thompson and the larger sample people would have been upset with me for leaving Delly out. So how did the four do together? In 213 minutes, they outscored opponents by 21.9 points. The defense and LeBron James model worked last year. Delly can hit open threes, Thompson can finish lobs, the James is a dominant force. The Cavs gave up just 94.9 points/100 possessions with these four playing together. That's a heck of a bench unit.
Mo Williams, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson
Shooting! Offense! Transition! Rest for LeBron James! I have no lineup data to show you, of course. You'd probably want Timo Mozgov out there to protect the rim to account for the turnstile defense you'd see from the guards a lot of the time, and that lineup might actually work. Irving, Smith, Love and Mozgov played 633 minutes together last year and outscored opponents by 16 points/100 possessions. The huge caveat with that, though, is that you are replacing LeBron James (who was certainly out there for a big percentage of those minutes) with Mo Williams.
Update: Ben Dowsett comes in with this info about these guys without James:
@DavidZavac Irving-Smith-Love-Mozgov only played 153 mins w/o LBJ, but were +7.0-ish in them. Just FYI.— Ben Dowsett (@Ben_Dowsett) September 19, 2015
Those numbers are from NBAWowy.com, and they keep track of possessions a little differently. Still, it's not terrible.
Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson
This is theoretically a really nice starting lineup with balance and offense. We know Shumpert, James and Thompson have fared well together, and we know that the Big 3 and Thompson have fared well together. There is shooting here, there is athleticism, there is versatility. It seems likely that this group will finish a few games together. Love stretches the floor for Thompson dunks and Irving and James drives.
Kyrie Irving Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Timo Mozgov
And yet, this is the lineup that will likely start, and that is more than okay. All they did in 481 minutes last year was outscore opponents by over 19 points/100 possessions. There's an abundance of shooting. It's everywhere. Even Mozgov made 27 midrange jumpers last season. Mozgov can cover up defensive shortcomings and Smith can guard well on the perimeter when he wants to. Same with James.
We all fell in love with these guys last year. Can't wait to see them get back to work.
Lineup data courtesy of nba.com/stats