The Cavs are in the midst of a nine-game winning streak, fueled largely by their success on the defensive end. Over the streak, Cleveland has posted a 100.5 defensive rating, bringing their once-30th ranked defense up to 25th in the NBA. The 100.5 defensive rating, ranks fourth over the last nine games, trailing only Portland, San Antonio, and Golden State.
But the defensive rise has not been fueled by the starting lineup. While the core-four starters (J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Jae Crowder and Kevin Love) have been better on defense, their defensive rating over the past nine games is 106.4. Instead, it has been the Cavs bench mob of Wade/Korver/Green/Frye dominating teams defensively:
Add LeBron to the group and the dRTG drops all the way to 87.7.
Most people would immediately look at this lineup and scoff at its defensive potential. Dwyane Wade? An aging veteran past his athletic peak. Channing Frye and Kyle Korver? Slow-footed shooters who struggle to guard one-on-one. Jeff Green? A spacey athlete who has never put it all together.
And yet, these four players have anchored an elite defensive unit this season. How is this happening and is it sustainable?
The Cavs’ second-unit is full of high basketball IQ players who understand where to be on the floor. While guys like Wade and Korver may be on the wrong side of their prime athletically, positioning has allowed them to remain useful defensively.
Watch this possession that results in an Andre Drummond turnover:
Wade drops early to cut off the potential backdoor pass and recovers to trail Johnson as he comes up for the handoff. Frye drops to allow Wade through the gap and Wade draws the offensive foul.
Another benefit to the second unit has been the positional versatility of Green. His ability to guard point guards has allowed the bench to play without a traditional PG on the floor. This length is both imposing on defense and leads to mismatches on the other end.
Here, Green is guarding Kemba Walker, one of the most dynamic point guards in the NBA.
Green and Frye switch the late clock pick and roll. Korver stunts over off Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the corner and LeBron drops to cut off the pass. Frye recovers in time to contest the shot.
This is not to say that there haven’t been breakdowns for this unit. But Wade has been excellent in his ability to help clean up mistakes.
Korver and Shumpert miscommunicate on this dribble handoff, allowing Jerryd Bayless to have a free drive down the lane. Wade leaves TJ McConnell — a known non-shooter—to float at the perimeter and contests Bayless at the rim, forcing a miss.
Wade again saved a possession against the Heat.
Green is slow to recover on this pick and roll, leaving Frye in no man’s land between Dion Waiters and Hassan Whiteside. Wade again roams off his man — this time James Johnson in the backside corner — to bother Whiteside on the catch.
Kyle Korver’s offensive ability has also translated to positional success on the defensive end. Watch how Korver executes a “Lock and Trail” technique, explained here by Dylan Murphy.
Korver locks onto Langston Galloway and trails him over the screen, forcing Galloway to curl to the basket. Korver is able to avoid being screened and recover in time to contest Galloway from behind, forcing a miss.
The positional versatility of Green combined with the off-ball intelligence of Korver and Wade has allowed this unit to snuff out easy shots.
Frye Rim Protection
Channing Frye is another player not known for his athleticism that has made a positive impact on the defensive end. Opponents have shot 58.7 percent at the rim with Frye on the floor and 65 percent at the rim with him on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass.
Frye’s verticality at the rim here leads to a Sindarius Thornwell miss after he found a lane to the rim against Korver’s scrambling close-out.
Frye is defending five two-point attempts per game and opponents are shooting 46.7 percent on these shots. Frye is also leading the Cavs with 13.4 shots defended per 36 minutes, a mark that puts him 38th in the NBA among players with >200 minutes played.
In Cleveland’s blowout win over the Sixers, Frye was tasked with guarding Joel Embiid for nearly 17 minutes of play. Embiid — one of the best post players in the NBA — was just 5-14 in those minutes.
Frye was able to contain Embiid by forcing him to settle for jumpers, minimizing the strength advantage the Sixers big man had in the matchup.
When Embiid did put the ball on the floor, the Cavs sent help on his first dribble, limiting his ability to execute long post moves.
Frye’s defense on Embiid is emblematic of his ability to punch over his weight on defense, a feature shared by every member of the Cavs’ second unit.
A Little Bit of Luck
With a group playing above its defensive capabilities, you cannot ignore the bounces going their way.
Opponents are shooting 34.1 percent from three against Wade/Korver/Green/Frye. While it’s not an astronomically low number, the 3-point percentage is certainly well below the 38.7 percent allowed by the starting five.
The three-point percentage may be in for a bit of regression, but not a ton. League average on the season is right around 36 percent. Instead, the focus falls squarely on the midrange. Opponents are shooting just 29.1 percent from midrange with Wade on the floor, which ranks in the 94th percentile per Cleaning the Glass. With Wade off the floor, that number jumps all the way to 47.9 percent. While a defense can certainly have some impact on midrange jumpers and the Cavs’ second unit has done well to contest these shots, that number will almost certainly spike.
Cleveland’s second unit of Wade/Korver/Green/Frye has been a revelation defensively and the main trigger for the Cavs’ improvement on that end of the floor. The unit is comprised of high IQ basketball players who understand defensive positioning, even if they are not always able to execute athletically.
When this unit plays alongside LeBron James, he can erase even more of the mistakes, creating a five-man group of players 6’7” or taller, an imposing proposition for any offense.
Jeff Green’s positional versatility should not be overlooked in unlocking these lineups. His ability to defend point guards—which first emerged against James Harden—has allowed Coach Lue to confidently play either Wade or James as the de facto ball handler.
Frye’s ability to serve as a serviceable rim protector, using his length and positioning, has been successful as the last line of defense. His presence has provided the difference between these lineups and the lineups early in the year that featured either James or Green at center.
This unit will not be able to keep up this level of defensive success over the entire season. But there are certainly positive indicators to demonstrate that it can be a net positive on that end, despite the individual defensive limitations.