Early Impressions of Cleveland’s Offense

We drooled over the idea of the Cavs’ offense from the moment that Woj #WojBombed our Twitter timelines with the news that Kevin Love would be joining LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Whispers out of training camp led us to believe that offensive mastermind David Blatt was constructing a system that would strike at a Spurs-ian potency right out the gate. Maybe even the NBA’s newest superteam could set the league record for offensive efficiency in its first season together.

Well, it took a while, but Cleveland is finally looking as advertised after some early scares. Its offense looked stagnant and discombobulated at times. Which, that’s fine: to expect this offense to immediately fire on all cylinders after having watched the early struggles of the Heatles or the perpetual sadness that was the 2012-13 Lakers would be ignorant of history. Let’s take a look at what might’ve caused the Cavs’ early struggles, and what the offense may look like going forward:

Getting To Know Each Other

Watching Love, Irving, and LeBron try to coexist in Cleveland’s early stretch looked about as awkward as Joey, Jesse, and Danny in the early few episodes of Full House (sorry).

This was to be expected though. Great offenses aren’t built over the course of training camp and preseason, and everyone still seems to be getting used to the new system.

This weave set could be unfairly dynamic if executed properly, but Varajeo comes up for the high screen just a second late, Kyrie nearly forgets to come up and receive the handoff from Love, and the play falls apart. Plays like this can be filed under the “they need more time” category.

And the same can probably be said for the early lack of ball movement we saw from the Cavs. Before moving the rock effectively and torching  the defenses of Boston and Atlanta over the weekend, Cleveland ranked in the bottom-five in secondary assists, assist opportunities, and points created by assists per game according to SportsVU. The glitches were only minor and easily remedied, like teammates not knowing where or when to find the open guy:

Or yes, even a bit of ball-hogging and looking off open teammates for wide open shots.

But that early ball stickiness could also be a result of the play-calling too. Cleveland has called an unusual amount of clear-out post-up or isolation plays, which is fine as long as these plays are used in creative ways. The off-ball movement dies the moment a player posts up though, which is probably a poor utilization of having some of the best passing and floor-spacing talent in the league.

Few players in the NBA attract more attention in the post than LeBron, and a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away called Miami, the Heat would frequently use LeBron post-ups as a way to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. This doesn’t happen in the above clip, where the four other Cavs join the defense in watching LeBron shove his way into the paint rather than getting open for a shot; Damian Lillard even takes his eyes of Irving for a full three seconds, yet Kyrie doesn’t take advantage.

Now I’m not going to pretend like I know even half as much as David Blatt does about basketball, but he might want to start having these guys, you know, moving without the ball. Blatt might even do well by limiting the number of post-up plays run each game; it’s slowing the game down too much for a team that can eviscerate opposing defenses when the ball is constantly moving, as we’ve seen in some early sets called by Blatt.

Speaking of which…

This Offense Is Going To Be Scary Good

Cleveland has already shown how deadly it can be when the offense clicks and it can run its sets without error. For instance, take a look at how many options there are when a variation of that weave play that I mentioned before is executed properly.

A long 2 from Waiters is probably not ideal here, but Noah does a good job of recognizing the play in advance and closing off the lane, and Waiters also still had his choice between a wide open Love and Irving in the right corner. Replace Shawn Marion with LeBron in this play, and there’s little that defenses can do to stop it.

Basically any action Cleveland runs at the top of the key can annihilate the other team, as it causes defenders to scramble and open up the middle of the floor. Blatt has especially liked running high screen-and-rolls or handoff plays out of horns sets at the top of the key, which open up a wide variety of scoring options for the Cavs.

These sets are obviously nothing new and are run by most NBA teams in some variety, but it can turn all five players into legitimate scoring options when run by the Cavs. Any one of these sets involving Kevin Love as one of the screeners creates hysteria among the three involved defenders as they don’t know whether he’ll roll or pop out, and this allows any semi-competent ball handler to find an easy open bucket.

Blatt has gotten creative with his pieces a few times too, running an action on each side of the floor and letting the ball handler see how the defense reacts. Watch here as Love posts up on the right side, while Tristan Thompson runs a pindown screen for LeBron on the left:

Lopez can’t abandon his post for help, as he needs to keep close to the right side of the floor in case Kyrie either penetrates or dumps it down to Love who is already deep in position. One hard screen by Tristan Thompson leads to a wide-open LeBron.

At times Blatt has even gone from creative to just plain weird. He’s run Kyrie as the roll man in pick-and-rolls multiple times already, and it’s actually been …effective.

LeBron throws the ball away as a result of some of that early unfamiliarity, but he had Kyrie wide open for nearly three seconds before Melo recognized the play and recovered. Basically any pick-and-roll run by Lebron is going to be a good one, but Kyrie is a surprisingly good screener, not to mention an obvious shooting threat that can’t be left by his man. This allows Lebron to get a full head of steam going to the basket with his man already a step behind him, and causes either a) Kyrie’s man to help (which isn’t all that helpful as it leaves Kyrie wide open) or b) causes a third defender to help over as Lebron is already ahead of his man, leaving one of Cleveland’s many shooting threats wide open.

And speaking of pick-and-rolls, I mean…

This should just be illegal, especially considering nobody in the NBA is better at slipping the screen and hopping out behind the arc than Kevin Love. The Cavs ran the Love-Lebron pick-and-roll combo a disappointingly few amount of times so far, including only once in its game against Chicago. Blatt has called for this slightly more as the season has progressed though, including three consecutive times at the end of the Denver game to lock down a win.

The foundation for one of the greatest offenses of all time certainly lies here, and we’re already starting to see some of the early kinks being worked out. But Coach Blatt will also have to make sure his playcalling is using his roster to the best of its abilities, and there will have to be some more effort on the side of the players if this offense wants to reach its true potential. This offense will be a treat to watch regardless. Now about that defense…

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