After timeouts, the Cleveland Cavaliers will often look to LeBron James in the post to break down the defense with his scoring or passing. One such favorite play of head coach Tyronn Lue is Shuffle, where James begins on one wing and cuts to the opposite block, usually aided by a screen from one of Cleveland’s guards. The Cavaliers have two different twists on this set, but the theme is the same in both: look to James down low or use his gravity to find an open shooter on the perimeter.
The shuffle cut is difficult to defend when it’s run for a player like James, who is typically being guarded by a player who is not used to getting through screens, especially when he’s playing the 4 with three shooters around him. Watch below how Julius Randle gets hit with the screen from George Hill, forcing the Lakers to switch Lonzo Ball onto James:
James triggers the play by dribbling to the wing, then passing to Larry Nance in the left slot. As Nance swings the ball through to Jeff Green on the right slot, James executes the shuffle cut, using the screen from Hill to get a post-up against Ball. All things considered, Ball does a decent job forcing James to catch further out than he would have wanted, but James overpowers him and gets the layup plus the foul. However, the Cavaliers don’t always get that switch, which is where the rest of the action comes into play.
Weak-side action can be just as important as strong-side action in the NBA. Without it, the defense knows from where to bring help and how exactly their rotations will work if the ball gets moved. Weak-side action brings with it two key benefits: it distracts the defense from the ball and provides a high-quality release valve in case the strong-side action doesn’t work. When Sindarius Thornwell fights through JR Smith’s screen and makes it difficult for James to get the catch, the Cavaliers swing back to the weak-side action, a screen-the-screener look for Smith:
Having capable passers and decision makers on the perimeter makes this play work for Cleveland. When the ball swings to George Hill in the right slot, he has to make the decision about whether James will be open at the end of the play, even if he’s not the one who will give it to him. By passing the ball to Rodney Hood on the right wing, James becomes the only real option on the play, other than admitting defeat and moving on to something else. Hill sees that Thornwell has James locked up along the baseline and correctly hits Smith coming off the down screen, who hits the three on Lou Williams.
With so much focus (and rightly so) on James, a weak-side pick-and-roll can be a huge threat, as there’s very little help in the paint. Check out how the Hill-Nance pick-and-roll gets the Cavaliers an and-one layup with no help from Denver:
Once again, James isn’t open on the shuffle cut, but that primary action occupied enough of the defense’s attention to make the Hill-Nance pick-and-roll on the weak side a two-on-two affair. With Hood and Smith spacing the floor and James creeping along the baseline, there’s no help from Denver’s other defenders, leaving Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee alone to deal with Hill and Nance.
In the other variation of this set, James serves more often as the distraction, while a shooter comes of staggered down screens:
In both of the above clips, Hill dribbles to the wing while Smith sets the screen for James to make the familiar shuffle cut. Smith then wheels around a pair of down screens, where he can either shoot the three-pointer, curl toward the basket, or catch and isolate against a big man. If he doesn’t have an advantage, as we see in the second clip, James fights for position under the basket and can get a catch on either block.
In general, the Cavaliers’ offense isn’t nearly as complex as many others in the league. That’s what happens when you employ LeBron James — you put the ball in his hands and run a lot of pick-and-roll to take advantage of his finishing and passing on the move. Surround him with shooters and it’s borderline unguardable. Still, Cleveland does call specific plays often enough, especially out of timeouts, where Lue can draw it up and remind everyone of their specific assignments, which is more useful on a team like the Cavaliers that is still integrating new parts and has players playing multiple positions throughout the game.
Editor’s note: I am very, very excited about Jeff joining the FTS team, and we’ll be announcing some more cool things soon. - Chris