The Cavs are 30 games above .500. They've already clinched a spot in the playoffs. It would be an upset if they were somehow not the top seed in the East. They've recently found lineups that work while LeBron James gets rest. Channing Frye has been a revelation since his insertion into the Cavs rotation. Kyrie Irving is back to his efficient scoring ways. LeBron James was able to take Wednesday night's game with the Dallas Mavericks off with the team still securing a win.
There's a lot to like. There are some worrying signs that go beyond cryptic tweets and Instagram posts, and Kyrie Irving's propensity to dribble. David Griffin did a good job of assembling this roster, and there are players with very specific skillsets that can be mixed and matched in various ways. Since LeBron James came back from his hiatus last season, the team has been able to find lineups that work really well.
So what's the problem? There are simply too many minutes where the Cavs are not utilizing these lineups. Whether it's Tyronn Lue still acclimating to the NBA game, or whether it's not wanting to cut bait on Timofey Mozgov, or something else, the Cavs are letting leads and games get away from them with bizarre lineups that don't make any sense.
Timofey Mozgov should be a fringe rotational player, perhaps brought in for spot opportunities
It's a bummer, and Mozgov played a big role in what the Cavs did last season. He simply hasn't been able to replicate that success this season. He should not be starting anymore. Against the Mavericks, he was out of the rotation completely. On Friday night he started against the Magic, despite Nikola Vucevic being out.
When Mozgov has been on the floor this season, the East-leading Cavs actually have a negative net rating. When he's been off the court, per nba.com/stats, the Cavs are outscoring opponents by 9.1 points/100 possessions. That doesn't quite put them on the San Antonio Spurs or Golden State Warriors level, but it's very good.
The problem with Timofey Mozgov starting isn't just that the team doesn't function well when he's out there with the starters, though that comprises a big part of it. Indeed, in 168 minutes, Kyrie Irving-J.R. Smith-LeBron James-Kevin Love-Timofey Mozgov lineups are being outscored by 16.1 points/100 possessions. You're essentially spotting the opposing team points to start the game. But the problem is compounded by the fact that the team has better options that are going unused.
In 394 minutes, that same lineup with Tristan Thompson inserted for Mozgov outscores opponents by 13.3 points/100 possessions. 394 minutes is a bigger number than 168, but it's not nearly big enough. During last night's closer than expected win over the Orlando Magic, Tristan Thompson played zero minutes with all three of Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Kevin Love. On the whole, those four outscore opponents by 15.6 points/100 possessions.
Last night might have been affected by Kevin Love being sick. He played just 23 minutes overall. Those minutes were largely wasted as he played with a center that he has had no success with all season long. It's possible that the Cavs are just waiting until the playoffs to knock Mozgov out of the rotation. Perhaps that will help Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson stay fresh. Even if this is the case, starting Channing Frye next to Love makes more sense.
At least one of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James needs to be on the court
I went in depth on the Cavs finally finding lineups that work without LeBron James last week. On Friday night against the Magic the Cavs trailed at the end of the first quarter by two points. They started the second quarter without a single member of the Big 3 on the court. In the first 1:28 of game action in the quarter, the Magic went on a 6-0 run. Kyrie Irving, inexplicably on the bench, returned to the game. Over the last 10:32 of the first half, the Cavs outscored the Magic 36-19.
In a vacuum, this is a harmless little run that the Magic went on. It happens. The problem is, this little run probably didn't need to happen and was fairly predictable. Through January 1, the Cavs were being outscored by 11.7 points/100 possessions whenever LeBron James was on the bench. That's a disaster. Since that date, though, the Cavs actually have a positive net rating when LeBron James sits. Why? Per nbawowy.com, the Cavs are outscored by 11.8 points/100 possessions in 592 minutes without either James or Kyrie Irving. But if James is sitting and you put Irving on the floor, the Cavs are actually +8.9 points/100 possessions in 371 minutes.
With Channing Frye added the mix, it's now possible to give Irving a stretch shooter with those second units, likely making them even more effective (especially if Tristan Thompson is on the floor). But if Lue doesn't let Irving run the show, or leaves Matthew Dellavedova to try and create, the Cavs will continue to get poor results. Maybe this is much ado about nothing, but the Cavs similarly switched around the rotations Monday night in Utah.
It's March, and it's time for some stability in the rotations
The Cavs big run of dominance never came this season. They have had groups of players that do really well. Dellavedova has been used perfectly for most of the season, and can be plugged in with nearly any group of players. Tristan Thompson has seen his role bounce around, but is similarly versatile. Around them you have three supremely gifted offensive players. The pieces are here. It's time that Tyronn Lue helps them to be more than the sum of their parts.