Cavaliers Find Themselves in a Rotation Nightmare

Anderson Varejao is out with a torn achilles for the rest of the season, leaving the Cavs’ depth chart in a condition probably best described as the quirkiest and unconventional one in the league. In an offense vs. defense, wings and forwards vs. point guards and centers sense, I can’t think of another team that has fancied itself a ‘contender’ whose depth chart and skill sets looked anything like this:

PG: Kyrie Irving, Matthew Dellavadova

SG: Dion Waiters, Joe Harris

SF: LeBron James, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, James Jones

PF: Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Lou Amundson

C: Brendan Haywood

The Cavaliers currently rank 23rd in defensive efficiency, allowing 105.4 points per 100 possessions. With Varejao on the court they haven’t actually been much better, and he isn’t actually strictly a rim protector but more of a mobile big who can do some stuff in pick and rolls. The Cavs could have always used a rim protector, but now the cupboard is just empty. There isn’t one reliable rim protector on the team, and that forces a low ceiling on what the defense can and will ever be.


The table above shows the offensive and defensive rankings of every NBA champion since the mid 90’s. Only one team was not in the top ten, the 2001-02 Shaq and Kobe Los Angeles Lakers. 2001-02 was their second title on route to three-peating and they were the ultimate ‘turn on the switch’ team.  They were actually a great defensive team and had the stingiest defense just the previous year.

The takeaway here is that no one ever wins championships without a top ten defense. The Nash and D’Antoni Suns came the closest and even they were better than league average in their best years. Typically the majority of defense is a function of three things: Effort, scheme and rim protection. Rim protection being the most important one. Statistically this is true to an overwhelming degree.


The chart above depicts teams’ ranking in actual defensive ratings vs. expected ones solely based on opponent shooting percentage and shooting frequency at the rim from last season. The closer the black crosses are to the blue dots, the more closely defensive rating and “expected defensive rating (based on rim protection)” align. Different models can get you some different results, but almost always the correlation tends to be around 55 to 65 percent. Meaning up to and over half of your defensive ranking can be deduced just from how you protect the rim.

The five statistically best defenses last season were (in order): Pacers, Bulls, Warriors, Spurs and Thunder. That’s Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, Andrew Bogut, Tim Duncan and Serge Ibaka. It’s not an accident.

Opponents are currently shooting 23.7 times per game and 57.0% against the Cavs at the rim, the sixth and second worst marks respectively. Opponents are also averaging 25.2 assists per game against the Cavs, the most in the NBA.

Some of the Cavs issues are system things, they hedge the most often on pick and rolls and Kevin Love is constantly caught in no-man’s land or playing matador defense at the rim. Pair him in pick and rolls with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters and what you get is a lay-up line for opponents.

Every indicator you can find looks bad. And if there’s a way to build a defense that resembles a top ten one, I’m not sure what it would look like. One way might be just to get more conservative, a’la Portland, who never hedges on pick and rolls and who tries to limit help where they can. Terry Stotts has slowly but surely built a fantastic system in Portland (something he hasn’t gotten credit for yet) that currently ranks 4th in defensive efficiency after being just above average last season and way below average the year before. The difference compared to the Cavs is that they have size to play that style of defense and most of their players aren’t obviously horrible defenders. The problems start on the perimeter and are just compounded when Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are the ones making the helps and rotations.

Names like Emeka Okafor, Kenyon Martin and Jermaine O’Neal have been thrown around as answers to the Cavs glaring weaknesses. They already have Brendan Haywood, and those guys probably aren’t that much more impactful than him. And a contender relying on Haywood to play meaningful minutes probably shouldn’t be considered a contender at all.

Playing small ball is nice when you have Serge Ibaka or Chris Bosh at center, guys who are fantastic defenders and can protect the rim. Though relatively untested, it’s fair to assume unsustainable with Thompson and Love.

The point here is that this is a massive problem. The kind that officially takes you out of title contention. It’s not just Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Marcin Gortat and Nene pounding you inside. It’s pick and roll, rotations at the basket, rebounding, switches. The problem is everything and everything good offenses can throw at the Cavs is a problem.

I’d assume the Cavs are looking at everything from Timofey Mozgov, Kosta Koufos, Omer Asik to Brandan Wright. But it’s quite possible and even likely none of those guys are available to them at a fair price. What the Cavs decide to do will possibly shine a light on how the organization is thinking. How much are they willing to give up and leverage the future for a chance of winning now?


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