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Is it time to worry about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ three-point defense?

The recent loss to the Warriors exposed an issue that has plagued the Cavs for the last month.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors ran the Cleveland Cavaliers out of their own building without the services of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on Friday night. They finished the evening 23-43 (53.5%) from beyond the arc en route to a 120-114 victory. This has been a recent trend as Cavaliers’ opponents are now hitting 42%(!) of their threes in their last 15 games.

Unsurprisingly, the Cavs have the 17th rated defense during that time-period as they’ve posted a 117 defensive rating. For comparison, the Cavs were the number one ranked defense with a 108.4 defensive rating prior to that stretch. For the year, the Cavs are third overall in defense.

During the last 15 games, opponents are shooting 32.1 threes per game which is the fifth fewest during that timeframe. Cleveland plays at a slower pace so that skews some of the total shots per game numbers. A closer look shows that opponents are attempting 35.2% of their shots from three which is the 10th highest percentage during that stretch. For context, prior to these recent 15-games, opponents were shooting 35% of their field goal attempts from three. The issue isn’t that they’re giving up considerably more three-point attempts now than they were before.

Now let’s look at where opponent’s shots are coming from. The Cavs overall have had a better shot profile during this recent skid than they did before. They’re giving up a lower percentage of shot attempts at the rim (31.8% vs. 35.1%), more midrange shots (33.1% vs. 29.8%), a comparable number of threes and a slightly lower percentage of corner threes (9.5% vs. 9.8%). On top of that, they’re giving up the least open threes per game in the entire league during this stretch at 13. The issue is team’s are just making the shots they are getting up.

To paraphrase Kevin Durant, no one want’s to look at graphs when talking about basketball. Just because the numbers say the Cavs are doing the right things defensively, it doesn’t mean they necessarily are.

The Cavs’ defensive philosophy can allow teams to create open threes for the players they want to. Cleveland is hesitant to switch screens. They prefer to drop with their bigs and protect the rim. This can cause issues like it did against the Atlanta Hawks in the play-in last season. Trae Young had arguably the best game of his career, but he was able to generate open looks because the bigs were dropping on screens.

We saw different variations of that against the Warriors. Jordan Poole was able to generate open looks repeatedly coming off screens. Below, Jonathan Kuminga has Evan Mobley occupied with a post up. Kevon Looney sets a screen on Poole’s defender Isaac Okoro. Jarrett Allen retreats to the elbow to protect a drive to the basket. Okoro can’t get over the screen in time to put a good contest on Poole’s corner three and Mobley doesn’t leave his man.

The next two plays are different variations of the same concept. Poole takes advantage of Allen dropping off of Looney screens, but as a ball handler now.

Bobby Portis was able to generate open looks by simple pick-and-pops the following night for the Milwaukee Bucks. Allen stayed with the roller leaving Portis open on the perimeter. He took advantage of this going 5-8 from deep.

Lastly, we see an example Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard getting a shot he wants. The Cavs don’t defend this play poorly. Okoro is screened near midcourt. Allen sinks back to give Okoro space to recover while not giving up a free path to the basket. But, this is exactly what the Portland Trail Blazers want here in a game Dame was feeling it. He’s able to get a low-effort look with a late contest from Allen. Even though it doesn’t go, it’s something he’ll ultimately live with.

The Cavs are unlucky. Teams are hitting an unreasonably high amount of outside shots against them at an unsustainable clip which will likely regress closer to what we saw at the beginning of the season. That said, this run does expose a flaw inherently built into the defense. Opponents are able to generate decent looks for the guys they want too which is especially true early in games. Given the alternative is trying to get looks inside against Allen and Mobley, teams will continue to try and expose this weakness.

Defenses can’t take away everything. There are pros and cons to every system. The Cavs’ biggest con is giving up open shots after on and off-ball screens in addition to giving up their fair share of corner threes.

NBA team’s do very little game plan adjustments during the regular season. There’s little reason to expect the Cavs to alter their scheme much on a night-to-night basis. It will however be interesting to see how J.B. Bickerstaff handles the playoffs and whether he’ll alter the defensive scheme to some degree allowing the bigs to be closer to the level of the screen instead of constantly going under.