In which five Fear the Sword writers take a closer look at how the Cavaliers rotation should be managed once the team is fully healthy.
1. Should Tristan Thompson take Jae Crowder’s spot in the starting lineup once he returns?
Carter Rodriguez (@Carter_Shade): Yes. What’s funny about this Cavaliers season is that the bench, not the starters, are what’s propelled the Cavaliers to success. Adding Tristan to the bench disrupts the chemistry that Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green and Channing Frye have found. Meanwhile, the starters could use Thompson’s defense, rebounding and toughness, especially to ease the wear on poor Kevin Love.
Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav): Yes. While the starting lineup with Jae Crowder and Kevin Love has led to a 13-game win streak for the Cavaliers, I believe they can be even better defensively with Tristan Thompson. While he starts the games, he should minutes should be capped to around 22-24 minutes a night. Giving him some time early in the first and third quarters alongside the starters should be how Ty Lue approaches this situation.
Zac Lockwood (@thezlock): Yes. Although the early season returns on Thompson in the starting lineup were less than ideal, the team was also giving Derrick Rose minutes. If Tristan looks at all like 2016 Playoffs Tristan, then the starting unit will be so much better for it defensively. Limiting Jae’s minutes may increase his effectiveness. Hopefully.
Dylan Haines (@DHaines1): This is a tough one. The Cavs have been streaking since Tristan went out with injury, while Kevin Love has thrived at center this second time around. While Love isn’t all that good defensively, he causes matchup problems against the majority of starting centers in the league while somewhat holding his own defensively. Since this 13-game winning streak has started, the Cavs have a defensive rating of 102.4, good for sixth in the NBA over that span, so the defense has more than held firm, if not outright improved, since Tristan went out. Ultimately, I think Love will have to start at center against the Warriors if the Cavs were to meet them in the Finals again, so as long as it’s working I would stick with it.
Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11): Tristan Thompson should start games but he shouldn’t finish them. While the Cavs’ defense has been better over the 13-game win streak, the starting lineup has not been the fuel for that improvement.
Smith/James/Crowder/Love have a 109 dRTG over the last 13 games (compared to 95.9 for Wade/Korver/Green/Frye). I would play Tristan around minutes to start the first and third quarters and end up around 18-22 mins per game (matchup dependent). But I do believe that Kevin Love should remain at center in the Cavs’ closing lineup.
2. Should Derrick Rose still be in the Cavs rotation once he returns from injury?
CR: Naw. Rose’s time is done in Cleveland. The team will have Isaiah Thomas back soon, and Dwyane Wade is entrenched as the backup point guard. I wouldn’t be stunned if he finished the year elsewhere.
AA: Nope. I think Derrick Rose’s best days are faaaar behind him. Since he’s been out of the lineup, Cleveland has found their flow offensively and defensively, with Jose Calderon at point guard -- think about that. Once Isaiah Thomas returns from injury -- presumably, before Derrick Rose -- he should soak up all the starting point guard duties, with Iman Shumpert and Dwyane Wade handling the backup duties.
ZL: He can soak up garbage time minutes while cashing that adidas check and maybe he takes five minutes each night on back to backs. Other than that, I would rather he didn’t. He hasn’t shown the ability to be a contributor to positive lineups. He would have to come back from this sabbatical looking like a new man.
DH: No, he shouldn’t. At this point in his career, it’s become clear that Rose is far more of a liability than an asset, and the small sample size we’ve seen from him on this team has done nothing to dissuade that notion. Besides, the Cavs have been streaking since he went out with injury (probably not a coincidence) and Isaiah Thomas will be back relatively soon. Ty Lue shouldn’t feel pressed to play Rose if he knows he won’t help this team when he’s out there. If it were up to me, I’d say we already know the answer to that question.
MZ: At this point, Rose appears to be on a path to return from injury after Isaiah Thomas is back on the court. Even if the Cavs plan to ease Thomas into the rotation slowly, the combination of Thomas and Dwyane Wade at PG (and Calderon if necessary) leaves no place in the rotation for Rose. He might still be able to help a team striving for a different level of success, but it is clear that he has no role on a championship contender. The Cavs should hope he embraces a bench cheerleader role, but if not, be looking to move on from Rose to ensure the culture and cohesiveness in the locker room remains intact.
3. Who is the odd man out of the Cavs rotation once fully healthy?
CR: If Tyronn Lue runs a 10-man rotation, Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon and Iman Shumpert all won’t be able to make it in, let alone someone like Cedi Osman who’s on the fringe already. Ultimately, Channing Frye will have to fight to consistently earn his 10 minutes per game by the time everybody is healthy, as Lue likes playing his guys heavy minutes and that means it’s easier to play nine. We’ll see how it plays out, but Lue has a tough job.
AA: So let’s start with who would make the Cavaliers’ rotation. It would be Isaiah Thomas, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Jeff Green and Channing Frye. That means the odd men out are Jose Calderon, Iman Shumpert and Derrick Rose. Everyone in the current rotation has found a niche role in their minutes, except for Calderon/Rose. Even Cedi Osman deserves some minutes just based on his hustle, effort and size.
ZL: How could it be anyone other than Jose Calderon? Isaiah Thomas is going to soak up massive minutes at the point, Tyronn Lue has been willing to let Iman Shumpert be the “point guard” in several lineups, and Dwyane Wade is basically running point with a lot of key bench lineups during the streak. Channing Frye would also be at risk, but he has unlocked so many key lineups with the fact that he’s seven--footer who shoots 39 percent from deep and has played harder inside than he has in a long time. He hasn’t shot particularly well this season, but is shooting a ridiculous 70 percent on two’s.
DH: I suppose it’d have to be Calderon and Rose, for starters. When IT comes back, there’s no reason to play either of them since Wade has shown himself to be a more than adequate backup point guard with the second unit. I’d also say Channing will lose a lot of minutes with Tristan coming back, though I’d still try to keep him in the rotation even if his minutes will be limited.
MZ: Coach Tyronn Lue said prior to the year that he would be interested in playing a 10-man rotation. With that in mind, the obvious locks are Thomas, Smith, James, Crowder, Love, Thompson, Korver, Wade and Green. Those nine players will--I think--be a part of the nightly rotation regardless of matchup. As for the 10th man, I would personally like to see Channing Frye continue to get minutes. The Cavs are +20.9 points per 100 possessions better with Frye on the floor and he has shown that he can play much improved defense in limited minutes. By process of elimination, this would leave Shumpert, Rose, Osman and Calderon (along with Zizic) out of the rotation.
4. Are LeBron James’ minutes a problem?
CR: Maybe, but ultimately, who cares? Until we see an actual downside to the workload he’s had, which hasn’t shown at all in the past three years, it’s kind of hard to kill Lue for playing James so many minutes. I am slightly concerned that he hasn’t had a day off yet, partially due to the NBA’s new rules about resting players, but for now, 37 minutes isn’t a disaster.
AA: Nope, I don’t think they’re a problem at all. For the first time in his second Cleveland stint, James has a bench unit that can sustain a lead or even cut into a deficit. He’s still averaging 37.2 minutes per game, but James knows it’s a marathon and he knows when to speed up and when slow down. I’m guessing once Isaiah Thomas gets fully integrated into the offense, James can start to cut his minutes down to around 35 per game.
ZL: Not right now. He’s down to about 36.5 minutes per game during the streak, which is absolutely sustainable. He’s getting an entire quarter off each game. I don’t know if that number will ever really get below 36, but if he’s down to 36.5 with Shump, TT, and IT all injured, who knows?
DH: I wouldn’t really call LeBron’s minutes a problem, but it’s definitely something that should be monitored as the season wears on. He’s currently in his 15th season and he isn’t getting any younger, so it’s important to at least try to keep his minutes to around 36 minutes per game for the season. There’s seemingly less pressure on him to play super high minutes this season since the bench has been able to more than hold their own with him on the bench, and the team isn’t even fully healthy right now. Keep an eye on it, but it’s not really all that concerning to me at this juncture.
MZ: My opinion on LeBron’s minutes has always been that LeBron knows better than me. I think if LeBron had a problem with playing 37 minutes per game, he wouldn’t be playing 37 minutes per game. Perhaps this will have some ill effects at some point (maybe year 20???) but for now, I’m totally fine with his minutes. The Cavs have a 109.2 oRTG in non-garbage time minutes James has sat (per Cleaning The Glass), largely due to the spacing provided by Korver/Frye and the playmaking of Wade. If the Cavs can keep up their impressive play with James on the bench, he might be able to snag a few extra minutes of rest per game.
5. Should the Cavaliers use Isaiah Thomas to help bolster bench units or play him primarily with the starters?
CR: I think Thomas should play almost every single minute alongside LeBron James. James found great success playing next to Kyrie Irving, and Thomas can replicate a ton of Irving’s production. Ultimately, this would help the starters post better numbers while not disrupting bench chemistry, and lightening James’ load on offense is always worthwhile.
AA: I like what the bench unit has done so far, so let’s insert Thomas into the starting lineup. That would take away primary ball-handling duties away from James, cutting down some of the turnovers he’s responsible for. It would give the first-team offense an extra attacker and playmaker. Defensively, they’re going to need to adjust to help Thomas, but I think in the long run, that’s where his calling is.
ZL: We’ve got to see how he plays with LeBron James first. I would say he should really just stick with the starters. Dwyane Wade’s one job is to run the game for the 12 minutes that LeBron sits every night and he’s doing an excellent job. I don’t think it would be a good idea to take that responsibility from Wade, because it is of vital importance (see: Cavaliers without LeBron for past three seasons) and it probably makes Wade feel like a major contributor even in vastly lower minutes than he’s used to. However, if IT and Kevin Love can rekindle some AAU chemistry, then maybe you have to try that with some bench lineups.
DH: I would definitely play IT with the starters. The current bench unit has been scintillating this season, particularly Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, and Jeff Green. That 3-man unit has a net rating of +12.8 on the season and all three of them are a big reason the bench unit is thriving right now. IT ultimately needs time to get acclimated with playing next to LeBron and Love, because he’s going to be one of the focal points of this team and he needs to focus on building chemistry with them first and foremost. However, this doesn’t preclude him from possibly playing some sporadic minutes with the second unit from time to time, and if his time in Boston was indicative of anything, it’s that he tends to play at his best when all the pressure is on him to be the man. It’ll definitely be interesting to see him grow and develop with this team when he’s healthy and ready to go.
MZ: I would keep Isaiah Thomas with the starters, especially given that he will likely be on a minutes restriction coming back from injury. The goal, first and foremost, will be to integrate him with LeBron James and Kevin Love to see what the starting lineup can look like at its peak. The bench units with Wade at point guard have established enough of a chemistry and cohesiveness that you would be hard-pressed to mess with them. Plus, with Crowder likely sliding to the bench upon Thompson’s return, there doesn’t appear to be a place for Thomas in those units. Instead, they will probably be Wade/Korver/Crowder/Green and either LeBron or Frye.