Long-term, the Cavaliers’ best wing defenders are (probably) not on the roster right this moment. Maybe adding good pieces starts with drafting Isaac Okoro or Devin Vassell in the upcoming draft, but it also means nailing future picks and making smart free agency signings.
But, if the current roster has any pieces that will matter when the team is good again, internal improvement has to happen. There also has to be more effective coaching over the course of a full season. Let’s look at a few internal options for improvement.
Something to consider: In J.B. Bickerstaff’s eight games as head coach, the Cavs were 17th in defensive rating, giving up 113.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s not a massive improvement over the team’s overall season rating, but it’s something.
It’s impossible to know what caused that uptick in defensive quality. Was it as simple as the team playing harder for Bickerstaff than it did John Beilein? Maybe. Was it Bickerstaff taking on a bigger role in the defense? Maybe, as he helped organize before the coaching swap, but was organizing the full game plan once he took over? Perhaps. Next season will offer some indication if better coaching (and a coach the players like) makes any noticeable difference.
Another note on the Cavs’ defense under Bickerstaff: The lineups he used over his eight games in charge varied in quality. The five-most used lineups rated out as follows:
- Kevin Love, Matthew Dellavedova, Larry Nance Jr., Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman: 31 minutes, 120.9 defensive rating
- Love, Osman, Sexton, Darius Garland, Tristan Thompson: 28 minutes, 105.3 defensive rating
- Love, Nance, Osman, Sexton, Kevin Porter Jr.: 22 minutes, 125 defensive rating
- Love, Dellavedova, Osman, Sexton, Andre Drummond: 21 minutes, 93.6 defensive rating
- Love, Dellavedova, Nance, Drummond, Sexton: 17 minutes, 100 defensive rating
There’s no real throughline with the lineups — only two of the lineups (Love/Dellavedova/Nance/Sexton/Osman and Love/Sexton/Dellavedova/Nance/Porter Jr.) appeared in at least three of the eight games. It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that none of this data means anything for next season.
Larry Nance Jr.
Nance is already a good defender who can defend a few different positions. He’s better as a team defender than as a lead defender, but he’s Cleveland’s best wing option right now.
An idea for next year: be creative in how Nance is deployed. Sometimes moving him around to mark an opposing scorer might not be worth it if doing so compromises the team’s overall defensive structure. For instance: if the Cavs are playing the Clippers, Nance should spend at least some time on Kawhi Leonard. But if Cleveland is playing a team like the Heat or Rockets where a smaller, if still strong, wing runs the offense, then he’s probably better used elsewhere.
But if Nance can be used as a defensive tool, it could maximize what he is and his versatility to defend multiple kinds of players. Right now, he’s the one Cavaliers who can do that.
Sexton took a leap forward on defense in year two by simply being more active — he’s seemingly always at least ready to move — and aware on the defensive end. He’s not exactly good on defense, nor does he create a lot of steals. (He did, per Cleaning The Glass, go from the fourth percentile to the 35th percentile in steal percentage among point guards from year one to year two.) But him playing aware and working matters. He is not longer one of the worst defenders in the league. That in itself is a win.
There’s also a template for a 6’1” guard like Sexton becoming at least a passable defender, if not outright good. Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe is also than Sexton — he’s listed at 205 pounds vs. the 190-pound Sexton — but is a model for smaller guards to impact the defense. If Sexton adds muscle, competes and continues to better understand the complexities of NBA defense, he can become much more effective. Kyle Lowry (listed at 6’0” and 196 pounds) and Fred VanVleet (6’0”, 194 pounds) are two other models for Sexton.
Kevin Porter Jr.
The simplest way for Porter Jr. to improve would be by not fouling as much. Per Cleaning The Glass, he was just above the bottom 10% of wings in foul rate last season at 4.8%. He’s really active all the time, almost to a fault. If Porter Jr. could chill a little bit more, that would make a difference.
Porter Jr. was also 19-years-old as a rookie. He was always going to struggle a little bit because of that alone, but he also had really strong moments. The Cavs also believe strongly in his defensive potential. (They didn’t throw him on James Harden because they think he’s bad.) If he settles down in year two, develops better habits and plays in a more stable environment, he should improve. And if he progresses how the Cavs think he can, it’ll help immensely as the team continues to build.