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John Beilein and the promise of offensive flow

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With Beilein, the Cavs are poised to enter a new era of basketball.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In recent years, the Cavs’ offense — both with LeBron James and without — has never truly flowed. With LeBron — both with and without Kyrie Irving – the offense was built to bludgeon opponents into submission. When the offense ever attempted to flow, it was to get force-feed a shooter coming off a screen. But often, the shooters got their shots by waiting for LeBron to create an open look for them.

Without LeBron this past season — and without Kevin Love to provide any structure — the offense still functioned that way, often to its detriment. Shots like this, for players who need to be put into better spots, were far too common:

The result last season was the second-worst half court offense in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. Only the Knicks, a team who tried to lose more than any team in the league, were worse. Compared to teams that made the playoffs in the East, Cleveland was closest to Detroit — and the Cavs were 2.9 points worse per 100 possessions than the Pistons in the half court, per Cleaning The Glass. Kevin Love’s absence explains some, but not all, of those issues.

This should change under John Beilein. If nothing else, Beilein’s offense promises flow and is built around trying to get players into positions where they can succeed. This isn’t to say a Beilein-designed offense won’t feature some on one-on-one action. To win at the highest level again, the Cavs will need to find players who can do that when the game is on the line. But the Cavs’ offense will not be built around it under Beilein.

“I think we heard from everybody all the way down — Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Nik (Stauskas) and I were on the phone the other day, Moe (Wagner), D.J. (Wilson). All these guys that are in the pros right now have all reached out,” Beilein said when he was introduced as the Cavs’ coach. “Caris LeVert, for example, he said, ‘Coach what we do (at Michigan) will work. You just have to make sure you have the right people on that team that will play unselfishly.’ He had told me about some franchises that maybe wouldn’t be good for me. He very much knows this franchise is where I would want to be.”

Take Michigan’s wing Ignas Brazdeikis’ freshman season for example of what Beilein’s system offers its players. Brazdeikis’ repertoire included some step-back three-pointers and drives to the basket when he saw an opportunity to get by a weaker defender. He had the highest usage rate on the Wolverines too. But the offense also worked to put him in positions where he didn’t have to do it himself in order to score. Instead, Beilein used his offense to get Brazdeikis in position to use his talent as efficiently as possible.

“I think it’s a big step for him,” Brazdeikis said of Beilein taking the Cavs job at the NBA Draft combine. “I think it’s the right move for him.”

“I think he solidified himself at the college level,” ex-Michigan guard Jordan Poole said at the combine.

Case in point: Here’s Brazdeikis coming off screens to get to the dunker spot, where he can catch a pass and use his frame to score and/or draw a foul.

Around the perimeter, Beilein’s offense at Michigan had his players fill in spaces around the main action. When that happens, Brazdeikis (or whomever the wing is) is in a spot to catch and shoot if/when the ball is swung back their way:

Coming out of similar sets, wings like Brazdeikis can attack off the dribble, and because they are already moving, aren’t giving defenders a chance to set their feet if the offense is working properly:

Another interesting little wrinkle: Brazdeikis rolls here, where he can score as he does here or pass to an open shooter:

For three-point shooting as a whole, Beilein’s Michigan teams didn’t bank on players creating their own three-point looks. When they made them, it was largely because someone else set them up:

2018-19 Michigan Wolverines three-point breakdown

Player Usage rate % of three-pointers assisted
Player Usage rate % of three-pointers assisted
Ignas Bradzikes 26.1 83.9%
Charles Matthews 24 79.3%
Jordan Poole 20.9 68%
Zavier Simpson 17.3 68.8%

By comparison, the Cavs had some players whose made three-pointers were largely assisted. Kevin Love and Cedi Osman feel like good fits for Beilein’s offense because they are already taking almost all of their threes by being set-up. In Osman’s case, the film suggests he’s an entirely different shooter when he time to set his feet and isn’t flinging up a quick three-pointer.

But with Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson, who guards who shaped the Cavs’ offense last year, Beilein is inheriting some players who don’t play like the guys he had at Michigan:

2018-19 Cleveland Cavaliers three-point breakdown

Player Usage rate % of three-pointers assisted
Player Usage rate % of three-pointers assisted
Jordan Clarkson 27.6 78.5%
Collin Sexton 25.2 63.9%
Kevin Love 27.4 90.6%
Cedi Osman 18.6 83.8%

To be fair to both players, Larry Drew had to have someone to create their own shot and Clarkson and Sexton were the best candidates to do so. But in Clarkson’s case, the numbers indicate he was a much better three-point shoot when he was catching and shooting. Possessions like this were far too common for Clarkson; he finished possessions in isolation at a similar rate to Damian Lilllard and Jeff Teague. When Clarkson is allowed to attack with no restraints, it plays into his “I want to take all of the shots” tendencies and the results are hit or miss:

And in Sexton’s case, he came in the NBA with virtually no experience in playing off-ball. It’s not all that surprising that he finished his rookie year taking virtually the same amount of pull-up and catch-and-shoot three-pointers per game, per nba.com/stats. That type of split can work – De’Aaron Fox had his breakout season taking more pull-up three-pointers than catch-and-shoot threes and only 52.3% of his made three-pointers were assisted — but it helps to have versatility. Elite guards like Lillard do.

And it’s worth remembering that Sexton is just starting his NBA career — it’ll be a few more years before it’s clear what kind of scorer he is. But if he can hit shots like this for a full season, it’ll be a good sign about where he’s headed:

The roster, assembled by Koby Altman and his front office with some assumed level of input from Beilein, is likely the biggest obstacle to a flowing offense being fully functioning on day one. The draft, with two first round picks, should allow Beilein to get guys that fit what he wants to do. But with the J.R. Smith contract and a large chunk of expiring contracts on the books, Altman isn’t going to reshape the roster right away. The Cavs won’t be players in free agency either; it wouldn’t be surprising if re-signing David Nwaba and Nik Stauskas are the Cavs’ big summer moves.

As the roster reshapes, though, there are pieces that should work for Beilein. Osman, who has some interesting playmaking potential if his international career is any indication, should thrive in an offense that moves. Love, with his passing and shooting skill, should be too. If Larry Nance Jr.’s 2018-19 passing and shooting improvements hold up, he fits well too. And Sexton certainly has the potential to get better in a system that won’t ask him to play one-on-one for him to score.

There will be some growing pains, to be sure. It will look different than anything the Cavs have done in recent years. And, again, the roster needs adjusting. But with Beilein, Cleveland is choosing to try and play offense in a way it hasn’t before.

“Look at all those banners up there,” Beilein said at his introductory press conference. “It’s been done before. Why can’t it be done again?”