In a standard NBA season, each team is responsible for fielding five players for 48 minutes in each of 82 games. That adds up to 19,680 total minutes to be divided across the 15-man roster.
Now, imagine you are an NBA head coach — something most fans do already — and over 27 percent of the minutes played for your team in the previous season were by players no longer on your roster. You put 21 different players on the court last season, 10 of which are still on your current roster. By the way, your current 15-man roster has 17 men on it and there is about a month left before training camp.
Welcome to Tyronn Lue’s world.
With the notable moves being the loss of Kyrie Irving and the arrival of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Rose, the pressure is on Lue to design a system and rotation to get this team through the regular season and into the playoffs. But even then, he has to account for Thomas missing an unknown amount of time to start the year.
The new pieces
Of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ newest pieces, Jae Crowder has the greatest flexibility through the lineup. He has the tools to play anywhere from shooting guard to power forward. Cedi Osman, while a rookie, has the potential to defend threes and fours too and possesses a couple inches more height than Crowder.
The new point guards are much different. None of Thomas, Rose and Jose Calderon are particularly capable of playing any position than the point. Calderon has potential as a two-guard spot shooter should his 31.3 percent three-point percentage from the previous season rebound to his 40 percent career average. But defensively, he’d be a liability.
Because of this, look for only one of Thomas, Rose, and Calderon to be on the court at a time. They will need to be out there with at least one of Crowder, LeBron James or Tristan Thompson in order for the defense to cover for any interior penetration from the wing.
Combinations that should work
The best way to maximize Rose’s abilities are in bench lineups that pair him with Kevin Love. Last season, the Knicks scored more points per possession with Rose as a pick and roll ball handler than the Wizards scored with John Wall doing the same. Having Love setting screens for Rose and either rolling or popping is going to be dangerous.
This also presents the opportunity for an extremely effective small-ball lineup with LeBron on the bench. Pushing Love to the five and pairing him with Crowder in the front court will create wide open driving lanes for Rose, who is still a good enough finisher at the rim. Rounding the lineup out with J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver will maintain an operable defense and surround the Rose-Love pick and roll with shooters galore. The same lineup would be about equally as effective with a healthy Thomas in Rose’s place.
When Lue goes to his LeBron-and-bench lineups, expect to, again, see Crowder take the floor. This time, he allows LeBron to move to the power forward position many have been wishing he would play more. Crowder takes the pressure off of LeBron defensively by being able to mark the opponent that would usually be left for James to guard.
At the center position, Lue will have two options that can set the tone for the rest of the lineup: he can leave Thompson on the floor, play Zizic or play Edy Tavares (should he remain on the roster) and build a lineup that is stifling defensively. Or he can send out Channing Frye and try to shoot teams out of the game.
If Lue goes with defense here, expect to see Smith stay on the floor as well to guard the opposing team’s best guard as necessary. Depending on the offensive skill of the opponent, either of Rose or Calderon could be hidden in this lineup defensively. In the event that this is not an option, Iman Shumpert could be brought on.
To put up points in bunches, Calderon and Korver could play the guard positions, especially if Calderon does find his shot. Even if he does not, he has enough of a passing ability to be able to run the point and save LeBron. Korver’s combination of high motor, lights-out shooting and experience make him a great two-way player in this lineup.
When Thomas is healthy, he could see time on the floor with neither LeBron nor Love playing. These lineups would have to be very well balanced in order to not suffer too much defensively or offensively while still providing Thomas the space he needs to work.
Zizic could be the key to these lineups. If he is able to provide spacing and offense at the five in this situations, it would allow the Cavs to play Jeff Green at the four to be the anchor and director of the defense. Osman’s development as a defender at the NBA level would allow him to play. Playing Shumpert with Thomas in the backcourt could allow for defensive matchmaking and a little more shooting.
The Cavaliers’ roster offers Lue the ability to balance lineups or stack the court to end opposing runs or start the Cavs on their own run. No matter which way he goes, the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to be in a great position to win.