The Cavaliers enter the halfway point of the season in a bit of a rut, winners of only 8 of 13 games since their Christmas Day showdown with the Warriors. While the offense continues to hum along at top-5 levels, the defense has fallen to 14th—an average performance in the middle of the pack (105.3 dRTG).
Although much of these struggles can be attributed to a lack of focus in transition, the Cavs are often a tangle of disorder defending the most common play in basketball—the pick-and-roll.
So while there are some possessions that look like this:
Far too many of the Cavs defensive possessions against the pick-and-roll lead to open shots and frustrated teammates.
How the Cavs Defend the Pick-and-Roll
Noting this trend, I went back and watched every single defensive possession that involved a pick-and-roll—381 total—for the Cavaliers’ 13 games since Christmas. (I am relying on this excellent piece by SBNation’s Doug Eberhardt for terminology).
The obvious conclusion from this data is that the Cavs lack a consistent framework for defending the pick-and-roll. As someone who is not inside the locker room, I am unclear as to whether this is a conscious decision to change schemes on a nightly basis. However, after watching the film, that hardly seems to be the case.
On many occasions, the Cavs will face the exact same ball-handler and screener duo on back-to-back possessions. Yet, they will guard these possessions two different ways.
The Cavs’ inconsistent coverage often results in confusion. The defenders not involved in defending the pick-and-roll (usually the second big man on the floor and wings like LeBron James and Richard Jefferson) seem to have no idea how the duo guarding the ball will react.
Here’s a chart of how often the Cavs used each style of pick-and-roll coverage.
Zoning up is the most commonly used pick-and-roll coverage in the NBA. Most of the best teams defending the action (Spurs, Clippers, Jazz to name a few) employ zoning up as their go-to scheme.
This conservative action is preferred because it allows the duo guarding the pick-and-roll to do most of the work. Typically, this lets the other three defenders on the floor stay at home.
Zoning up is also the style the Cavs used most frequently—40.9% of the time—and unsurprisingly, the style with which they had the most success (64.7% stop rate—60% is league average).
Like all the Cavaliers’ coverage, zoning up can work perfectly at times:
But the lack of consistency in coverage comes back to hurt them all too often. When the other defenders expect the big man to hedge, they react by moving off their men to protect against the roll. On plays like the one below, this confusion creates wide open shots for the Cavs' opponents.
The Cavaliers’ second-most frequent pick-and-roll coverage is hedging. This was featured 24.7% of the time and resulted in a stop on 55.3% of possessions.
As the Cavaliers become more aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage, the scheme begins to break down. After the initial pass by the ball handler, the big man guarding the screen (Love, Thompson, Frye) seems to be constantly confused as to who he is supposed to guard.
Here, Frye and Love both recover to Rudy Gobert, leaving Trey Lyles wide open for 3 on the wing.
Even though Love eventually returns to his man, he is too slow getting back—leaving LeBron on an island to guard two guys.
Arm Hedging is something that Love does more than anyone I have observed in the NBA. Essentially, the big-man jumps out and tries to make contact with the ball-handler to impede his progress.
The Cavs used arm hedging 13.9% of the time and got stops on 54.7% of those possessions.
While Love has actually had decent success with this technique, it can turn disastrous in multiple ways.
First, if the big man fails to actually contact the ball-handler, like Love here, multiple people end up out of position.
Second, even if the big man contacts the ball-handler, like Frye here, he may actually end up screening his own man as he tries to recover.
Arm hedging also brings back the Cavs’ communication issues. Defending the pick-and-roll in this way forces the man guarding the ball-handler to navigate over the screen and under the big-man’s arm hedge. This is a difficult task for anyone—more so when you don’t know it’s coming.
While the disparity between Love and Frye may look great at first, context provides a window into Love’s supposed prowess.
Over his past 12 games, Love has played 76% of his minutes alongside Tristan Thompson. For comparison, Frye has only played 21% of his minutes alongside Thompson.
In many actions where Love struggles initially, he has Thompson behind him to bail him out. The same is not true for Thompson or Frye, both of whom usually lack a strong second big beside them to help handle the pick-and-roll.
As for the guards, the stop percentages appear to be mainly noise. This harkens back to the communication issue. Any single player has difficultly separating himself from the pack when he is unsure exactly what type of coverage the big-man will employ. While not perfect by any means, every single Cavalier guard (outside of LeBron) ranks below league average at defending pick-and-roll, per Synergy.
The Cavs have a consistency problem when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll. Instead of committing to one type of coverage, the varying schemes create confusion amongst players and result in open looks for their opponents.
When guarding the pick-and-roll, the Cavaliers appear to manage best when staying conservative and zoning up. This allows them to minimize the impact of slow-footed pick-and-roll defenders such as Love and Frye while potentially using their size to cut down on space.
Most importantly, it allows for nominal involvement from the other three defenders on the floor. Crafting a scheme that enables these guys to stay at home will allow the Cavs to surrender fewer wide-open 3s and, potentially, create a more cohesive defensive unit.