With the Cavs potentially starting the season with Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade in the backcourt, Ty Lue will be searching for secondary playmaking off the bench.
The decision pairs two pick and roll heavy players (Wade ran PnR on 43.9 percent of his possessions last season and Rose ran PnR on 53.5 percent of his) with one of the NBA’s best pick and roll operators in LeBron James.
But it also leaves the Cavs’ bench unit with little pick and roll experience or expertise. J.R. Smith ran pick and roll on only 9.6 percent of his possessions last year. Meanwhile, potential backcourt-mate Iman Shumpert ran pick and roll on 24 percent of his possessions.
Can either Smith or Shumpert provide off the dribble playmaking to buoy second units and to continue to create open looks for teammates behind the arc?
Of the two players, Smith is the one more likely to have a defined role on a nightly basis.
Last season, he posted just a 0.51 AST:USG (looking at how often a player gets an assist given how much they had the ball), ranking in the 31st percentile of all wings. His raw AST% of 7.1% ranked in the 21st percentile of all wings.
Yet, this is largely due to his presence as a pure spot-up shooter in previous seasons. Last year, 71% of Smith’s shot attempts were 3-pointers, the most in the league.
But he has shown some ability to distribute the ball that is encouraging for potentially assuming a larger playmaking role.
The easiest pass a ballhandler has to make out of the pick and roll is a simple drop-off to the roll man, like Smith makes to Tristan Thompson here.
But Smith has shown flashes of an ability to make more difficult passes when handling the ball.
Here, he hits Kyrie Irving with a perfectly timed bounce pass after Irving catches John Wall sleeping on defense. This starts the whip-around action that defined the Cavs’ offense at the peak of its powers, ultimately leading to a Kevin Love corner three.
Smith can also be a bit pre-determined in his reads out of the pick and roll:
Smith probably has an easy pass to LeBron here for a dunk but instead forces the ball to a not-so-open Kevin Love in the corner. The result is fine, as the ball breezes past the outstretched arm of LaMarcus Aldridge, but this pass is a turnover more often than not:
With a player not adept at handling the ball frequency, too much responsibility can lead to questionable decisions. The Cavs might have to live with growing pains if they are going to trust Smith in an expanded playmaking role.
Part of the issue becomes that players feel they have to create something out of the action. Here, Smith, who shot just 55 percent at the rim on only 27 attempts, challenges Joel Embiid rather than swinging the ball to the corner and resetting the offense.
In the end, Smith is not perfect, but has shown signs of being a willing passer out of the pick and roll. With more attempts, he may be able to hone his decision-making to make more plays like this.
While Shumpert was tasked with running more pick and roll last season than Smith, he showed less of a desire to be a playmaker out of the action.
His AST% of eight percent ranked in the third percentile of all combo guards and his AST:USG of 0.56 in the sixth percentile.
Of Shumpert’s 161 pick and rolls that finished possessions last year, 110 of them ended with him attempting a shot.
Too often, Shumpert appeared to be probing the defense for his own shot, using multiple pick and rolls in the same possession trying to free himself.
Compare this play to Smith engaging Robin Lopez above and dropping an easy bounce pass to Thompson for a dunk.
Instead of finding Jordan McRae in the corner to keep the offense moving, Shumpert uses nine dribbles to set up a floater. He shot just 19 percent from floater range last season.
Certainly, Shumpert has shown flashes of playmaking out of the pick and roll:
As soon as Cousins steps up, he threads the needle with a nice pass to free Love for an easy lay-up. The concern is that his default in the action appears to be finding his own shot rather than making plays for teammates.
One positive is that he shot a very respectable 42.4 percent off the dribble, 30th of 134 players who attempted at least 100 such shots. If he is able to translate that to knocking down off the dribble threes (40.9 percent on 44 attempts), Shumpert can make the defense pay for going under screens.
Hitting shots like this one when defenders go under the screen will open up more passing lanes for him to exploit.
Overall, the book on Smith and Shumpert as potential secondary creators is mixed. The Cavs have not relied on either guy to assume this role in the past so it will be a challenge for both to step up as playmakers off the dribble.
Isaiah Thomas will miss a large chunk of the season, giving Ty Lue an opportunity to experiment with lineups in his absence. He should use that time to entrust some of these duties to Smith and Shumpert in hopes of one of them expanding their off-the-dribble game.
If either one can succeed in this role, it will open up the offensive capabilities of an already-loaded Cavs team even further.