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How the Cavs should look to upgrade on the wing

Cleveland has struggled defensively all season and should be looking for a three-and-D wing to help stabilize the perimeter in the trade market.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers-Press conference David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

JR Smith is a Cleveland Cavaliers legend. His played an irreplaceable role on Cleveland’s 2016 NBA Championship team. His two 3s in the 3rd quarter of Game 7 sparked the Cavs’ offense. I have long advocated that he should open a restaurant in downtown Cleveland.

But this season (and really most of last season, too), the Cavs have not gotten the same JR Smith.

Smith’s -1.37 dRPM ranks 416th of 468 players. His -0.9 DBPM is his worst since 2014.

Per Steve Shea’s defensive rating stat (explained here), Smith ranks as the worst perimeter defender and worst overall defender in the NBA this season (of 192 players with at least 650 minutes played).

The Cavs have a 113.8 dRTG with Smith on the floor and are 7.3 points/100 possessions better defensively when he sits. This ranks in the 8th percentile in the NBA.

Every Cavs rotation player has a better dRTG with Smith off the floor.

Smith has had problems defending at the point of attack:

And getting lost off the ball:

Isaiah Thomas made his long-awaited return to the starting lineup Saturday. Thomas ranked 467th in dRPM last season, only ahead of Doug McDermott. With Thomas alongside Smith, the Cavs arguably start the worst defensive backcourt in the NBA.

In addition, Tristan Thompson could eventually return to the starting lineup in a move that would mimic last year’s starting group. The corresponding change would be sending Jae Crowder to the bench. While Crowder has struggled adjusting this season, the Thomas/Smith/James/Love/Thompson starting group would feature 3 below average defenders and James—whose defensive effort waxes and wanes by the game.

With the early Trade Deadline less than one month away, Cleveland should be focused on upgrading its 26th-ranked defense.

A Brief Note on the Brooklyn Pick

Far and away the Cavs’ best asset, the Brooklyn pick is the only way Cleveland can make a big splash at the trade deadline.

But with Oklahoma City now 14-6 since December 1st (6th in Net Rating) and Adrian Wojnarowski calling Paul George an “untouchable” (for now), the biggest swing appears to be off the table.

Marc Gasol ranks 42nd among centers in dRPM and the Grizzlies are 6.1 points/100 possessions better defensively when he sits. Age-related regression seems to have taken hold for the former Defensive Player of the Year, who is struggling to guard the perimeter on switches and is allowing opponents to shoot 63% at the rim when he’s on the floor.

DeAndre Jordan has succumbed to some of the same struggles this season. Despite his continued prowess on the glass and as a roll man, the Clippers are 5.1 points/100 possessions better defensively when he sits. He’s posting his worst DBPM since 2013 and ranks only 26th among centers in dRPM. He does not have a history of staying on the floor against the Warriors. Jordan would also likely be a one-year rental for the Cavs.

Both of these options seem underwhelming when the price is 7 years of control of a top-10 draft pick. Given the rumored depth of this year’s draft and the Cavs’ severe lack of youth, they should be stingy with the Brooklyn pick unless a player of George’s caliber becomes available.

The Targets

Given Cleveland’s need for a perimeter stopper, acquiring a strong defensive wing who can shoot the 3 should be the priority. This player could ideally fit in next to Thomas and guard the opponent’s best ball-handling threat while simultaneously functioning as a low usage floor spacer on offense.

  1. Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks currently have the worst record in the NBA at 10-30 and could be looking to offload their highest paid player in the first year of their rebuild. Bazemore’s ability to defend the perimeter and shoot the 3 should make him Cleveland’s top target.

Strengths: Bazemore’s 7-foot wingspan has helped make him an excellent perimeter defender. He ranks 4th in perimeter defense per Steve Shea’s rankings and is en route to a DBPM >1 for the 4th straight season. He ranks 5th among shooting guards in dRPM.

Bazemore’s 2.9 STL% is the best of all wings and he is also an excellent rebounder for his position, ranking in the 90th percentile or higher in 3 of the last 4 years. He has ranked in the 85th percentile or higher in BLK% for wings every year of his career but one. His 1.2 BLK% currently ranks in the 87th percentile.

Offensively, Bazemore is shooting 39% from 3 and is a career 41% shooter from the corners. The 39% is a bit misleading, however. He is shooting 44% on catch and shoot 3s, compared to just 24% on pull-up 3s.

He has also shown playmaking abilities for others, posting a 20.4% assist percentage this year as Atlanta’s secondary creator.

Weaknesses: Bazemore is shooting a career-low 43% from 2-point range this year. His struggles have mostly come in the pick-and-roll, where he is scoring just 0.66 ppp on 159 possessions.

Bazemore has also struggled to shoot the ball in his postseason career. In 32 games of action over the last 3 seasons, he is shooting only 25.7% from deep on 113 attempts.

You may also remember some bad blood with LeBron James, both on and off the floor.

Contract: 3 Years, $54 million remaining (AAV: $18 million; player option for 2019-20).

2. Thabo Sefolosha, Utah Jazz

Utah currently sits at 16-24, 4.5 games out of the 8-seed in the West. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 35% chance to make the playoffs. Sefolosha signed with Utah this off-season, but rumors of a potential Nikola Mirotic deal may limit his role with the Jazz.

Strengths: I advocated for the Cavs to sign Sefolosha this offseason because of his consistent impact on the defensive end. He has ranked in the 75th percentile or higher in STL% every year since his rookie year (3%—97th percentile this year). Sefolosha can also help on the glass—he ranks in the 91st percentile of all forwards in defensive rebound percentage.

The Jazz are 5 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Sefolosha on the floor. He has yet to post a season with a DBPM under 1.0 and trails only Robert Covington in dRPM among Small Forwards this year. He ranks 19th of 192 players in Steve Shea’s perimeter defensive rating.

Sefolosha has taken 40% of his shots at the rim this year and is shooting 70% on these shots, well above league average. He is scoring 1.52 ppp on cuts, which ranks in the 86th percentile.

Weaknesses: Sefolosha has a checkered history shooting the 3 and is right around 36% on his last 750 attempts. He is shooting 37% from deep this year, but has only taken 2.3 3-pointers per game. On a positive note, he is shooting 40.5% on corner 3s the last 3 seasons.

With his size, Sefolosha is probably better suited guarding 3/4s (like Jae Crowder) as opposed to 1/2s. Per Cleaning the Glass, he has played 69% of his minutes at Power Forward this year. The Jazz have nearly identical dRTGs when he plays PF vs. SF (103.6 vs. 102.9) but have struggled to create efficient offense with him on the wing. (100.7 oRTG).

There is also no guarantee Utah will be looking to deal Sefolosha, who is on a great contract and is non-guaranteed for the 2018-19 season.

Contract: 2 years, $10.5 million (AAV: $5.25 million; non-guaranteed for 2018-19).

3. Jeremy Lamb, Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets are 15-23 and FiveThirtyEight gives them a 36% chance of making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Lamb represents a major step down from both Bazemore and Sefolosha, but the wing market is low on supply and high on demand.

Strengths: Lamb is another long wing defender, standing at 6-foot-5 but with a wingspan of 7 feet. His length allows him to contribute on the defensive glass (93rd percentile of all wings) and add some blocks (72nd percentile of all wings).

He is shooting a career-high 36% from 3, but only takes 27% of his shots from deep and has attempted just 22 corner 3s (12-22).

Weaknesses: Lamb grades out in varying ways across defensive metrics. While his 0.4 DBPM is a career-high, but his -0.31 dRPM ranks 39th among Shooting Guards. He rates as the 6th-worst defender per Steve Shea’s rankings.

The Hornets are about equal on defense when he is on and off the floor (107.2 dRTG).

Contract: 2 years, $14.5 million (AAV: $7.25 million).

4. Courtney Lee, New York Knicks

After a hot start, the Knicks are now 19-21 and FiveThirtyEight gives them just a 19% chance to make the playoffs.

Strengths: Lee’s best asset is his 3-point shooting. He is shooting 42% from 3 on 3.9 attempts/game and 48% on corner 3s. Lee is also 73-76 from the free throw line this year, a blistering 96%.

On defense, his 1.8% STL% ranks in the 76th percentile of all wings.

Weaknesses: Lee is not as long as Bazemore or Sefolosha (he stands at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan). His lack of length prevents him from adding much in the way of blocks (17th percentile of all wings) or defensive rebounds (36th percentile of all wings).

He has a DBPM of 0.0, which ranks 195th of 478 players, and his dRPM of -0.7 ranks 58th among Shooting Guards. He grades out as about average in Steve Shea’s perimeter defense rating. The Knicks are actually 2.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he sits.

Contract: 3 years, $36.7 million (AAV: $12.3 million).

Out-of-the-Box: Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis is just 12-27 on the season and FiveThirtyEight gives them a 2% chance to make the playoffs. The Grizzlies will almost certainly be looking to move Evans, who is a free agent at the end of the season after signing for the bi-annual exception this summer.

Strengths: Evans is arguably having his best season as a pro, posting career highs in PER (22.8) and TS% (57.9%). He is shooting a career-high 41.6% from 3 on 5.3 attempts per game, largely due to his 44% clip on pull-up 3s.

Evans also gets to the rim consistently, taking 50% of his shots from the restricted area this season. He is almost always creating for himself—only 31% of his makes have been assisted on the season. His 28.2 AST% ranks in the 98th percentile of all wings.

Evans has always been a strong defensive rebounder for his position, ranking in the 87th percentile or higher each of the last 5 seasons.

Weaknesses: Evans is fairly average across the board defensively, but he has the tools (strength and length) to potentially be disruptive. He ranks in the 61st percentile for STL% and 59th percentile for BLK% among wings.

He grades out as above-average in perimeter defense per Steve Shea’s metric and Memphis is 1.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor.

He does have a -0.5 DBPM, however, and his -0.4 dRPM ranks 43rd among Shooting Guards.

There are questions about whether he can sustain his hot streak this season, especially if his role is reduced on a better team. He is probably better coming off the bench as a secondary creator than a wing stopper and 3-point shooter.

Contract: 1 year, $3.29 million.

Considered, but No Thanks

  • George Hill: Too small to guard 2/3s (only 6-foot-3) and struggling defensively this season. He is shooting 42% from 3 on his last ~650 attempts.
  • Jonathon Simmons: Shooting only 31% from 3 this season. Another guy whose defensive reputation outstrips his actual production.
  • Wesley Johnson: Down to 30% from 3 after a hot start (and only 32% on his last ~750 attempts). Does have some intriguing defensive chops.
  • DeMarre Carroll: Nets have been better defensively with him on this year, but his steal and block rates have declined. Only shooting 34% from 3 after shooting 34% from 3 last year. Will make over $15 million next year in his age 31 season.


The Cavs should be aggressive in the market as they look to find a perimeter defender that can help stabilize a defense that has struggled mightily all season.

The wing market is limited in terms of available players that fit what the Cavs need and could be starting-level players in meaningful playoff games. Bazemore is clearly the best fit and the Cavs have Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert as salary filler to match his $18 million remaining per year.

Sefolosha is an intriguing option as well, but may be less available and is probably better suited to guard bigger players. After him, the current market drops off into more specialist guys that are less trustworthy in May and June.

There could be some changes over the next month that make more players available, but—as a reminder—the Cavs traded for Kyle Korver on January 7th last year. Cleveland needs to upgrade its defense if it wants to reach the pinnacle again this season and trading for a wing defender is the best way to achieve that goal.