After most Cleveland Cavaliers games this season, we’ll be publishing an instant recap and a longer take that runs the next morning about the previous night’s game. This is the debut of the latter.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the Cleveland Cavaliers had a poor defensive performance against the Brooklyn Nets. At least by their high standards.
For starters, Cam Thomas cooked against Cleveland, dropping 36 points off the bench for Brooklyn. As a team, the Nets finished shooting 50% from the field with five players finishing in double figures. Not exactly lockdown defense from the Cavs.
The Cavs’ defensive rating for the game was 113.1 — slight worse than last year’s league-best mark of 111. Statistically, Cleveland’s defense was more akin to the sixth-ranked Pelicans defense from last year. So this was, statisically, merely an ok performance from a unit that was elite last year.
All of that said: This is not suddenly a reason for alarm. There is no real reason to think that, based on this performance with no personnel, the Cavs’ defense isn’t going to be the elite unit it was last year. What went wrong against the Nets makes sense if you zoom out and look at the big picture.
For starters, there was no Jarrett Allen — he’s still out with a bone bruise and it’s unclear exactly when he’ll be back. Against a wing-heavy Nets team, the Cavs opted to start Isaac Okoro instead of another big and this skewed smaller. Evan Mobley was largely good, but this shifted his role into rim protection mode vs. help. That’s a change from the vast majority of minutes the Cavs played last year. And for what it’s worth: Mobley on, Allen off lineups were largely good last season.
Secondly, this Cavs team debuted Max Strus, Georges Niang, Damian Jones, and Ty Jerome in this game. New personnel, even if they aren’t rookies, take time to acclimate to a new system and new teammates. That’s even harder with no Allen, who provides structure from the inside out with his rim protection and defensive rebounding. Without him, everything on defense is just a little bit harder. That showed against Brooklyn.
Lineups featuring the new additions also skew more offensive vs. defense. One unit — Darius Garland, Strus, Caris LeVert, Niang, and Jones — is never going to be a good defensive unit. It can be competitive and should function better with Allen back. But the four non-bigs are good defenders. They can be attacked and beaten. But that’s the tradeoff the Cavs made in going for offensive-minded additions this summer.
Lastly, Thomas is something of a warning of a potential (and not previously unheard of) weakness in the Cavs’ defense. Cleveland lacks a real lockdown defensive option to guard wings and cut off that kind of offensive attack. Thomas exploited that.
There are solutions to this problem. Mobley will (and did in a few moments) just defend the scoring wing. Isaac Okoro can take on that role too — and did against Thomas and Mikal Bridges on Wednesday. But the Nets still forced switches and got Thomas into favorable matchups. It’s a problem the Cavs can solve, but this isn’t the last time they’ll see it.
So, no, this was not a good defensive performance by a Cavs team that was great on defense last year. There are some issues here to work through. The numbers suggest it was better than in looked in real time. But it shouldn’t be a sign of a unit that’s no longer one of the league’s best.