To the Cleveland Cavaliers’ credit, they are making the most out of what they are. They are a 5-5 team that has been ravaged by injuries and hasn’t had any real consistency in game-to-game. Broadly speaking, the Cavs’ identity is doing what it can to win based on who is actually available and competing for 48 minutes.
One reality of that: Cleveland’s offense is bad. Heading into Saturday’s game against the Bucks, they had the worst offense at the league at 102.7 points per 100 possessions — 8.1 points below the league average, per Cleaning The Glass. That’s especially troubling now as, league-wide, offensives are ahead of defenses and it’s going to take time for that even out.
Saturday’s 100-90 loss in Milwaukee also illustrated how bad the Cavs’ offensive is right now, particularly while the roster is thinned out due to injury. Cleveland played good defense, but mustered a measly 96.8 points per 100 possessions overall and 72.8 points per 100 possessions in the half court. Those are dreadful numbers that are really, really difficult to overcome on a single night and even more so over a stretch of games.
At the core of those struggles is the Cavs having a real lack of a three-point attack. Per Cleaning The Glass, the Cavs are 29th in three-point frequency overall while being in 28th in non-corner three-pointers and 26th in corner three-pointers. As of Jan. 9, they are they are taking 8% fewer three-pointers than league average. Only the Knicks take fewer three-pointers overall, 13th in corner three-pointers to make taking very few non-corner three-pointers.
Now, this could work if the Cavs were able to thrive elsewhere on the floor and, specifically, be really efficient at the areas they take most of their shots: at the rim and in the short mid-range. (Cleveland is fourth in both categories.) However, the Cavs are also bottom-10 in both categories in accuracy.
To date, the Cavs have also been aided by some really good shooting nights. As data from Cleaning The Glass shows, they’ve had four games above 40% from the field through 10 games:
Each of those performances would be better than the league-leading 42.7% the Clippers are shooting from three on the season. There’s just no realistic world where the Cavs have almost half of their performances over the course of the season result in that level of shooting. It’d be unrealistic any team to shoot that level.
It also makes sense as to why the Cavs aren’t jacking up three-pointers like the Thunder, Trail Blazers or Suns: They just don’t have the personnel to do it. Andre Drummond is best positioned around the rim, even if he’s not finishing at as high as a level as is ideal for someone getting as many touches as he does. JaVale McGee, despite hitting a few three-pointers this year, operates in the same way.
On the wing, Dante Exum is a non-shooter, as is Isaac Okoro for now. Dylan Windler, whose best role in the NBA will be as a spacer, was hurt in game one. Kevin Porter Jr. hasn’t played a game yet and isn’t a proven shooter, although his rookie year was highly encouraging. Damyean Dotson is intriguing as a shooter, but how much he plays if/when the roster gets healthier is an open question.
Even players that are good three-point shooters aren’t taking as many as you might think. Collin Sexton, for instance, only has 19% of his shots coming from behind the arc — putting him among the bottom 5% of combo guards, per Cleaning The Glass. Among point guards, Darius Garland is below average in frequency. An easy fix to the Cavs’ problem would be to get Sexland to take more three-pointers, either coming from pull-up attempts or off-ball.
Sexton, in particular, seems like an obvious candidate to start more aggressively taking more pull-up three-pointers. As the season goes on, it seems likely that teams will account his preference to take pull-up mid-range shots and drive to the rim more aggressively and try to force him to take more three-pointers by going aggressively under screens.
It’d also be a good tool for him to develop to counter bigger guards (think Jrue Holiday or Victor Oladipo) who teams throw at him during the year. If/when that happens, the counter is to fire up three-pointers when guards go under. And Sexton should be able to make those shots at a respectable clip. This year, he’s at a blistering 45.5% on 1.4 pull-up three-pointers per game, per nba.com. Last year, he shot 35% on 1.6 pull-up three-pointers per game. He won’t stay as high as he is, but he definitely improve on last year. Garland, meanwhile, will need to develop right balance between looking for his own shot and still keeping the Cavs’ offense flowing. He, though, has already flashed a willingness to pull-up from deep when given space.
The Cavs also really miss Kevin Love. He lead the Cavs in three-point attempts last year with 7 per game, taking two more per game than Garland and 3.1 more per game than Sexton. He also is a floor spacer opposing defenses respect — something that hasn’t quite happened yet with Larry Nance Jr. as he’s started taking more three-pointers. (Forty-three percent of Nance’s shots this year come on three-pointers, per Cleaning The Glass. He’s shooting 36.7% on catch-and-shoot attempts this year, per nba.com. That’s good, particularly for a player who was a non-shooter two years ago.) Nance could also pump up his volume, but he’s not always the most willing shooter and the Cavs still need guys who will pass up an alright look for the hope of a better one.
Since Love has been out with injury, it’s also taken away some of what the Cavs are willing to run on offense. When he’s on the floor, they can lean on double-drag action where he and another big set staggered screens for a ball handler. In that action, Love is pops and if a team doesn’t close out on him, it’s an easy three-point look for him and a really good outcome for the Cavs’ offense.
He’s also a threat in the action in a way that opens up space for a guard to drive into or Drummond to roll into instead of posting up statically. Love, in theory, should make Drummond’s life easier near the rim. Running it with Nance or McGee or Thon Maker or Dean Wade just isn’t the same.
Love will also do this kind of stuff, which will help:
When he comes back several weeks from now, adding that back into the rotation is an easy way to generate more three-point looks. Even Love sitting off-ball as a spacer — his primary function now on offense — or having him come off of screens are way to just have the Cavs take more three-pointers. Go back and watch Cavs-Pistons — there’s a lot of that in the Cavs’ attack. (There was also a lot of Love passing into Drummond posting up near the rim, which isn’t great.)
When Sexton drives to the rim or Garland run a pick and roll with Drummond or whatever else Cleveland runs, Love sitting out there as an escape valve is workable offense. It should raise the offensive floor. Defensively, the starting five won’t be as good with Love in for Nance, but Love — assuming he’s engaged — should be better than who the Cavs are playing now. (Cleveland’s defense also probably isn’t this good, but also shouldn’t be historically bad again. This is a conversation for another day.)
Now, will this take the Cavs to a high-volume three-point shooting team? No and they shouldn’t try to force that identity onto themselves. This team, to its credit, is leaning into what the roster calls for as it the team tries to be more competitive this year. But for the offense to get better — and it has to if the team wants to remain frisky — it needs to up its three-point volume at least a little bit. If not, the ceiling for the offense is the basement.