Last week, I went over some winning plays on the defensive end against the Jazz in a come from behind victory. This week, I’m getting to a topic that’s long overdue. Sure, I talked about Marreese Speights’s energy and scoring a while back, but that’s just really scratching the surface of a larger theme. Today, I’ll give a round of applause to the entire Cavs’ second five-man (now four with Livingston in the starting lineup) unit of Speights, Wayne Ellington, Shaun Livingston, Luke Walton, and C.J. Miles. There’s no doubt that this group’s new blood and veteran play have sparked the Cavaliers as Coach Scott can now rest his starting five without the fear of a game getting out of reach. The bench’s greatest asset may be that the veteran group functions as a unit, making the right passes, hitting timely shots, and playing stretches of fundamental defenses. Without anymore stalling, let’s get to it.
Let’s go to Wednesday night’s game against the Wizards. The starting five (or four, with Livingston staying on) got yanked just over two minutes into the game for a lack of effort on both ends. In came the bench bunch and they immediately closed the gap on the Wizards. Scott’s move coupled with Waiters and Thompson along with the rest of the starters getting up off the canvas allowed the Cavs to pull out the victory and complete the Washington season sweep. Five first quarter assists by the bench got the offense jumpstarted after falling behind 11-0. The bench was also part of a 8-0 run to close the third and give the team an eleven point lead after three. We begin late in the third with Alonzo Gee in possession of the ball in the left corner, Tristan Thompson posting up on the block, and Wayne Ellington, having just passed it to Gee, standing on the left wing.
As Tristan pops out short corner to turn and face, notice Luke Walton creeping up to the ball side elbow area. Also notice how much spacing Ellington is allowing the play. Too often, NBA offenses lack proper spacing, and when that happenes, the defense has less real estate to account for and can relax a little more. Not the case here with Gibson also on the backside wing.
Walton sets a phenomenal screen, completely enveloping Cartier Martin and allowing Ellington to make a cut to the basket. Screens set with a purpose are the most effective ones, and this is one of the various little things that Luke Walton does well. When he isn’t chucking up bad perimeter shots, his glue factor on this team is very underrated.
A.J. Price, who is guarding Gibson, doesn’t notice the cut, and you could drive a semi through the hole that opens up for Ellington. This is a designed look clearly, so Tristan is ready to deliver the ball and does so right on target a stride in front of the bucket. This type of play probably isn’t possible with Tristan at the beginning of the season. Now that he’s become so much more comfortable in his own offensive moves, Tristan can look for others instead of having black hole tendencies.
Wayne goes with the up and under as Price closes in on him, finishing the shot with the rim protecting it from a deflection. It’s a great screen by Walton, good strong cut to the basket without the ball by Ellington, and most importantly, a well-drawn up play by Coach Scott. We need to see more of this type of halfcourt execution to close the season, especially without Kyrie Irving’s improv ability.
Next, we take a look at another halfcourt set early in the fourth quarter. Daniel Gibson is in instead of Livingston, so it’s a purely bench bunch. Marreesse Speights has the ball at the top of the key.
C.J. Miles uses the pass and pick from Speights and always comes off of it looking to shoot. Ellington and Speights started this bench revolution, but Miles has taken it to the next level with his outside shooting and consistent double digit scoring efforts. Look for more on Miles before in the film room coming soon.
There’s nothing there, however, so he tosses it to Wayne Ellington on the right wing. The one thing you’ll notice here is Walton is the only guy in the paint and he’s at the high post, nearly out of the key. Sometimes, when Speights floats around the perimeter too much, the post empties out, and it disrupts the balance of the halfcourt O.
A reversal later, and Miles has the ball bottled up in the left corner. Notice, however, that Luke is lurking below, preparing to flash to the ball. There’s a proper way to handle a teammate picking up their dribble in traffic. One or two people should run toward them, because a long pass will get picked off and too many people too close jumbles the spacing up as I mentioned before. Again, look and see that Gibson and Ellington are beyond the arc and Speights is on the left wing to draw a man away from the ball.
Walton flashes and gets the ball in a no-man’s land of sorts.
When Luke turns to square up to the basket, notice that Ellington is working hard to get open, Miles has cut through to the other side, and Speights has flashed down. Constant motion is essential, especially when your bench is out there. Typically, your best iso guys are in the starting five, so it’s all the more important that you don’t just have players standing around doing nothing.
Walton drives baseline, and though he gets bottled up, he does enough to make A.J. Price turn his head, looking for the man with the ball, at the worst possible time. Ellington cuts right down Euclid, and there’s no one to stop him.
Another nice finish because of Luke Walton’s court vision and Wayne Ellington’s relentless cutting without the basketball. I would LOVE to see Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving develop some more ability to cut and put themselves in positions to score without needing the basketball in their hands.
We go to the common “defense fueling transition points” theme now with two more displays of solid passing. John Wall is stopped on the secondary fastbreak, and he tries to throw an ill-advised cross-court pass in close quarters to Martell Webster. C.J. Miles has his head up, and he gets a hand in the passing lane.
Immediately, you’ll see that Dion sprints his butt up the court to get in position to score. Dion’s no dummy. He knows that if he runs here, he’s going to get the basketball.
Dion calls for the ball with what appears to be a little miscommunication between the Washington defenders. C.J. steps into a high-level bounce pass that he’s going to scoot right between the two Wizards.
C.J. squeezes it through the narrow gap, and Dion has the ball with about three steps between him and the rim along with a good angle on the defender. This medium doesn’t do the bounce pass justice. Bounce passes from more than fifteen or twenty feet with people on the move aren’t easy, folks. And C.J. hits Dion in stride.
Dion draws contact and heads to the line, something he’s been doing much more lately.
Finally, C.J. Miles lucks into another steal as Wall turns it over.
He passes it to Livingston standing right next to him. See how Livingston looks up the court immediately. He sees Dion ahead of his man, and he lets go of the long-distance chest pass. Walton may be the best pure passer on the bench, but Livingston’s not far behind. When the two of them are out there on the floor together, it’s an entirely different element for the wine and gold.
Dion’s man has no chance. The ball bounces at the three point arc once, and it comes right up to Dion, who finishes it with a slam.
Does anyone recall so much of the early season complaining from yours truly about always needing to have Kyrie or Dion on the floor with this team so that someone could create in isolation? It’s now been alleviated to an extent because of this bench group’s cohesiveness.
In the last ten games, the Cavalier bench is the ninth highest scoring in the league at 37 ppg, and they are averaging 9.6 assists per game, fourth-best in that stretch. They’re also doing well in steals (8th), field-goal percentage (10th), and rebounds (9th). For the month of February (12 games), when the Cavs were playing a little better overall, the bench was sixth in scoring (41.3 ppg) and had a phenomenal league-leading 10.6 assists per contest (over an entire assist more per game than the second best team).
Here’s some more metrics to support the bench’s passing prowess. This table, taken from NBA.com/stats, showing the Cavaliers’ month-to-month progress in assists and turnovers (Jacob already had mentioned the turnover ratio in ten-game increments last week).
What you see here is drastic month-to-month improvement from November through February. And now, for proof that it’s the five bench guys doing the heavy lifting in this category. I give you a list of five-man lineups for the Cavaliers this season (from Basketball-reference.com), sorted by assists per 100 possessions. For readability purposes, I left off the five-man units that fell below the overall team average.
So, as you can see, other than the Cavs’ primary starting five for a good chunk of the year (with Miles instead subbed for Waiters), this unit has played the most among the others with high assist marks. This five-man unit averages nearly 4 more assists per 100 possessions than the team average. It’s one of the few five-man lineups used frequently by the wine and gold that’s above the league average in assists. This manifests itself even more when you break it down into 4-man rotations.
Boom. The top five four-man combinations are combos of the five guys I’ve highlighted with praise.
The Cavaliers have some tough decisions upcoming with this second unit. Miles is the only one definitely locked in under contract next year, and some money would have to be committed to keeping any of these guys. My guess is that perhaps two or three of the Speights, Ellington, Walton, Livingston quartet return, and at least one is let go to retain cap flexibility. What’s more important than holding onto to all of the bench guys in my opinion is Chris Grant having that frame of mind in forming a cohesive second unit 1-5 for the long term. We often think about a future starting five (I know I do) and then think of bench “pieces” just assuming Coach Scott will be able to throw them together and make it work. You need rebounding, defense, shooting, and that passing prowess all present to make a second unit sparkle. Right now, the Cavs have some of that shimmer.
Until next week, the film room is closed!