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Mailbag: Taking Stock of the Cavs

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Mailbag touching on Kevin Love’s impact, George Hill’s recent play, Jordan Clarkson’s 3 point shooting, Jeff Green and more

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

This has been an especially tumultuous month of March for the Cleveland Cavaliers. With five rotation players injured, their second-best player returning to action and chemistry building packed into a small fraction of the season, learning anything about the team has been difficult.

With that in mind, I decided to the best way to tackle the recent stretch of play and what to expect going forward was with a mailbag.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions. Without further ado...

Does Kevin Love actually help the Cavaliers? — The Internet

Okay, I made this one up...sort of. But I think it is important to look at the specific ways in which Love helps make the Cavaliers a better team.

In the four games since his return against Milwaukee, Love is averaging 20.3 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. He is shooting 45.6 percent from the field, 48.1 percent from three (13-27) and is 16-17 from the Free Throw line.

Perhaps most importantly, Love has a 27.6 percent usage rate — firmly establishing himself as the second option behind LeBron James.

In addition, Love cited a change in his shooting form for making him more comfortable from downtown. The results have followed in both the versatility and depth of his jumpshot. He is 10-15 on 3-point attempts from 25 feet or longer since returning, including 2-2 from 30+ feet. He also looks comfortable shooting on the run like this:

The Cavs are 4-0 since Love returned and boast a 123.9 offensive rating and 113.1 defensive rating during this stretch.

With Love out of the lineup, Cleveland posted a 111.1 oRTG. While that number sounds excellent on its face, scoring has exploded across the league following the All-Star Break. The oRTG ranked only 11th league-wide during that time. Add in an offensive rebound rate that ranked 29th and a Free Throw rate that ranked 23rd and you could see signs of slippage on that end.

In addition to the piping hot oRTG since Love’s return, Cleveland has also posted a 30.7 percent offensive rebound rate and a .249 Free Throw rate — both of which would rank 1st during the time he missed. Love is getting to the line 4.3 times per game over that span, second on the team to James.

And the Love at C lineups have proven unstoppable since his return. In 72 minutes he has played at C alongside James, the Cavs have a 138.1 oRTG.

While Love may not help the defense, it has certainly been improved (107.8 dRTG) with him on the floor since his return. Love/James/George Hill have a 106.4 dRTG together in 83 minutes (and it is not being propped up by unsustainable opponent 3-point shooting).

One area that Love absolutely helps the defense is on the glass. The Cavs fell to 19th in the NBA over the stretch he missed, allowing opponents to rebound 26.6 percent of their misses.

Since Love returned, opponents have only grabbed 19.6 percent of their misses with Love on the floor. That number drops to a measly 12.5 percent in the 34 minutes (small sample) he has played with Larry Nance Jr.

The formula remains the same for the Cavaliers. Have an elite level offense and have a defense that is good enough and steps up when it matters. With Love back in the fold, Cleveland is once again reaching that elite status on offense because of his gravity and shooting ability. He absolutely makes the Cavaliers a better — and more dangerous team — in the playoffs.

Love and Nance. All you can eat. — @Machado

Due to Nance’s foul trouble against Brooklyn, we did not get to see a ton of this front court Sunday afternoon. But the 34 minute sample we have so far has been encouraging.

Both players have tremendously high basketball IQs and are above-average passers for their position. Love is averaging 3.5 assists per game since his return and has the ability to make these types of passes to Nance on the inside:

Late in the first half against Phoenix, the Cavs ran a pick and roll to get Love a switch on the low block. But Marquese Chriss wisely helped over to take away the pass. Watch how Nance reacted to work the hi-low action:

Love’s gravity continues to have an impact on the offense, even with Nance on the floor. On this James post-up, watch Dragan Bender. When Chriss slides across the paint to help on James, Bender is too concerned with Love to offer any resistance on Nance. This leaves Nance wide open for the alley-oop finish:

Nance and Love provide a different dimension in the front court and one that will be interesting to follow going forward. We already know how Love at Center is an elite option offensively. The question becomes whether the Nance-Love combo is effective enough on the defensive end to warrant playing over that Love at C group.

So far, the pair has a 97 dRTG in 34 minutes played, but the number is being propped up by some bad free throw shooting (61 percent) by opponents. This is, however, a lineup that will almost guarantee opposing teams do not get more than one look at the basket per trip.

This duo will certainly be one of the major things to track for the Cavs coming down the stretch.

George Hill’s recent surge and how he has improved? — @GregF__11

George Hill continues to represent an odd statistical anomaly since coming to Cleveland. He has taken more corner threes (29) than above the break threes (27) as a member of the Cavs. He is shooting 48.3 percent from the corners compared to 25.9 percent above the break.

Watch how comfortable Hill is pulling the corner three without hesitation:

Though he struggled a bit to find his way out of the gate, Hill is a +91 in a Cleveland uniform — second only to Kyle Korver’s +92 over that 19-game stretch.

Over his last ten games, Hill is shooting 54 percent from the field, 43 percent from three and 82 percent from the free throw line.

More importantly, Kevin Love’s return to the floor has pushed Hill into a far-more comfortable third option role on offense. This allows him to transition into a spot up shooter off the ball who can now run pick and roll with a spaced floor. In his minutes alongside Love (small sample), Hill is shooting 63 percent from the field and 47 percent from downtown.

In Cleveland, Hill has scored 0.92 points per possession as the pick and roll ballhandler — good for the 78th percentile. His improved aggression picking his spots in the offense shows on plays like the one below, where he refuses the ball screen for a layup:

Perhaps more impressive is Hill’s pick and roll decision-making. Cavs teammates are scoring 1.18 ppp off his pick and roll passes — good for the 85th percentile. Watch how Hill reads Joe Harris on this play:

When Hill drives, Allen Crabbe helps off the corner, forcing Harris to sink and take away the easy pass to Jordan Clarkson. Hill reads that sink and counters by finding a wide open Rodney Hood on the right wing.

Again, you see the value of Kevin Love’s spacing as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson does not budge off Love the entire possession. And Love’s gravity allows the Cavs to run plays like this empty strong side corner Hill-James pick and roll — which put defenses in an impossible bind:

Using the new “Matchups” tool on NBA.com, Hill’s individual effort on the defensive end also stands out.

Points under average captures the difference between how many points a player normally scores per 100 possessions and how many points per 100 possessions they scored when matched up with Hill.

Deterrence Factor captures how often a player shoots compared to how often they shoot when guarded by Hill. For this stat, 100 is the net zero mark (same number of shots) so anything under 100 means Hill held them to fewer shots than normal.

For instance, when guarding Kyrie Irving, Hill held him to 19.3 points per 100 possessions under his average and Irving took 24.3 percent fewer shots.

Is there anything to Jordan Clarkson shooting 57.9 percent on wide open threes in Cleveland or is this just small sample size noise? — @thezlock

As Zac mentions, Clarkson is indeed shooting 22-38 on wide open three point attempts in Cleveland. I wanted to take a look at this because it incorporates my Shot Quality Metric.

First, take a look at Clarkson’s shooting on tightly guarded (2-4 feet), open (4-6 feet) and wide open 3s (6+ feet) this year in Cleveland, Los Angeles and for his career:

Clarkson is only a career 33.7 percent 3 point shooter, but his 42.9 percent on wide open threes ranks in the 87th percentile since 2013-14. Most of the negative work is being done by 30.2 percent on open threes (12th percentile) and 28.4 percent on tightly guarded threes (33rd percentile).

The hypothesis follows that Clarkson should take more wide open threes and fewer other threes to best improve his percentage. This squares with the eye test given how far forward Clarkson jumps on his shot:

The question then becomes whether Clarkson is attempting a higher percentage of his shots in Cleveland as wide open threes.

So far, the answer is yes — both compared to this year in Los Angeles and his career. Compared to his career rate, Clarkson is attempting over 15 percent more threes as wide open.

This has translated to a Shot Quality profile that is much better as well. For his career, his three point shot difficulty ranked in the 78th percentile (where 100th percentile is the most difficult). In Cleveland, his profile would rank in only the 43rd percentile.

While 57.9 percent on these shots is certainly unsustainable, we can expect Clarkson to continue shooting well on wide open threes. And with that knowledge, his 40 percent three point shooting in Cleveland becomes much more sustainable than it might seem on its face.

Cavs seem set on using [Jeff] Green as the team’s primary defender like [Jae] Crowder earlier this year...Green looks to have all the tools but I frequently see him get beat off the dribble by guards and/or overpowered by bigs. Do the numbers support that he’s a good defender? — @pickuphoop

Received a number of questions on Green’s defense following his performance against DeMar DeRozan earlier this week.

Green held DeRozan to 7 points on 2-7 shooting in the Cavs’ most recent win over the Raptors. More importantly, Green spent more time on DeRozan (33 possessions) than any other Cleveland defender, including for this block down the stretch:

Green also famously guarded James Harden for 28 possessions across both Cleveland’s matchups with the Rockets earlier this year. The veteran held his own against the likely-MVP, limiting Harden to 11 points (3.2 under expected) on 2-6 shooting and 4 turnovers.

On the season, Cleveland has a 104.3 dRTG with Green on the floor and a 112.3 dRTG when he sits. Lineups with Green at the 4 and James at the 3 have posted a 108.7 dRTG (~50th percentile).

Overall, Green’s individual defense has been a bit of a mixed bag, but he has done his most impressive work in some potentially important matchups for Cleveland’s playoff hopes.

As the question notes, the guys who have hurt Green the most the are bruising bigs like Steven Adams and wings who come off screens like Kelly Oubre, Norman Powell and Khris Middleton.

One would hope that Green will not have to matchup with behemoths like Adams in the playoffs and his on-ball strengths will be better utilized. Either way, Green’s play defensively has been a revelation for a Cavs team that has often needed a defensive stopper late in games.

What do you think is the best way to manage lineups and rotations--specifically as it relates to Nance, Green and Thompson? — @thebechman

This was the most common question I was asked and one that I believe is still quite difficult to answer given the moving pieces on the Cavs’ roster.

More than any prior playoff run since LeBron returned, Cleveland has real depth that can be deployed in a variety of ways. This makes this question one that I ultimately believe should be matchup dependent.

From a starting five perspective, I believe the Cavs should roll with Hill-Hood-James-Love-Nance. That lineup played 3 minutes together for the first time in the game Sunday against Brooklyn.

While Korver or Hood is a real question, I think Hood gives you a slightly higher theoretical defensive upside and a bit more playmaking offensively when healthy. This is a decision that could really go either way and be acceptable.

In addition to Korver off the bench, you have to include Clarkson as well for backup point guard duties. From there, I truly believe that the rest of the decisions can be matchup-dependent.

Cleveland can choose from a group that includes Tristan Thompson, Jeff Green, Jose Calderon, JR Smith and even Cedi Osman or Ante Zizic to fill out the 9 to 10-man rotation.

As mentioned in the question, I think any time Green plays in the playoffs, Love should be at Center. This way, you can use Love’s gravity to offset Green’s lack of shooting (and Green becomes the nominal “Center” offensively).

As for Thompson, I expect him to get backup Center minutes. But with Nance starting and playing 20-25 minutes per game and Love likely playing some Center as well, Thompson’s minutes may be cut down. If Love closes games at Center, Thompson may settle in around 10-15 minutes per game.

There is certainly an argument to be made that Jose Calderon’s steady hand could be helpful in the playoffs. Calderon has the 4th best on court Net Rating since the All-Star Break and his presence often insures the Cavs will get into a set play on the offensive end. He could be paired with Clarkson to reign in some of the bench units — although you would like James or Love to be on the floor at all times.

In conclusion, this is a difficult question and one I am not ready to answer definitively without seeing more film on the healthy Cavs. But their depth is what makes it an interesting question — and a good problem to have — heading into the month of April.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions @MZavagno11 for this mailbag!