The Cavs, by every single metric, are an awful defensive team.
This isn’t one-year sample either. This past year, Cleveland had a defensive rating of 115.4, the second-worst mark of the league and 4.5 points worse than league average, per Cleaning The Glass. In 2018-19, the Cavs were dead last with a 117.7 defensive rating. That was 2.5 points per 100 possessions than the 29th-ranked Suns and 7.1 points worse than the league average, per Cleaning The Glass.
To some degree, these struggles had to be expected. The last two years have been a metamorphosis for Cleveland, transitioning from LeBron James-led teams that, sans 2017-18, defended at a high level in the playoffs. Out went a number of veterans, in came young players who had a steep learning curve to navigate. No team giving massive minutes to first-and-second year players like Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. is going to be a good defense. Shuffling through four coaches in two years can’t have helped either.
If this is going to change, it’s going to start on the perimeter. Rim protection is a need too — and arguably a massive one because the Cavs are trying to pair two smaller guards together — but good defense doesn’t start there. It starts on the perimeter, where the league more and more dominated by really good point guards and dynamic wings. To be a competent defensive team, you need guards and wings who at least know what they are doing, try hard and, ideally, be able to switch.
Right now, the Cavs are thin on that kind of player. Sexton is no longer one of the league’s worse defensive players, but he’s still not good and isn’t especially disruptive. (Per BBall-Index, he’s around average in steals and deflections per 75 possessions, but much worse in every other category.) Garland is a worse everywhere aside from collection loose ball steals. Porter Jr. has the frame to be a good defender — and the Cavs let him get reps on wings like James Harden last year — but fouls a lot (11th percentile among wings, per Cleaning The Glass) despite rating out as a fairly active defender who doesn’t fall asleep off ball.
If the Cavs have any average to above-average perimeter defenders, they are Larry Nance Jr. and Alfonzo McKinnie. Nance is the one who matters most and it’ll be interesting to see if the Cavs deploy him more on the perimeter next year. He isn’t a ‘lockdown your best player’ defender, but he’s really active in passing lanes and good at deflecting passes. McKinnie doesn’t pop anywhere — there’s a reason he’s signed to a small contract with few guarantees — but he’s solid and knows what to do. That matters.
Cedi Osman could be added to this group, but he’s best at being a team defender and not as the lead stopper as he’s been deployed in the last two years. If the Cavs can stop having him defend bigger threes and four (BBall Index has him defending high-usage players more than 75% of the league), he should look better. Dante Exum was a good defender in Utah, but he hasn’t been healthy enough to be counted on.
But therein lies the problem. The Cavs have a max of five players who can be good perimeter defenders next year. But for that to happen, Porter has to take a leap, Osman has settle into a more comfortable role and Exum has to be healthy. McKinnie might not even be in the rotation. And then you have to get to the baked-in concerns with Sexton and Garland.
Openly, Cleveland has its sites on making a playoff push next year. With how the league is set-up, it’s hard to see how that happens when the defense as whole, but especially on the perimeter, is so poor. Long-term, the Cavs need a true elite defensive wing, or least a scheme combined with a roster full of players with a defensive pulse. That’s not an overnight fix, but progress has to happen if they want to progress themselves.