The pre All-Star break lull has once again hit the Cleveland Cavaliers and their record has suffered as a result of it. Winning just two of the last seven games has the team in one of their worst slumps since LeBron James returned. Similar to the struggles prior to the additions of J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov, the flaws in the roster are putting an incredible strain on the big three.
While these flaws have been present all year, the absence of J.R. Smith has exacerbated the issue. In losing Smith, the Cavs lost a steady presence in the starting lineup that was often tasked with guarding the opposition’s toughest perimeter assignment. DeAndre Liggins has contributed more than most would have expected in his absence, but his limitations eventually forced Iman Shumpert into a starting role. With Shumpert no longer on the bench, the team’s only three players capable of playmaking are all in the starting lineup. Making the LeBron’s bench mob lineup go from effective, to a trainwreck.
When LeBron is on court without Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, or Shumpert the team has an 99 ORTG and a 131 DRTG. By simply adding Shumpert, the team has an 114 ORTG and 108 DRTG. Going from a -32 to +6 net rating. (All lineup data in this piece is courtesy of NBAwowy). Shumpert obviously has limitations as a ball handler, but his presence means teams can’t be as aggressive on LeBron defensively. Teams are attacking LeBron and forcing anybody but him to beat them one on one. While the Cavs need to add a ball handler, simply altering the rotation could help alleviate some of these issues.
There are two routes the team could go to help fix this problem. They can either start Korver and move Shumpert back into a reserve role, or they can take away the responsibility of carrying the bench from LeBron. It’s also possible to do both of those things, which I would be in favor of trying.
As previously stated, not having multiple playmakers with the bench has been one of the biggest issues with the Cavs lately. Having LeBron sub out early to have Irving and Love battle opposing starters, then coming in with LeBron and the bench against opponent’s bench units used to be one of the strengths of this team. But by taking away a playmaker, it’s become easier to defend. But by flipping those roles, the team may be able to get LeBron more rest and maximize the defensive talent on this team.
By starting Korver it allows for his defensive weaknesses to be somewhat helped by the presence of James and Thompson. Even Love’s presence gives the team a better safety net for Korver than he would have with Frye and the reserves. With the reserves many of the sets are being run for Korver, actions that feel forced and generally ineffective. With the starters he can play a spot up role, as the trio of James, Irving, and Love create too many matchup problems to focus on Korver. He can be placed in a role similar to Love under David Blatt. Stand ready at the three point line and receive open shots.
From there I would suggest that the team sub out both Irving and Love to close out the first and third quarters. Shumpert can come in to replace Irving, maintaining the presence of two playmakers. From there James can rest to start the second and fourth quarters, allowing him to be fresher to close out games. By having Irving and Love out there, it also gives the team two offensive hubs to initiate offense. For all the talk of the team falling apart without James, the team has performed well with Irving and Love running the show.
With LeBron off and Irving and Love on, the team has had a 114 ORTG and 109 DRTG. That net rating of +5 is dramatically better than -6 net rating the team has with LeBron on and Irving and Love off. A big part of why LeBron came back to Cleveland was the belief that Irving and Love could shoulder a load for him and help him age gracefully. It seems now would be a perfect time to at least give the tandem a shot at making LeBron’s life easier. At least until the team acquires another ball handler.
The growth that Irving has shown as a playmaker this season makes me more confident that this adjustment would be successful. Irving has an assist percentage of 41.3 when LeBron is off court this season, up from 39.2 last year. He also is averaging 11.4 potential assists per game this year, up from 8.9 last season. Increasing Irving’s time as a primary initiator of the offense will help him develop his game, as well as take pressure off of LeBron. This growth is an essential part of the Cavs future. With the regular season being relatively meaningless for the Cavs, why not experiment by giving more minutes to a lineup that’s worked, that will help develop Irving, and rest LeBron.
Injuries and trades bring the need for adjustments to be made. An adjustment period was inevitable. But what the team has done to this point simply isn’t working. It’s time for an adjustment to be made to help maximize the existing players on the roster, rather than simply waiting for an acquisition to change things.