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There’s hope for the Cavaliers’ offense vs. zone defense

It might look bad, but it’s not a total disaster.

NBA: New York Knicks at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced a lot of zone defense this year. In fact, only the Charlotte Hornets have faced more zone this year, though these numbers are heavily skewed by their schedule to this point: the Cavaliers have already played three games each against Toronto and Miami, two teams who run a fair amount of zone and do it extremely well. The other two teams near the top in zone usage are the New York Knicks, whom Cleveland played on Monday night, and the Brooklyn Nets, whom the Cavaliers will see on Wednesday. In early March, the team will play Brooklyn, Miami and Toronto all in a five-day stretch. Suffice it to say that the Cavaliers will get a healthy dose of in-game practice against zone defenses over the next month.

To this point in the season, the results have been downright mediocre, and that’s an insult to the word mediocre. Only three teams have a worse zone offense than Cleveland. Those three teams combined have played against fewer total possessions than the Cavaliers, so it’s fair to posit that Cleveland has been the league’s worst zone offense this season, scoring nearly 16 points per 100 possessions worse against zone than league average.

The answer to why the Cavaliers are so bad against zone comes down to two main problems: personnel and bad luck over what’s still a small sample. Despite facing the second-most zone in the league, man defense still accounts for more than 97 percent of their offensive possessions. League-wide, zone usage is up about 3.5 times over last year, but it’s still an immensely small percentage of the overall pie. The Nets have gone nuts with their zone this year, but they still run man more than 10 times for every one zone possession.

That said, the Cavaliers still have to be prepared to play against it. There are a few different key avenues teams take to beat a zone defense, though the general theme is the same as against man: get the ball into the paint, force the defense to rotate and find the open man for a layup or three-point jumper. That strategy doesn’t change against a zone, but the tactics involved in getting those shots are wildly different. Turning the corner in pick-and-roll is no longer useful, because there’s always another defender there. Even if the roll man gets a good screen on one defender, the defender under the rim is there to take the roll. Zone defense, when played well, is an even more extreme version of a switch-everything defense designed to take away dribble penetration.

Instead of an individual ball handler dominating an offensive possession, the best way to beat a zone defense is by passing and moving, ideally in concert with teammates to create seams in the defense. Since the defense isn’t matched up individually, a precisely timed pass to a cutter can wreak havoc, drawing multiple defenders and creating another opening elsewhere. The Cavaliers aren’t big on player movement when they fact a zone, but instead will work within the confines of a three-man shell system and move the ball quickly and with purpose in order to find the best opportunity. And despite their abysmal performance against the zone on a season-long basis, the shots they’re creating aren’t actually all that bad. They just don’t have particularly good players on the team to capitalize on those shots and have been hit with a particular rash of bad luck in hitting open shots recently.

The general idea remains the same throughout most of Cleveland’s offensive possessions against the zone: three perimeter players in a “shell” along the three-point line and two players inside, usually with one at the free throw line and the other roaming the baseline to occupy and confuse the three lower defenders. At its best, the ball finds the man at the free throw line and he’s able to collapse the defense and make a good decision. At its worst, the ball pitters around the three-point line and the defense can shift back and forth without losing its solidity.

Against New York on Monday, Cleveland was faced with quite a bit of zone throughout the second half. The results were a mixed bag, with perhaps the best possession of the lot coming early in the third quarter:

Even though it ended in a missed corner three from Collin Sexton, the ball and man movement were about as good as it gets within the confines of the Cavaliers’ system. Sexton, Brandon Knight and Nik Stauskas formed the three-man shell on the outside, while David Nwaba and Larry Nance were the two internal players. Throughout Cleveland’s forays against teams playing zone, their ball movement has been pretty good, though it’s usually not at this level. However, their man movement is usually next to nil, with the three perimeter players mostly standing still and the two internal guys covered up. Sexton in particular gums up the works with his slow decision making; the difference between him and Matthew Dellavedova is night and day in terms of how they handle a zone defense.

The low man in Cleveland’s zone offense is of utmost importance, even if he never touches the ball. The pressure he can put on the three low defenders keeps them pinned back to the baseline, which opens space for the rest of the team to attack. Like a great poacher on a football pitch, the backline defenders constantly have to check him and ensure he doesn’t slip in behind for an easy opportunity. The Cavaliers like to take advantage of this, especially when the man at the free throw line catches and can turn without pressure:

Nwaba is the high man in the high-low setup, with Marquese Chriss roaming the baseline. As the ball comes in to Nwaba, New York’s Luke Kornet catches Chriss’ cut out of the corner of his eye and drops back to defend his rim, allowing Nwaba to take one dribble and hit a floating jumper. The same thing happened in a late January game against Miami, with Cedi Osman in Nwaba’s spot and Nance patrolling the baseline:

Hassan Whiteside was too scared to leave Nance alone under the rim and the other Miami defenders were too high to adequately help down on him, so Osman was open for an easy free throw line jumper. The spacing of the perimeter shell is important here: Jordan Clarkson and Alec Burks aren’t in the corners, where they’re a bit easier to defend in the 2-3 zone; they’re up on the wings, drawing the two lower wings up the floor a bit more and leaving Whiteside to deal with the two-on-one opportunity in the paint.

When Kevin Love is back to full strength and is able to rejoin his teammates for extended stretches, Cleveland’s zone offense should thrive. Love is tailor-made for the high big role in the center of the floor and will be able to pick apart defenses with his pinpoint passing and quick decision making. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers aren’t doing all that poorly against the zone without him, even if the results aren’t there quite yet. They have far more good possessions than bad and while they haven’t been able to capitalize on a normal number of those good opportunities, regression to the mean has to come eventually, at which point they’ll be able to adequately punish teams who try to zone up against them.