In recent weeks, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ rotation has finally settled into some consistency. However, with two key pieces about to return, the rotation is going to go through a major shake-up. Isaiah Thomas is a guaranteed starter and, as Justin Rowan recently wrote on Fear the Sword, Tristan Thompson should start as well.
During the next few weeks, players are going to find themselves as members of different units and filling different roles while Tyronn Lue feels out his stacked roster. There are many possible outcomes for where Coach Lue will head with the rotation. This is the first of three things to look for as the Cavaliers’ rotation changes.
Note: The Cavaliers' current season can be split into two distinct periods: from the beginning of the season until the Derrick Rose injury (Cavs’ record: 5-6), and from that point to the present (15-2). All numbers within pertain only to games played after Rose went out with injury on Nov. 7 and are from NBA Stats unless otherwise noted.
LeBron James is simply inexplicable. No one just adds facets to their game like LeBron has done over his career. More importantly, guys just don’t decide one summer to become one of the league’s premier shooters. It’s usually a gradual process that culminates in a break out season and they gain respect league-wide. He is unlike any other player. From Mike Zavagno on Fear the Sword, LeBron is setting history with his late-career blossoming as a shooter. In year fifteen, James is showing the league that he may never slow down, only evolve further.
The Cavaliers, however, shouldn’t push their luck when they don’t have to. For the first time, Cleveland can afford to play LeBron for fewer minutes each game. It may be in their best interest to do so.
In the 2014-15 NBA Regular Season, the Cavaliers posted a minus-6.9 net rating with LeBron on the bench. The next season, it was minus-5.4 and fell to minus-8.5 last year. No matter what happened, the Cavs couldn’t figure out how to win without LeBron.
This season, the Cavaliers are plus-4.2 points per 100 possessions with LeBron James on the bench.
It would be easy to point to the old “Kyrie Irving can’t win in Cleveland without LeBron” as to what changed, but that simply wouldn’t explain what is happening. The player acquired to fill Kyrie’s role hasn’t played a game yet. Rather, it is LeBron’s own best friend that is excelling in his absences from the court.
The Cavaliers finally have a true sixth man who can play at a high level and dominate opposing benches in Wade. When he is on the court and LeBron is not, Wade is posting a usage of 34.5 percent, an astoundingly high rate. Wade is leading a bench of mostly intelligent and limited-but-talented veterans (with some Cedi Osman sprinkled in) that many teams cannot match.
Cleveland has been able to keep LeBron on the bench without finding themselves at huge deficits on the scoreboard. However, the aging veterans of the bench cannot be expected to play more minutes just to keep LeBron’s minutes down. The role players are limited as well.
This is where the introduction of Isaiah Thomas and re-introduction of Tristan Thompson are going to make a difference. Both are players who have earned big minutes. Thompson especially is playable in a variety of circumstances and Thomas is capable of scoring whenever need be.
The addition of Thomas and Thompson to the current Cavaliers rotation is going to take minutes away from most every member of the team. Given this, some of the minutes that LeBron is playing can be shifted to members of the Cleveland bench mob.
Taking some of James’ minutes away from him could even be a positive for the Cavaliers. It is no secret that LeBron enters “chill mode” in-game and rests while on the floor for minutes each night, during which he disengages on defense and defers to others on offense. Because he is James, these minutes don’t lead to losses, but why not find a substitute?
It is likely that Osman is going to be pushed out of the rotation once Thomas and Thompson are fully integrated. However, Osman (to the delight of this blog) has shown the ability to play in spots every night and be a positive contributor. If LeBron is going to take four minutes off each night while on the court, then Cedi should play those four minutes instead and give Cleveland a shot of energy.
Of the Cavs’ 15-man roster, only Derrick Rose and Ante Zizic have not been playable, and Zizic only gets this designation because he hasn’t been seen enough to determine otherwise. The Cavaliers are capable of playing good ball without LeBron James on the floor and have plenty of players willing to pick up the minutes.
James has said he wants to play with, or against, his son someday. It would be best for him to lighten his workload now in order to make that idea come to fruition. All that has to happen is for Coach Lue to make the call and trust the veterans of this team to deliver.