The Cavs, to say the least, have been light on guards this season.
J.R. Smith has been hurt. Mo Williams retired right before the season started. DeAndre Liggins, Jordan McRae and Kay Felder are all a combination of “not ready yet” or “not good enough” to get regular minutes on a team as talented as the Cavaliers, though Liggins has shown some ability to be a part of productive lineups.
That leaves Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert and Kyle Korver as the sole “guards” on the roster, with Irving and Shumpert in starting duties. So, what is Tyronn Lue to do when Shump and Irving need a blow?
Necessity is the mother of invention, and with the addition of Derrick Williams to the roster, Lue has gone with a huge lineup featuring LeBron James, Williams, Korver, Richard Jefferson, and Channing Frye. This is basically the basketball equivalent of the jumbo package in football.
That lineup features no player shorter than 6’7 (Korver), no traditional point guard and no players to guard traditionally speedier perimeter players (when you consider that we have Regular Season LeBron™ on defense.)
Somehow, though, it’s working. And it’s working very well.
Those numbers are eye-popping, but first, a disclaimer: 34 minutes played for a lineup is a very small sample size. These stats shouldn’t lead you to draw an enormous conclusion, but rather, they are indicative of strong play (and likely, some luck) in a high-variance sample. 5-man lineup data tends to normalize at around 250 minutes played, so we have a while to go before we can take these numbers as gospel.
Now, to the fun stuff. This unit is scoring at an insanely high 133.1 points per 100 possessions while holding opponents to just 89 points per 100 possessions. This 5-man group has the best net rating of any lineup that’s played at least 34 minutes for the Cavaliers, though extended time will almost certainly lead to a drop-off.
What’s really eye-popping is the 84.8 true shooting percentage, and the Cavaliers shot chart with this lineup is, well, pretty freaking green.
The team has had a steady diet of wide-open layups, shooting an astounding 20-22 in the restricted area while taking 44% of their field goals there.
They have 27 assists on 36 made field goals with this unit, and LeBron James has an assist percentage of 80%, so basically, this unit revolves around his ability to create for others.
Some of those shots have been created by slick passing from James, while some are a result of the spacing LeBron has to work with while having a mismatch due to the size of the lineup. If a guard or a big gets switched onto LeBron, it’s game over. The guards just get brutalized with no help defense and the bigs aren’t quick enough to keep up.
The lineup, to some extent, succeeds offensively because of its wonkiness. It makes defenders do jobs they’re not used to doing and guard in space. Also, again, there’s going to be some regression to the mean. The Cavs are shooting 25-29 from two-point field goal range in these 34 minutes, so it’s just not going to stay that hot, especially as teams get more tape on these units.
To Tyronn Lue’s credit, he’s noticed that this lineup configuration is working very well. Since signing Williams, this group is the team’s second most-used lineup.
Another benefit of this unit is that this lineup is effective and has the luxury of going up against other teams’ second units. Most bench units don’t have the flexibility that LeBron James provides (duh), and they’re just ill-equipped to handle the wonky onslaught.
On the defensive end of the ball, the Cavaliers are betting on the ineptitude of opposing bench offenses by switching everything.
The main way to kill switching is by attacking mismatches successfully, but most benches don’t have an iso star to torch the Cavs. In these two clips above, who is going to burn the Cavaliers off the dribble? Lance Thomas? They’re happy to take the chance that he will while burning precious seconds off the shot clock while the Knicks look for a crease to appear.
Anything with a sample this small is bound to be very, very noisy. Barring a miracle, the numbers won’t stay this good. That said, Deron Williams is expected to join the Cavaliers, adding a guard that this second unit currently doesn’t really have.
Williams should help the Cavaliers, but Tyronn Lue owes it to himself to continue to give this jumbo lineup run until somebody figures out a way to stop it. It leverages the strengths of each player in it to perfection while playing off of LeBron’s unbelievable ability to create easy shots for others.
Tyronn Lue might have stumbled on this lineup through mere experimentation, but at least for now, it looks like it’s here to stay.