The Cavaliers are weathering myriad injuries and absences in this truncated, virus-laden NBA season. Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro, Kevin Porter Jr. and Dylan Windler have all missed significant time for one reason or another. Yet, despite the poor offense and surprisingly stingy defense, Cleveland is a respectable 7-7 even with the wounded list piling up. One of the players on that list is Kevin Love, the highest-paid man on the team. He has only appeared in two games this regular and is currently working through a strained calf, but the 32-year-old is an important piece of the offense. The Cavs rank 18th in the league in 3-point shooting percentage and 29th in 3-point attempts. Cleveland is also 19th in overall field goal percentage and 29th in points per game. Undoubtedly, Love would help make a dent in those woeful numbers.
However, to the surprise of…well quite literally everybody, the Cavaliers have the second-best defensive rating in the NBA with a staggering 105.5 points per 100 possessions allowed. For context, the Cavs ranked dead last in the metric last season at 114.8. So, does this mean that defense takes precedence over defense? On this team, an argument can be made. Love’s last three seasons in Cleveland have also been his worst defensively. The Cavaliers have a defensive rating at or above 111.3 with him on the court in those three years. Per Cleaning the Glass, four of Cleveland’s five most common lineups with Love in were in the 36th percentile or worse in points per 100 possessions and in the 19th percentile or worse in opponent effective field goal percentage. Not all of this is on Love either, this is a team game and the composition has been subpar to say the least. The roster construction has been a mess and two small, young guards with little to no defensive awareness means opposing players are steamrolling right to the rim and right toward Love. Bad defensive players cumulatively lead to bad team defense.
But this year, the Cavaliers are one of the league’s best defenses. Andre Drummond, leading the NBA in rebounds per game, and JaVale McGee are providing ample rim protection. The newly acquired Jarrett Allen is one of the league’s most underrated rim protectors and should mesh wonderfully. Larry Nance Jr. leads the league in steals and deflections per game. The Cavs as a team lead the league in opponent turnover percentage per Cleaning the Glass. Their personnel and the new defensive scheme from J.B. Bickerstaff puts players in a good position to clog passing lanes and force bad decisions. So far, it is working. It is difficult to tell exactly how the Cavs offense will look once total healthy, but Garland and Sexton appear to have things figured out when they share the court. Okoro is not a strong offensive player yet, but the offense is better with him on the floor. Even the much-maligned Cedi Osman, who is being thrown around different lineups due to the injuries, can provide playmaking. Love is a known product – a stretch big who is a good rebounder. But Nance is starting in his place and doing some things that make him a necessity on the floor.
Per Cleaning the Glass, Nance is assisting on 15.5% of the Cavs’ made shots and has a 1.15 assist to usage ratio. That is in the 77th and 98th percentiles, respectively. The playmaking is giving the Cavs a huge boost and allows for different lineups where Nance can help facilitate the offense without it having to run through him (his 13.4 usage rate is in the 21st percentile per Cleaning the Glass). Tack on his ability to hit threes (currently drilling a career-best 44.4% of them) and provide active defense (steals and deflecting passes, as mentioned) and he is suddenly indispensable out there. He is doing those little things that cumulatively add up at the end of the game, like Draymond Green. Love is a much better offensive player, providing good pick and pop action to keep defenses at bay. He could probably reproduce most of the playmaking Nance is providing. But the athleticism and defense are where Nance will undoubtedly outshine him, and that matters for this team right now. Things get interesting now that Jarrett Allen is the center of the future (and maybe the near future, if Drummond gets traded). Allen is a legitimately good rim protector, and he can stick with guys if he gets thrown in a pick and roll. Love’s defensive lapses send an opposing offensive player hurtling toward Allen, which is a lot better than Drummond. Knowing there is a stronger last line of defense should make things a little easier for Love, allowing him to stay on the floor and impact the game offensively. Love provides exactly what the Cavaliers need right now – shooting. Nance is taking and making more threes, but he has not shown the ability to do stuff like this:
Make no mistake, Bickerstaff is going to start Love once he returns barring a trade. Veterans with his stature and paycheck are going to start. But the Cavs are going to need to get creative with their lineups, especially with the number of big men they now possess. Love is a good passer, but the offense will likely run through him as opposed to this current “by committee” structure. Staggering the big men to assure Nance gets to make an impact and assure the defense does not slide will be a tall order.
The Cavs need a shot in the arm offensively, and they will get that with Love, Sexton, and Garland coming back. But Love’s return will throw off a lot of what Cleveland has been producing lately – a swarming defense that produces more offensive opportunities. That said, his shooting is the key to unlocking a lot of offensive potential and spacing out an offense that right now has very little. Getting healthy helps solve this but making sure you are not sacrificing this sudden defensive prowess is important for JB Bickerstaff to get right.
(All stats via nba.com unless otherwise noted)