Much of the handwringing about the Cleveland Cavaliers has revolved around their most infamous bugaboo, their defense.
It’s certainly not great. The team lacks focus and consistent effort, and with players like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye factored in as a major part of the rotation, it’s not like the team has the best defensive personnel.
That said, the defense, or at least, what people traditionally think of defense to be, is not what is hurting the Cavaliers most this season and through one round of the playoffs.
It’s the team’s work on the boards.
The Cavaliers, simply put, aren’t a great rebounding team anymore. This isn’t a small-sample size theater issue, either. This has been going on all season, and on the defensive side of the boards, has continued into the postseason against an Indiana team that wasn’t even top-20 in offensive rebound rate.
What’s behind the dip? Well, there’s several factors here.
First, let’s look at the team’s performance on an individual level in the last two years (All stats via NBA.com)
The first obvious culprit here, especially on the defensive side of the boards where the team had the most stunning drop-off, is Tristan Thompson. A full year of full-time center — as well as a bout of tendinitis — seemed to wear Thompson down, and his defensive rebound rate collapsed from 23.3 to 19.6.
That doesn’t feel like an insane drop-off, but consider that the Cavaliers moving from a 78.5 to a 75.8 defensive rebound rate from last year to this year was enough to drop them 17 spots in the league rankings.
Thompson remained excellent on the offensive boards, as did Kevin Love, but the lack of a third rim-crasher led their metrics to drop on that end of the ball as well. This didn’t kill the Cavaliers in the first round, as Thompson basically single-handedly wrecked Indiana, grabbing 22.5 percent of all Cavaliers misses while he was on the floor.
One way that the regular season mark might be explained away due to Kevin Love’s six-week absence due to knee surgery. But even if you filter from the start of the season to Feb. 14, when Love’s knee surgery was announced, the Cavaliers are still only 22nd in defensive rebounding.
Iman Shumpert also had some regression as a rebounder this season when the team needed him to step up in that portion of the game. Shump was actually an insanely effective rebounder for his size last season, with a 14.3 defensive rebound percentage. This season, amid his struggles everywhere else on the court, Shumpert cratered by 4.5 percentage points on that end. Again, those drop-offs seem small but over the course of a season, they add up.
As crazy as it might sound given his performance last year as an overall player, the Cavaliers really miss Timofey Mozgov’s rebounding. It’s easy to forget that he played legitimate minutes for this team pretty much through the entire regular season, and there’s been a vacuum that he’s left behind that the Cavaliers weren’t able to fill. LeBron James’ defensive rebound rate jumped a few ticks and so did Richard Jefferson’s during the regular season, but the team, for the most part, lost a competent rebounder and didn’t replace him.
Frye does his part, but nobody would ever mistake him for a rebounding fiend. He’s a useful cog, but he’s rarely going to excel in that part of the game.
You might wonder how the Cavaliers were able to survive and even improve on the boards once the team marooned Mozgov to the bench in last year’s playoffs. Surely, if he was so important to their success there, his absence would be felt.
Enter Jefferson. He rebounded like an absolute maniac on the defensive side of the ball in last year’s playoffs. He went from a paltry 9.6 percent defensive rebound rate all the way up to 17.6, nearly doubling his regular season rate.
This season, RJ dropped back down to an 11.5 defensive rebound rate but he was completely nonexistent in a limited role against the Pacers, only grabbing 4.8 of the defensive rebounds while he was on the floor.
Unfortunately, the Cavaliers don’t have a ton of options to fix this in their rotation outside of just doing better on the boards. That’s not a particularly sexy option, but it’s their best shot. Thompson, in particular, will need to up his game on the defensive end of the ball. Jefferson might need to find more minutes in Tyronn Lue’s rotation and re-dedicate himself to snagging boards like he did last season.
Even LeBron might need to take it up another notch on that side of the ball all while Love continues to snag an insane amount.
If the Cavaliers can’t figure this out, it could be a huge problem for their Finals hopes. Everybody is concerned about the defense, but it’s been their struggles on the boards that has exacerbated those woes. The Cavaliers just don’t have the defensive personnel to give up multiple shot attempts in one possession to their opponents. On the other side of the ball, their ability to snag offensive boards helps them control the pace and play at the tempo and style they prefer.
Against the Pacers, this was survivable. Against the Warriors in a potential Finals matchup? It’ll be death. The Cavaliers set the blueprint on how to beat Golden State last year, and even with the addition of Kevin Durant, it will likely look similar.
In order to beat a team like that, you need to choke down the pace, force turnovers and clean the boards on both sides of the ball to limit their shot attempts and to get up extra attempts of your own.
This season, the Cavaliers haven’t been able to crash the boards nearly as well as they have in the past. That doesn’t mean they can’t get there, and we know that this team has hilariously lacked effort in the regular season, which makes them exceedingly hard to judge.
That said, this is something that needs to turn around; if it doesn’t, it could be a major reason why the Cavaliers don’t repeat.