For too long this season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were squandering precious time with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Kevin Love sharing the floor together. The start of the first and third quarter should have been a time for three of the top 30 players in the world to get off to fast starts and put their foot down on opponents. It didn't happen. Maybe it was Kyrie Irving's relatively poor shooting numbers coming off knee surgery, or maybe it was Timofey Mozgov. Maybe it was random.
Whatever the reason, the Cavs spent much of the season starting Timofey Mozgov, and lineups with Irving, J.R. Smith, James, Love, and him were outscored by 7.6 points per 100 possessions per nba.com/stats. At the same time, these lineups with Tristan Thompson inserted for Mozgov tended to be much more successful. In 465 minutes, such lineups outscored opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions. That conveniently adds up to a 20 point swing, and this website covered it, perhaps at a level that was over the top.
Late in the season, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue finally announced that Tristan Thompson would start for the Cavs, and that it would be something approaching a permanent change. It is a decision that appears to be paying off. In five playoff games, the Irving, Smith, James, Love, and Thompson lineup is outscoring opponents by 21.1 points over 100 possessions in 116 minutes. They are scoring a ridiculous 122 points per 100 possessions, and giving up a good 100.9 points per 100 possessions.
This is admittedly a small sample, and five-man data can be difficult to build up. The second most-played lineup has only played 31 minutes together (for fun, it's actually outscoring opponents by 33.3 points over 100 possessions. Matthew Dellavedova, LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, and Channing Frye has been a good second unit thus far). But the playoffs involve lots of small samples in which you put your guys in the best possible position to succeed and then hope for the best. You aren't guaranteed anything.
There are a lot of conclusions one might draw from the success of the starters. Perhaps Kyrie Irving and LeBron James aren't such a cancerous mix after all? From covering the first round of the playoffs, it seems that Irving, James, and Love have never been tighter. They've been getting good results. Perhaps the struggles really did revolve around Mozgov.
Let's just make one observation, though: without extrapolating anything from the data point, the Cavs are simply getting good outcomes. When they've played the starters together, things have gone generally well, and that's helped lead to a 5-0 record in the playoffs.
Looking at one more data point: diving into the three-man lineup data, there isn't a single combination that has played at least 50 minutes together and does worse than outscoring opponents by 8.6 points over 100 possessions. Now, a big part of this is simply the fact that LeBron James has barely sat for 50 minutes. And Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are going to need to figure out how to survive six minutes a game without him. They've shown decent chemistry on the pick and roll of late.
Still, this seems to be an area where coach Tyronn Lue is passing the test. The right lineup combinations are getting the bulk of the minutes, and the right guy is starting at center. We'll see where the numbers go from here.
All stats courtesy of nba.com/stats.