A tumultuous January shined a brighter light on the Cleveland Cavaliers on both sides of the ball. While the offense struggled to assimilate Kyle Korver and the LeBron and bench units waned in effectiveness, the Cavs currently tout the fifth best offense in the NBA.
The other end of the floor tells a more middling story. Cleveland has the 16th-ranked defense in the NBA, allowing a 105.6 defensive rating . However, this interpretation alone fails to recognize the vast disparity between the Cavs half-court defense and transition defense.
The Cavs are excellent in the half-court, ranking fifth in points per possession allowed per Synergy. In clutch situations (defined by NBA.com as within five points with five minutes or fewer to play) when the game slows down, the Cavs have a defensive rating of 97.4, good fifth beat in the league.
The Cavs’ Achilles heel is in transition. Their transition defense ranks as the worst in the NBA, allowing a shocking 1.215 ppp. Cleveland allows scores on 55% of opponent’s transition opportunities, resulting in 19.5 transition points allowed per game .
In addition to ranking dead last in points per possession, the wine and gold also allows 16.2 transition possessions per game. That ranks as the sixth most in the league and only 0.4 possessions per game ahead of league-leading Brooklyn (16.6). But it gets worse.
The Cavs currently sport the ninth worst transition defense in the 13-year history of Synergy tracking data. Of theeight worst teams on that list (including the post-LeBron 2010-11 Cavs squad), no team allowed more transition possessions per game than Cleveland’s current rate of 16.2 per game.
WHAT IS CAUSING THE PROBLEM?
To create an adequate sample size, I watched all 215 transition buckets the Cavs have allowed since Christmas.
Here’s the percentage breakdown of when opponents are running:
While you would expect opponents to run off of live ball turnovers, it is concerning that the Cavs are giving up easy baskets after missing both shots at the rim and shots from distance. Opponents even scored 13 transition baskets after Cleveland made a shot.
BREAKING DOWN THE TRANSITION DEFENSE
Cleveland appears to be making three separate structural mistakes in transition that lead to opponents putting the ball in the basket.
The first, and most easily correctable issue, is shot watching.
On that Kawhi Leonard dunk, both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are caught admiring Love’s long-range bomb as Leonard streaks out in transition behind them.
Here, Devin Booker is able to leak out for an easy dunk despite the Cavs having three players beyond the arc when Iman Shumpert shot the ball.
NOT STOPPING THE BALL HANDLER
Another concern the Cavs have in transition is an inability to stop the man with the ball. In these situations, Cavs players in a backpedal apply token pressure to the ball handler, but never impede his progress. The man catches them on their heels and finishes at the rim.
Jonas Jerebko, far from a noted ball handler, navigates this 2-on-2 because neither Shumpert nor Richard Jefferson ever force him to make a pass.
Here, you can also see the problem of not having a rim protector like Tristan Thompson (go read Justin Rowan’s piece if you haven’t already) in transition. Whitehead basically treats Irving like a swinging gate and the Cavs have nobody behind him to challenge the easy layup.
NOT MATCHING UP
By far the Cavs biggest issue in transition is the inability of each player to find a man. Many times, the Cavs actually have guys back in transition, preventing the opponent from creating an advantage situation. But too often, Cleveland’s defenders will have one of two problems.
The most prevalent problem is illustrated here on Gordon Hayward’s layup. The Jazz have no advantage (4 vs. 4) but Kevin Love isn’t actually guarding anyone. Like many Cavs defenders, Love just retreats to a spot in the paint, allowing Hayward an easy lane for takeoff.
Despite the Warriors prevalence shooting the three, look how every single Cleveland player retreats to the paint on the David West catch. Nobody picks up Klay Thompson, who is free to fire away from downtown.
The Cavs also end up in a good number of situations where two defenders cover the same player. Jefferson and DeAndre Liggins both do a good job of stopping Patty Mills, but neither of them recovers to Kyle Anderson. By the time Jefferson realizes the mistake, Anderson already has a lane for an easy layup.
The opposite occurs on this Tyson Chandler dunk. Instead of sticking with Chandler, Irving pulls up around half court to stay with his man, Eric Bledsoe. Channing Frye is hustling back, but he’s too late to cover a streaking Chandler.
CAN THE PROBLEM BE FIXED?
Many people are quick to dismiss the Cavs defense problems as due to a lack of effort. And the numbers may back that up. Cleveland went from the 18th ranked transition defense (1.12 ppp) last regular season to the best transition defense (0.98 ppp) in the playoffs on a similar number of possessions per game.
But the games in which you would expect the Cavs to give “more effort” this regular season don’t yet bear out that hypothesis:
- Golden State (12/25): 36 transition points allowed
- Boston (12/29): 23 transition points allowed
- Golden State (1/16): 33 transition points allowed (26 first half)
- San Antonio (1/21): 32 transition points allowed
All four of these outputs are more than the 19.5 transition points per game the Cavs allow on a nightly basis.
While an increased effort in transition would certainly help, the Cavs would also benefit from better communication. This would allow the Cavs to be better matched in transition and at least have a chance to contest more shot attempts.
The half-court numbers suggest that there may be a high-level playoff defense hidden somewhere within this team. As the Cavs attempt to put their January swoon in the rearview mirror, an improved transition defense could be the key to unlocking another level for the defending champs.