The Cleveland Cavaliers have opened the season on a bit of a roller-coaster ride offensively. At times—like when Kyle Korver was splashing 3s against Milwaukee—they have looked like a fine-tuned machine. But long stretches of ice-cold shooting have prevented them from reaching their offensive potential so far.
Let’s take a look at some of Tyronn Lue’s go-to sets, as well as some offensive positives and negatives through the first three games.
The Cavs have often looked to initiate the offense from the elbow in the early going. A play the Cavs have used frequently is “Elbow Rip.”
The action begins with an entry to either the near or far-side elbow. A shooter (typically Korver or Smith) then sets a back screen for the player at the other elbow. Above, Middleton expects LeBron to cut, but instead LeBron James goes backdoor for the lob.
If the defender is trailing, LeBron can also use this action to establish deep post position.
The Bucks have no choice but to send help and Crowder uses an excellent cut to score an easy bucket.
When defenses adjust to take away LeBron going backdoor, the play also creates opportunities for the screener to pop out for three.
Augustin gets caught helping deep on LeBron and when Simmons also tries to recover, JR Smith pops wide open for three. Using your best shooters as screeners to force defenses into impossible decisions is a common principle in Steve Kerr’s offense.
With J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver coming off the bench together, Lue has resorted to a common action from Korver’s days with the Atlanta Hawks.
Korver has the choice between fading to the short corner off the initial screen or running across the floor for a flat screen. A shooter like Korver only needs his defender to lose half a step getting through the screen to create enough space to launch a three.
The Cavs have used Smith and Korver simultaneously in the action to create difficult choices for the defense. Again, by using Love as a screener, the Cavs prevent the Magic from switching, giving Smith an open look from the corner.
The Cavs have used a two-high elbow set frequently with their backup units. The ball is entered to one elbow and the big at the other elbow sets a pin-down for the guard on his wing.
That guard comes around to receive a handoff, which naturally flows into a pick and roll.
The problem with this set is—by using two non-shooting bigs in Thompson and Green— the Magic are easily able to bump the roller to take away any threat of a lob. Defenders do not fear Green from outside and are willing to surrender position, confident they can close-out to take away his driving lanes.
Kevn Love Post-Ups
The Cavs have had success getting the ball to Kevin Love in the post, scoring 1.22 points per Love post-up touch, per Synergy.
Cutting appears to be one of the team’s offensive strengths so far and Love can find guys like LeBron and Crowder streaking down the lane off his post touches.
The Cavs’ newly-anointed center is playing about as well as possible for someone shooting 9.1 percent from three He is shooting a scorching 61.5 percent on two-point shots, bolstered by taking 38 percent of his shots around the rim.
And, while it is early, his 14.9 percent AST% (would be the highest of his Cleveland tenure) shows encouraging signs of an increased playmaking role.
Speaking of Love, the Cavs have faced three defenses willing to switch smaller men onto him so far. After some turnovers trying to force the issue against Boston, the Cavs have done a good job of making a quick extra pass to create a better angle to enter Love the ball:
Or to put pressure on scrambling defenses:
Although they have not played together often, Tristan Thompson has done an excellent job as a flare screener when his man is forced to help a smaller defender deal with Love.
Derrick Rose has looked explosive getting to the rim, taking a whopping 56 percent of his shots from around the basket.
He’s been able to finish there too, especially when the floor is spaced, shooting 70 percent on these shots.
Areas of Concern
The largest area of concern to emerge in the first three games is the Cavs’ lack of 3-point shooting. Currently, they are shooting an NBA-worst 28.7 percent from behind the arc.
Take a look at their struggles in catch and shoot situations. Expected values are calculated using the past three years of shooting data for each player:
The Cavs are creating decent looks for their best shooters, but Love, Smith and Crowder are just 4-16 on uncontested catch and shoot jumpers.
The expectation should be that wide open looks like this one for Love (created by an excellent flare screen from Shumpert) should begin to fall.
Lack of Spacing
The Cavs need their best shooters to get going in hopes of creating more spacing on the floor.
They have only scored 0.76 ppp on 79 possessions that ended with a pick and roll so far, one area that highlights their spacing concerns.
On this pick and roll, Bucks defenders have no issue helping far off of non-shooters Shumpert, Green and Wade to prevent Smith from having any space to operate.
Some of the Cavs’ spacing issues have also been created by their lack of chemistry.
The Celtics are anchored to Kyle Korver in the weakside corner, which should open up rolling room for James. But Green being inexplicably close to Love in the nearside corner allows Horford to sag off and prevent a pass from occurring.
No pass possessions and mid-range jumpers
Cavs newcomers (Wade, Rose and Green) have shown an affinity for the mid-range jumper so far this season.
The Cavs have finished too many possessions with pull-up long twos off the dribble, often without any passes on the possession.
Possessions like this contested step-back from Wade are never going to be the ingredients for a successful offense.
As a team, Cleveland is shooting 31.9 percent on mid-range jumpers, “led” by Wade who is 4-16.
Green—who is third on the team with a 22.9 USG% yet has just two assists—has taken 43 percent of his shots from mid-range.
Rose is the least mid-range happy of the trio, has taken only 28 percent of his shots from the distance, but has yet to see one go through the net.
As Ben Falk noted here, a team can create contested mid-range shots with any amount of time on the shot clock. By not looking for something better, the Cavs are giving away possessions in exchange for largely empty results.
This is a Cavs team that is still a long way from what it will look like as a finished product. Cleveland has already changed its starting lineup once and will have Rose miss at least three games with an injury.
There are some legitimate concerns, like the lack of spacing, and some that should regress to the mean, like the three-point shooting.
Coach Lue seems focused on initiating the offense from the elbows and Kevin Love has looked excellent so far (even without hitting his jumpers). LeBron James continues to defy reality in his 15th season.
For now, keep an eye on some of the spacing issues and look for the sets above. We will return to breakdown the offense more when the Cavs have logged a few more games.