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 third 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 November 7th and are from NBA Stats unless otherwise noted.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the league’s oldest team by 2 years of average player age per Basketball Reference. Many of them have played countless minutes and have suffered several injuries over the course of their careers. Two of them have had heart surgeries of some kind.
With the Cavaliers currently playing nine or ten guys successfully every night, one has to be concerned about the wear on the legs of the older veterans. Even with Isaiah Thomas and Tristan Thompson returning to the lineup, every player has a role that they can fill.
This presents Head Coach Tyronn Lue with the unique opportunity to make the Cavs’ rotation a little more like that of the San Antonio Spurs, who have 11 players, none of which are Kawhi Leonard, that have appeared in at least 23 of their 28 games and only have one player who has averaged over 30 minutes per night.
The San Antonio Spurs are an aging team with a ton of depth in the form of limited-but-effective veterans, which is exactly how one could describe the Cleveland Cavaliers right now. There have been many arguments about whether the Spurs’ way (read: Gregg Popovich’s way) is the right way or not, but it may be of benefit to the Cavaliers.
More than ever before, the Cavs are relying on a deep rotation that needs almost everyone to play their role in order for the team to succeed unless LeBron decides to win a ball game himself. Of the eleven Cavaliers that have played over 100 minutes since the Derrick Rose injury, nine have posted positive net ratings.
The other two are Jose Calderon and Cedi Osman at minus-1 and minus-5. This is mostly because of their garbage time play, as these numbers jump to plus-5.6 and plus-21.6 if one looks at only first halves.
Many of the reasons why Coach Lue should extend the rotation are quite obvious. The team as a whole will be more rested and healthy on a nightly basis, meaning there will be fewer games where guys need nights off. Then, if the trainers say that someone needs a rest, it isn’t a significant burden on the rest of the roster.
Additionally, getting more of the team into games on a nightly basis will help keep more of the roster ready at any time. If the Cavaliers were to suffer a major injury, the backups will already have meaningful minutes under their belts and will have some chemistry with their teammates. It would also help to develop Osman and Ante Zizic, Cleveland’s only true future prospects at the moment.
There are also many things that would lead to Coach Lue keeping his tighter rotation. For one, the Cavaliers’ shooters may struggle to find and keep their rhythm each night if they aren’t playing significant minutes and thus taking more shots, specifically guys like Channing Frye and JR Smith.
Substituting players more frequently in order to keep the minutes distributed would also lead to lineups getting less time together on the court and could disrupt chemistry, which would lead to more defensive mistakes. This would be particularly harmful due to the strength of the current Cleveland bench on the defensive end.
All in all, Tyronn Lue has an extremely difficult job to do and has already done a lot of work in tinkering with the Cavaliers’ rotation. The next month will say a lot about the quality of coach that he is. Lue needs to continue to make the right decisions handling his veterans and the egos of his many stars. For the sake of the Cavs, let’s hope he is up to the task.