One of the most impressive aspects of the Cleveland Cavaliers streak has been their ability to keep winning despite missing key pieces. The team has found a way to rally together and turn their season around. But with the looming returns of both Tristan Thompson and Isaiah Thomas, more adjustments will be needed before this team finds its final form. While disrupting the team’s existing rhythm isn’t ideal, it’s clear that both missing players belong in the starting lineup.
Over this winning streak, some of the least effective lineup combinations have been their starting unit. The Cavs starters with Iman Shumpert had a net rating of -9.9 in 71 minutes. While that rating has improved to +8.6 with Jose Calderon, it still is nowhere near as productive as the bench lineups.
While the starters have found a way to have a positive net rating, their defensive rating is still an ugly 112.1. Especially when you consider the only teams they’ve played with a top-15 offense during the streak have been the 10th ranked Pistons (105.9 ORTG), and the 14th ranked Knicks (105.3 ORTG). It doesn’t exactly bode well for how this lineup will perform as the competition improves.
As it currently stands, the Cavs have two players preforming as stopgaps in their starting lineup. Calderon’s role is essentially to not make mistakes, bring the ball up, and spot up off ball. The other hole in the lineup has been Jae Crowder, who has failed to find his footing during his first two months with the team.
Crowder has performed with more energy on the defensive end of the floor, but his offense still remains atrocious. It appears that his last season’s shooting of 39.8 percent from behind the arc was an outlier. Prior to last season, his previous career high was 33.9 percent, which is much more in line with the 32.9 percent he’s shot this year.
One thing opponents have done recently is hide their center on Crowder defensively. With him struggling to have success beating them off the dribble, teams can put more mobile defenders on Love in an effort to disrupt him defensively. As well as negate the advantage of having him pull centers out of the paint. Centers can cheat off of Crowder, and if they close out late he rarely punishes them with a successful drive.
Over the last few seasons the Cavs starting lineup, when healthy, had been one of their most successful units. With Isaiah Thomas filling in for Kyrie Irving, they should be able to replicate a lot of that same success alongside J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.
It’s worth noting that there is an elephant in the room with this whole situation. That elephant is the recent struggles Thompson has had, and his inability to get healthy since knee tendinitis limited him in the second half of last season.
One would hope that with Thompson returning, both he and the team feel comfortable with where his knee is at. The benefit of the timing of his calf strain was that it allowed him to rest and adjust during an easy stretch in the schedule for the Cavs.
By putting Thompson back into the starting lineup, you are putting him in a position where he has had success in the past. It also allows the bench mob to remain intact, just with Jae Crowder taking some minutes from Jeff Green and Channing Frye.
It also does allow Frye to remain in the rotation, as that would be tough if Love and Thompson are splitting the center minutes. In addition to that, it helps reduce the physical toll on Kevin Love, who has had issues with his back in the past and has been physically outmatched in some games.
If Thompson doesn’t help turn around the struggles of the starting lineup or he struggles individually, the team can evaluate from there. If he can’t provide them with what they need defensively, that leaves the team with no real options defensively at the center position.
The Cavs need to assess exactly what they have at the center position, and the best way to do that is by putting Thompson back with the starters. It is the only move that wouldn’t dramatically change the look of the Cavs most successful lineup and may help the defensive struggles of the starters.