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The Cleveland Cavaliers’ offensive issues start where they take most of their shots

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The Cavs need to take more three-pointers, but they also need to make more shots near the rim.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

What the Cleveland Cavaliers don’t do much of is take three-pointers. This isn’t a new problem. The team definitely misses Kevin Love too. Friday night’s performance against the Bucks was a step in the right direction — the ball moved more, more three-pointers went up, etc. — but it remains to be seen if that’s a real change or not.

The Cavs, do, though is take a lot of shots at the rim and just outside of it. For most of the season, it’s the area on the floor where they made an effort to take most of their shots and try to hammer opposing teams at. The problem: They aren’t good at it.

It makes sense as to why this is the strategy. The Cavs have Andre Drummond and then added Jarrett Allen via trade. Some of the players Cleveland has that can take three-pointers — Collin Sexton and Darius Garland namely — don’t take a ton of them; both are below average in three-point rate for their position, per Cleaning The Glass. Instead of more three-pointers, Sexton gets to the rim (30% of shots are at the rim) and attacks the middle of the floor, where 52% of his shots occur. Garland, meanwhile takes 46% of his shots in the mid-range with the largest chunk of those coming in the short mid-range, per Cleaning The Glass.

Overall, only three Cavs rotation pieces (Taurean Prince, Dylan Windler, Cedi Osman) are taking three-pointers at an above-average rate for their position. (The number jumps to four if you include Damyean Dotson.) Conversely, only Garland and Prince are shooting at below average rates at the rim. Only the Pacers are taking a higher percentage of shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass. The Pelicans, Rockets and Timberwolves round out of the top-five.

The Cavs, though, are 29th in offense with only the Timberwolves ranking lower. The Pacers are 11th, the Pelicans are 12th and the Rockets are 22nd.

2020-21 finishing numbers

Team Offensive ranking % at the rim (Rank) Shot % at the rim (Rank)
Team Offensive ranking % at the rim (Rank) Shot % at the rim (Rank)
Cavaliers 29th 56.4% (30th) 41.1% (Second)
Wolves 30th 56.8% (29th) 37.7% (Fifth)
Pelicans 12th 61.5% (17th) 39.3% (Third)
Pacers 11th 61.2% (18th) 43.3% (First)
Rockets 22nd 64.5% (12th) 39% (Fourth)
Data per Cleaning The Glass

In short: The Cavs have picked a strategy that doesn’t give the team a high offensive ceiling. And, notably, the teams that are succeeding by taking a ton of shots at the rim have elite finishers — Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner in Indiana, Christian Wood in Houston — or, in the Pelicans’ case, a collection of good enough finisher with Zion Williamson having a massive upside.

The Cavs don’t have that. Allen has been excellent since coming over from Brooklyn, shooting 78% on shots at the rim and immediately becoming Cleveland’s best lob threat. Larry Nance Jr. is also finishing well, as is Windler. And Sexton, to his credit, is at 62% at the rim — above average for his position — and an improvement on his first two years in the league.

Where this starts coming apart is, well, everywhere else. Notably, Drummond is shooting a career-worst 51% at the rim — a 12% drop from his 2017-18 All-Star season, per Cleaning The Glass. (And even then, that was below average for his position.) Prince is at 31% with the Cavs, which should get better and isn’t in line with the rest of his career.

Okoro is at 53%, placing him in the bottom 20% of wings. Osman is about the same as Okoro, as is Garland. None of that is good. Extend this out to the short mid-range (shots in the 4-14 feet range, where the Cavs are fourth in frequency) and Cleveland is 20th in accuracy. That’s better, but it’s clearly not helping the offense hit another level.

So what’s the fix? (Aside from just being better, which would help a lot!) For one, the Cavs probably need to create more space inside so shots aren’t so contested. Drummond has to be better — and the Cavs should stop running so many post-ups for him where he’s just trying to back down a defender because they don’t really work — but it would help him if Cleveland had spacing. They also make the ball stick and the Cavs aren’t loaded with players who can create good looks out of nothing. Instead, Cleveland needs an offense that builds up everyone and organically leads into makeable shots. Over time, taking more three-pointers (and making them, ideally) will loosen the offense up at least a little bit.

Love will help too. He, like Drummond, won’t hammer teams inside and suddenly making shots at the rim and just outside more efficient for the Cavs. But his shooting will create more space and he should be able to post successfully on smaller players via switches or if teams are playing smaller and the Cavs stay big. He’ll also pass well out of the post, something Drummond hasn’t always done when teams double and dare him to make a play.

Allen might help too over time. The early returns on Allen indicate that he won’t raise the floor on the team’s rim percentage, but maybe that changes. Regardless, he’s a real lob threat in a way Drummond is not and has burgeoning chemistry with Garland. Spread pick-and-roll with those two should be money for the Cavs. It should work with Sexton too. It’s a small thing, but the Cavs need any kind of offensive boost they can get.