Through nine games of the NBA season, the Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t given fans much doubt that their title defense is going to be a hard-fought one. There was plenty of concern heading into the season that the Cavs were going to totally mail in the regular season, struggling to focus and stay hungry as the defending champs. So far, that’s been needless. They’re 8-1, have the league’s 2nd-best record, and are looking the most cohesive they’ve been in November since LeBron James’s first stint in wine and gold. Sure, they’ve let some teams hang around in games they should be closing out, but it’s hard to argue with the results or the optics so far this season.
Through these first nine games, the Cavs have been mixing and matching lineups pretty consistently, trying to find optimal bench units. Only the starting lineup has logged more than 18 minutes this year, and that’s also the only lineup that’s seen time in more than five games. While the sample size for some of these units is still small enough for random statistical noise, the Cavs assuredly will be moving towards a more standard rotation in the coming games. At this time, it’s appropriate to get a look at what’s working, and what isn’t, in the Cavs’ rotation.*
*-We’ll focus on lineups who have played at least 5 minutes together so far. We want our discussion to merely involve a little noise, not a symphony of randomness.
Kyrie Irving/J.R. Smith/LeBron James/Kevin Love/Tristan Thompson
131 minutes, 107.1 ORtg, 101.1 DRtg
While not the death machine of last season (+12.4 net rating), this year’s starting unit has been very good. With a net rating of 6.0 points per 100 possessions, the Cavs’s starters are again playing solid defense, scoring at a high rate out of primarily isolation looks, and the group’s proven durable, playing about 15 minutes per game together as the ninth most-used lineup in the league. The one interesting change this year has been pace - the starters are playing at about 101.6 possessions/48 minutes, up from 94.5 a year ago. It’ll be interesting to see if a normally plodding halfcourt unit continues to run after misses as often as they have so far.
Best Offensive Lineup
Iman Shumpert/Mike Dunleavy/James/Richard Jefferson/Channing Frye
18 minutes, 138.9 ORtg, 87.1 DRtg
The Cavs’ 2nd most used lineup has been this juggernaut, which features the Cavs planting three shooters (four depending on which Shumpert is present) around LeBron. This has been the most effective unit for that, given the spot-up prowess and general passing acumen of the vets around James. They can also switch everything, as only Frye is at a real disadvantage against guards on the perimeter, and point guards have to defend someone here, meaning there are plenty of post-up chances against a mismatch here. This lineup has been nuclear offensively, and plays when the Cavs’ second, third, and fourth best players rest. So that’s neat.
Worst Offensive Lineup
8 minutes, 57.5 ORtg, 71.1 DRtg
I’m gonna blame noise for this one. Subbing Shump for J.R. shouldn’t cause this much of a drop-off, and this probably isn’t this good of a defensive lineup either. But still, this is a natural move early in the game if the Cavs are getting burnt defensively, and they’ll need this group to get right for the future.
Best Defensive Lineup
8 minutes, 84.7 ORtg, 67.6 DRtg
Naturally if you sub Kyrie in for Shump, the offense will die and your best offensive lineup will tighten down to become your best defensive unit. Have I mentioned that randomness is an issue here?
Worst Defensive Lineup
6 minutes, 104.9 ORtg, 174.6 DRtg
Finding ideal LeBron-less lineups is a major issue moving forward. LeBron will need rest at some point, and this unit has not been ideal defensively, as they lack anyone who can really contest a quick, strong small forward or a lineup with multiple wing shooters. You need Kyrie on these lineups for offensive initiation, but the defense here suffers with Jefferson’s athleticism slowly dwindling, and two bigs on the floor.
Best “LeBron on the Bench” Lineup
8 minutes, 93.0 ORtg, 90.1 DRtg
Case in point: The best five-man unit without LeBron on the floor has a Net Rating of +2.9, and has only played in one game. This area is the biggest area where we need more experimentation moving forward
Best 3-Man Unit (Min. 40 minutes)
57 minutes, 132.3 ORtg, 94.7 DRtg
This got a boost from Sunday’s Charlotte game with Jordan McRae and Richard Jefferson joining these three to put away the Charlotte Hornets, but these three have been a staple of the Cavs’ effective LeBron-centric bench units. Channing Frye in particular has been electric so far this season, and lineup data loves him: Frye’s Net On/Off rating is +10.6. He should probably get a slight minutes bump moving forward.
Best 2-Man Pairing (Min. 75 minutes)
90 minutes, 124.0 ORtg, 93.1 DRtg
Channing Frye REALLY should get a few more minutes.
Don’t Play this Group Again
7 minutes, 76.7 ORtg, 112.7 DRtg
No LeBron, no Kyrie, Shump as your primary ball-handler AND they’re assisting on just 25 percent of baskets. Let’s just not.
Best Garbage-Time Lineup
McRae/DeAndre Liggins/James Jones/Dunleavy/Andersen
6 minutes, 109.4 ORtg, 93.2 DRtg
We’ll end with a group that is so aesthetically pleasing. It blends the young and the old, the mobile and the immobile, and with three shooters, a defense-first big in Andersen, and an athletic slasher in Liggins, this group actually makes functional sense! I look forward to seeing this group get more substantial run when the Cavs are closing out the season after clinching their desired playoff spot in April.