This is Part One of a five-part series featuring the five most likely contenders for the NBA Championship. Check back the next four Saturday mornings for Parts Two through Five.
On paper, the Cleveland Cavaliers are a team with two unique ball handlers, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, both of whom possess a combination of skills that make them dynamic attacking off the dribble. Those two ball handlers are surrounded by elite shooters the likes of Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, J.R. Smith, and Kevin Love. With an infantry of primary attacking weapons and the additional ammunition of secondary shooters, it seems the logical offensive style would be to spread the floor. In today’s NBA, spacing is most often found by inverting the defense with penetration, and penetration is most often born out of the pick and roll.
This direct (and logical) line of thinking was implemented by David Blatt when he was at the helm for a season and a half.
Essentially, the Cavs were using the pick and roll to find isolations for either Irving or James. As dominant as Irving and James can be one-on-one, this play style marginalized the surrounding players in Cleveland. The most under-utilized player was Kevin Love, seen in the token corner-shooter role, akin to J.R. Smith.
When the goal was a championship, this style proved to not be enough against another great team that utilized all five players. For this reason, the Blatt-led Cavs struggled against the Golden State Warriors, of course losing the 2014-15 Finals.
Yes, the Cavs did not have Irving and Love in that Finals, but the following season they did. And little changed. Before being fired in 2015-16, Blatt, again, would often be hyper-focused on bully-ball isolation with James. Plays like this that said, “go be the best player ‘Bron.”
On a macro scale, Blatt is not a bad basketball coach. But the pick-and-roll and isolation-heavy style he implemented with the Cavaliers turned sub-optimal. The proof is in the effectiveness of the Tyronn Lue coaching regime in Cleveland.
The Tyronn Lue Era
In 2015-16, David Blatt coached 41 games for the Cavs and Tyronn Lue took the second half of the season recording 27 wins. Including this season, the Cavs are now 69-35 under Lue.
For the ‘15-16 season, the Cavs largely stayed with the Blatt offensive system following his dismissal. This style kept the ball handler in pick-and-roll 18.2 percent of possessions, the 11th highest frequency in the NBA. This season, the offense has changed. The Cavs are, now, in the bottom-10 of the league in pick-and-roll frequency, per nba.com/stats.
The Cavs have not abandoned the pick and roll, but are now targeting specific actions within the flow of a motion offense. A favorite play set is the Iverson Cut Series. And yes, the irony of a championship team coached by Lue running a play named after Allen Iverson is quite comical.
The original Iverson Cut Series features the point guard, off of the ball, cutting across two screens in the high post. The play is designed to free space for the guard on the opposite wing. If the defender is caught on a screen and slow to close out, the guard should have an open jump shot. If the defender fights through both screens, the offense has a ball handler in space to isolate.
With Kyrie Irving, the Cavs have the closest thing to a modern-day Iverson. Using an elite scoring point guard in a similar way to Iverson maybe does not sound like outside the box thinking by Lue, but in the landscape of the 2017 NBA, it is. Iverson’s inefficiency is well documented and as you can see in the quality of the video, this type of play is fairly dated. There has never been a time in the league where targeting a 16-foot jump shot has been less in vogue. Teams like Houston have all but sworn this shot off. In the Lue offense, the Cavs have not made this the mainstay of their diet but rather see it as a tool in the toolbox.
With numerous different assets for offensive artillery, the Cavs use the Iverson Cut Series as a multi-purpose tool. It is not only Kyrie Irving featured in this set, but also J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, and Lebron James. For each type of player, the play can be tweaked and the cut is specifically tailored for the desired shooter. As you can see here with Smith, the Iverson Cut is used to free him for a three-point shot. Lebron James is the tweak and through the defenses gravity towards him, the initial ball handler Smith, is wide open for a three.
The Cavalier Army
Kevin Love- 20.0 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 1.9 APG, 38.4 3P%
The once marginalized Kevin Love is having his best season since joining the Cavs in 2014, especially on the offensive end. On the simplest of levels, Love is scoring more. When playing under David Blatt, Love was averaging 16.2 points per game. A number that has increased to 20 this season with Tyronn Lue.
Love is shooting more threes than he ever has and converting them at a higher rate. His offensive rebounding numbers have also moved up, not to his Timberwolves levels, but they are a contributor to his best Offensive Box Plus-Minus numbers and Offensive Win Share total since joining the Cavs.
Under Coach Lue, the Cavs simply use Love more. In 2014-15 Love’s Usage Percentage (the percentage of team plays a specific player uses while on the floor) was 21.7 percent, a number that has climbed to 26.7 this season. (This usage uptick rivals Russell Westbrook’s in Oklahoma City pre-Durant to post-Durant eras.) But it is the way in which Love is now used that has brought him back to All-Star form.
Once relegated to the corner as almost exclusively a three-point specialist, Love is now creating out of the corner. Surrounded by playmakers and shooters Love has space in the corner to not only shoot but isolate.
On this play from last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs are targeting the Raptors weakest spot, Love’s defender Luis Scola. Here, he opts to not settle for the three and instead dribbles into post-up position. Because Love is penetrating from the corner, the help defense is weak. The Raptors secondary defenders are essentially floating in no-mans land because they fear doubling will lead to a wide open three for Irving, James, or Smith along the perimeter. Without the double team, Love’s only impediment to scoring is Scola.
The difference for Love under Lue is not that he has left the corner, rather the definition of the corner is fluid. He no longer is simply waiting for a pass but retreating to the corner if or when the motion offense dictates. As he does here following the Irving-James pick and roll in the opposite corner.
Kyrie Irving- 25.2 PPG, 5.8 APG, 3.3 RPG, 38.6 3P%
Amidst a year in which Russell Westbrook has blown up the stat sheet, Irving’s offensive explosion has been overlooked. Irving is averaging 5.6 more points per game than he did last season, with only a slight uptick in usage. Westbrook’s triple-doubles garner attention, but unlike Westbrook, Irving has maintained efficiency. Most distinguishable is Westbrook’s shooting inefficiency and turnover propensity, albeit at much higher usage rate.
Efficiency: Irving vs. Westbrook
A major contributor to Irving’s increased success is in the freedom he has been given to push the pace. In both of the Blatt seasons, the Cavs were in the bottom-6 of the league in PACE, per nba.com/stats. This season, Cleveland has jumped to 15th fastest pace in the NBA.
Again, Irving is the catalyst for this movement. He is particularly adept in identifying out of place defenders. Here, Bradley Beal loses sight of Irving for a second and that is all it takes for a quick burst and lay-up.
The issue with Irving remains defense. This season, his defensive effort has been particularly flat, pun intended. Irving is posting a career worst Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor) and Defensive Box Plus Minus (an estimate of Irving's defensive performance relative to league average.)
Too often, Irving goes rogue on defense. On this play, he leaves his man, Markieff Morris, in the corner and hops across the court adamantly demanding Tristan Thompson switch. This move is completely illogical as Thompson (a legitimate wing defender) is fully engaged on John Wall. With Irving guarding literally no one, James is forced to keep an eye on both Morris and Marcin Gortat. Gortat slips to the block for a restricted area catch and layup. This type of defense by Irving will not only be picked apart by any worthy opponent in the playoffs, but also any local Cleveland high school team.
Lebron James- 26.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 8.8 APG, 38.9 3P%
On a per game basis, James is scoring more, shooting more efficiently, rebounding more, and assisting more than either of his previous two seasons in Cleveland. He is playing a whopping 37.6 minutes per game, but even on a per-36 minute basis his rebounding and assisting has spiked from the Blatt-era.
Like Irving, James’ season is being overshadowed by Westbrook’s stat lines. James is not far from averaging a triple double himself, while using two-thirds the possessions of Westbrook.
Also, the days of “Let LeBron Shoot Threes” is over. Shooting 4.5 threes per-game and converting those threes at a rate of 38.9 percent puts James in a class with only 12 other starters in the league (50+ starts.)
While James does not shoot as many threes as Harden or Westbrook, he has upped his three-point frequency to the class of Leonard and Durant. Of the 13 players in the NBA scoring 24-plus points per game, only Steph Curry has a higher three-point percentage.
Highlighting only one area of James’ game would be selling him short. James is not only a Swiss Army Knife over the course of a game, he has the rare ability to weaponize himself in a multitude of ways in a single possession. Here, we first see James as the instigator of the offense as they, again, run that familiar Iverson Cut Series with Irving.
James is lulling his defender (and the camera man) to sleep as he meanders towards the opposite wing, only to cut on a dime towards the Thompson screen. James’ defender (Otto Porter) reads this familiar cut that earlier in the game freed James for a slot three. James responds by slipping the screen into the heart of the defense, an area where there may not be a single player who has ever been more dangerous.
Anytime James catches the ball there he deservedly draws a second defender. Even before the second defender (Morris) has committed to the double-team, James has already triggered his proverbial eyes in the back of his head awareness. Again on a dime, James pivots into finding Irving’s initial screener (Love) for what is an uncontested three.
A Cavalier Approach
These are the new Cleveland Cavaliers. The Tyronn Lue-led Cavs offense is born on the principles of the NBA Lue himself played in, but his players are not. The motion of their offense transcends the Triangle Offense of his Lakers days with the implementation of an arsenal of unique player characteristics that have little overlap. Yes, the Cavs still have two elite ball handlers surrounded by shooters, but the intention of using those peripheral players in a way other than simply drive and kick options for Irving and James has opened a whole new world for the 2017 title contenders.