After making two roster-altering trades at the Trade Deadline, the Cleveland Cavaliers stormed into the All-Star Break with victories over Boston and Oklahoma City.
They won these games despite very little practice time together to both learn each other’s preferences on the court and delve into Tyronn Lue’s playbook.
The remaining 26 games will be focused on exploration as the Cavs attempt to build chemistry — on and off the floor — on the fly.
But the games should also be focused on experimentation.
We already saw a little of that in the two games the new roster played together, as Coach Lue attempted to run plays familiar to Cleveland’s new players to help them feel comfortable.
Here is a common Lakers split-cut action that Cleveland ran with Larry Nance Jr. at the high post and Jordan Clarkson coming off the screen:
And here is a dribble handoff action for Rodney Hood to come to his dominant left hand (orchestrated through Nance at the elbow):
But the Cavs were also able to teach some new guys old tricks, digging into the playbook for their time-tested “Elbow” set.
The play is typically fairly simple — enter the ball to LeBron James at the elbow then have the passer set a “FLEX” screen for the man in the corner. James either finds the screen setter popping for three or hits the cutter rolling to the rim, as he does in the clip below:
But with its new personnel, Cleveland shifted Nance to the opposite elbow (where Korver is stationed above). The “FLEX” cut became a dummy action and the play transformed into a simple, but unguardable pick and roll. The Cavs scored eight points on three possessions in a row running the action, including this capping three from Clarkson:
But, more often than not, the Cavs were just kind of winging it. They ran 73 pick and rolls in the two games (36.5 per game) after averaging just 27.6 per game prior to the trade. They scored 89 points on these 73 pick and rolls, good for 1.22 points per possession. That number blows away both their ppp prior to the trade (0.989) and the league-leading Golden State Warriors (1.08 ppp).
In addition, Nance averaged seven elbow touches per game — up from 3.1 per game in Los Angeles — and well above Kevin Love’s Cavaliers-leading two per game. Nance’s 14.3 percent assist percentage was third on the team, trailing only James and Clarkson, and his 4 potential assists per game would lead all Cavs bigs this year.
Oh, and Cleveland shot the lights out from behind the arc. The Cavs made 47.5 percent of their three-point attempts and 51.3 percent of their above-the-break threes. (For reference, Golden State leads the league in three-point percentage at 40.1 percent and above-the-break three point percentage at 40.3 percent).-point attempts and 51.3 percent of their above-the-br
Though the hot shooting will not continue at this level, the improved shooting capability around James was one of the major takeaways from the two games. Another was Nance’s gravity as a roll man and how entire defenses changed to account for his presence.
With those two takeaways in mind, Cleveland can add to its experimentation down the stretch by taking a page (or two) from Mike D’Antoni’s playbook.
At the All-Star Break, Houston has a league-leading 115.5 offensive rating (oRTG) per Cleaning The Glass.
The Rockets’ offense is built on a singular lead ballhandler (James Harden’s usage percentage (36.2) is over 10 percent higher than Chis Paul’s (25)) running pick and roll with a threatening roll man (Clint Capela has 146 dunks on the season) and surrounding them with shooters.
Houston is scoring 1 point per possession in the pick and roll — second behind Golden State — but the Rockets have over 1000 more pick and rolls than the Warriors on the season. They run 40.4 pick and rolls per game — close to Cleveland’s 36.5 per game mark following the trades.
James has a 39.2 usage percentage in the two games since the trades (Clarkson is second at 23.9 percent), Dunk Contest Runner-Up Larry Nance has thrown down 62 dunks on the year dunks on the year (in 446 fewer minutes than Capela) and the Cavs certainly have players who will let it fly from deep.
In addition to placing an emphasis on the pick and roll, Cleveland should add these two counters off the action to its playbook.
Spain Pick and Roll
Spain pick and roll is a staple of the Houston Rockets’ playbook. The name derives from the Spanish National Team — the first team seen running this action. Take a look at the play on film before we break it down:
Now watch what happens when teams are prepared for Capela’s roll.
Dallas still sends Capela’s man Dwight Powell into a drop position in the pick and roll, forcing him to stay with Harden. This leaves Ryan Anderson’s man Doug McDermott in a precarious position. Stay with Anderson and fear Capela rolling for a lob. So McDermott instead decides to stay with Capela. With two guys dedicated to stopping Harden, this leaves Anderson open for three.
Cleveland actually ran a version of Spain PNR against Boston with James as the ball handler, Thompson as the screener and Hill setting the back screen.
Irving did not help off Hill, forcing Brown to tag Thompson and opening Osman for three.
While this play was effective, imagining the Cavs running the original Spain PnR with James as the handler, Nance in Capela’s spot and any shooter setting the backscreen opens a world of possibilities.
Ball Screen into Flare
Another common action Houston (and Utah) runs is a ball screen into a flare screen for a shooter.
Simply put, the Rockets have a shooter set an initial ball screen for Harden or Paul. They then bring another player to set a flare screen for the shooter who just set the ball screen.
This action is typically used to exploit a traditional center who does not want to leave the paint in the pick and roll. Take a look then we will break it down:
After the breakdown, take a look at the play again — this time using PJ Tucker as the flare screener to take advantage of Karl-Anthony Towns (who does well here):
The Cavs have not run anything like this action, but you can imagine it being successful. They frequently use their bigs as flare screeners and J.R. Smith has demonstrated his value as a ball screener.
Using James’ on-ball threat in the same manner as Harden’s here would allow the Cavs to open looks for some of their shooters.
Following the trades, Cleveland has briefly experimented with some new set plays to utilize new personnel. The current set up of the roster leaves James as the undisputed lead ball handler, surrounded by rolling bigs and spot up shooters.
The Cavs have utilized that roster creation (and the lack of practice time) to run significantly more pick and rolls than their season average in the two games since acquiring four new players.
But there is certainly room for more growth and more experimentation. While this change has mirrored a more Rockets-like approach, why stop there?
Spain pick and roll and the flare screen for the ball screener are two actions that feature prominently into Houston’s offense and fit extremely well with Cleveland’s personnel. Lue should install these plays in an attempt to make the Cavs as potent as possible on the offensive end heading into the playoffs.