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Mailbag: Will three-big lineups be a thing for the Cavs next season?

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The data from last year is good, but it’s not enough to say they’ll work.

NBA: Miami Heat at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Question:

So, the big picture data on these lineups from last year screams ‘try these again.’ From Cleaning The Glass, here’s one example that could carry over to this season:

As a trio, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond, and Larry Nance played a whopping 47.7 minutes together for four games. Per nba.com, they had a net rating of 35.2 per 100 possessions. That’s eye-popping good. It’s been discussed internally as something to try again next year, although it wasn’t something they could get on tape in the bubble workouts. Drummond wasn’t there for a personal reason, while Tristan Thompson was heading into free agency. It was a hope for the team to get different sets on tape during that time and then evaluate it in the lead-up to the season to get an idea of what worked and what didn’t.

I’d also be skeptical of those numbers meaning anything. It’s such a small sample size in the mid of a weird season that it’s hard to project them forward. And were the numbers there because they were a gimmick that caught teams off guard? If that’s true, Cleveland will see counters to those lineups — probably smaller, fast-paced lineups — that will force them off the floor.

Another reason to skeptical: Per Cleaning The Glass, lineups with Nance, Love, and Drummond took 43.3% of its shots at the rim — which is good and puts them in the 99th percentile of all Cavs lineups. However, they only shot 59.1% on those shots — putting them in the 11th percentile. That number has to go way up for this lineup to thrive. Also of note, the most commonly used lineup with that trio shot 54.5% from three with Nance, Love, and Drummond shooting 41.7% on three-point shooting overall. That’s better than all but two teams shot throughout the full season. In short: Those lineups will not shoot that well for a bigger sample.

A reason to be optimistic, though, is that those lineups rebounded well on both ends. That has to hold for the lineups to work.

Offensively, it is possible to see how these would work. If the Cavs run something like Darius Garland, Dylan Windler, Nance, Love, and Drummond, there’s some merit to it making sense. Drummond can be the man in the middle, rolling to the rim and setting screens. The other four provide more than enough spacing — particularly if Windler is close to what the Cavs hope. Garland is the wild card — can he take a big enough step forward as a playmaker to help the ball move? Could Nance and Love provide enough secondary creation to help cover up any weaknesses? If J.B. Bickerstaff felt the lineup needed some more on-ball creation, he could go with Collin Sexton or, if he wanted a little more size, Kevin Porter Jr.

Defensively is where the bigger issues pop up. This unit playing man-to-man only works if Nance can defend the three effectively. Per BBall-Index, he defended small forwards on about 20% of possessions last year. But it’s hard to tell what kinds of small forwards those were — was it bigger, bulkier types who also play some four or smaller, quick types who work a lot more off-ball? Nance is much better served tracking the former. It’d also be a waste of his talents for him to chase around shooters.

One solution could be to play some zone. Teams are running it more and more. For the Cavs, it could be a way to scheme their way around a weird defensive lineup that is lacking a true lead defensive option. It could put Drummond in a position to use his frame to clog up the lane and deploy Nance in a way that uses his awareness and motor to his maximum potential.

But that all assumes that the offense is good enough to make any defensive downside worth it. And based on what we know right now, it’s hard to know if three-big lineups are a real thing, not a thing, or just a gimmick Bickerstaff can turn to when he needs to muck up the game.