Chris Manning (@cwmwrites): So, the playoffs are coming and soon and it feels as if a lot is still up in the air for the Cavs. I think we’d both argue that some of it has to do with the Cavs’ rotation. And I know you have some strong opinions on how it’s been handled. So I’ll ask: what’s your take on how Tyronn Lue has managed the Cavs’ rotation?
David Zavac (@DavidZavac): Well, I think it’s been problematic to say the least. Lue has been unwilling at times to play Channing Frye at all, and still others to play him at center. So Frye, who does not possess impressive lateral quickness, has been playing power forward, guarding power forwards. He’s not going to be a plus defender in too many situations, but as a rim protector he has shown some skill. Theoretically, he also allows Tristan Thompson to play power forward defensively, where his quickness and size is more valuable.
This dovetails with the other major issue, which is that Timofey Mozgov still starts. Mozgov very rarely plays more than 20 minutes a game, and yet usually starts both halves. This limits the minutes that Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson play together over the course of the game. Often, these four don’t see serious time together until the last six minutes of close games. This is a problem on a few levels. First, those are your four best players. Second, we now have two seasons of data indicating that those four players are very good together.
With Mozgov on the court, per nba.com/stats, the Cavs are outscoring opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions. When Mozgov is on the bench, the Cavs out score opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs defense actually gets slightly worse with Mozgov on the floor.
Now, the Cavs seem to want to play Mozgov to keep Tristan Thompson fresh. This is a false choice. Channing Frye and Kevin Love have played together for a total of 25 minutes going into Sunday’s game with the Hornets. 25 minutes. 25 MINUTES. Again, Lue’s reticence playing Frye anywhere but power forward is a huge problem. I’m not even going to give you the nbawowy.com numbers on how good lineups with those two on the court have been. It’s too small of a sample size. But inserting Channing Frye into the starting lineup and letting Tristan Thompson beat up on some second units, and finish fourth quarters strong would have made all of the sense. Doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.
There has also been inconsistency in terms of who runs the second unit, and when, and how you survive minutes without LeBron James. What do you think? I generally refrain from criticizing coaches too much because I never really played. Thoughts on the team’s unwillingness to play Love at center?
Manning: I think the Cavs' unwillingness to play at center is part of the problem, but not a major one. He’s definitely a defensive liability and some of the teams the Cavs might see in the playoffs - Atlanta, Golden State San Antonio, Oklahoma City - can wreck lineups with Love at center. It’s something that unlocks the Cavs’ full offensive potential and I’d certainly like seeing it more. But I also get why we don’t.
I think my biggest issue with how the rotation is working at the moment is based on Lue’s understanding of what exactly his role players do. Regardless of what recent net rating numbers indicate, Timofey Mozgov hasn’t been good at all and it’s hard to see him deserving a huge chunk of minutes. Give him some, sure but give Frye more and maybe start Frye with Love. On top that, I don’t love lineups where Matthew Dellavedova is without at least one of Irving or LeBron. I’m in the camp of that thinks "Delly is a two-guard" and don’t see why he shouldn’t be deployed as much for the vast majority of his minutes.
The tricky thing with LeBron is that the Cavs, in almost two years, haven’t figured out how to survive without LeBron. It really shouldn’t be that hard - I mean, you have Irving and Love to lean on - but it’s been a problem. For me, that’s probably the biggest issue with the rotation as the playoffs come near.
Zavac: Yeah, and I think that’s largely fair. Since January 1, the Cavs are outscored by 1.7 points/100 possessions when LeBron James is not on the court. That sounds bad, but it’s actually a huge improvement over what the first two months of the season were like. Prior to the start of 2016, the Cavs net rating when James was on the bench was -11.7. So they’ve gotten significantly better, particularly when Kyrie Irving has led that second unit.
Only problem there? Irving’s been largely bad for about two weeks now. Now he’s got the ankle issue. It’s not an issue where Matthew Dellavedova should be starting, or where Irving and James can’t play together. There’s a lot of evidence, both this season, but especially last, that they help each other in a few ways. Sunday’s game was a nice example. James was fantastic, and Irving didn’t play. James also played a ton of minutes, and carried a huge offensive burden.
I’ll kick it back to you one more time. I’d start Kyrie, Iman Shumpert, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Channing Frye if I were Tyronn Lue. J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson would make up the vast majority of the bench minutes. If you want Smith in there for Shumpert, I’m fine with that as well. What’s your best playoff rotation?
Manning: I think I’d roll with the same starting lineup, although I get starting Smith because he’s been the starter. Why mess with something that works?
From there, I agree with what you’re saying. Thompson should be playing a ton, maybe even more than he did in the regular season. I think some the rotation choices will be matchup dependent, which probably most affects Timofey Mozgov. It’s been pretty well established that Mozgov hasn’t been very good this year and I don’t see a lot of reasons to give him a lot of minutes in the playoffs. That being said, you might have the need for 10 minutes a game if/when the Cavs see the Hawks in the East or the Spurs or Thunder in the Finals. And even then, Frye’s a good enough defender to really not have me too worried about losing Mozgov’s rim protection in a shortened playoff rotation. It’s a small sample size, but the Cavs are 3.6 points per 100 possessions on defense with Frye and he never plays with Mozgov.
Really, my biggest issue that is Lue hasn’t managed his rotations consistently. I think that’s going to matter some come playoffs.
Stats courtesy of nba.com/stats unless otherwise attributed.