If I told you that the Cavaliers missed Anderson Varejao and Timofey Mozgov what would you do? Would you smack me? I’d smack me. Just the thought of Mozgov mishandling an easy bounce pass or Varejao sloppily flailing as his man blows by him for a layup… Honestly, I just smacked myself for good measure.
But I’m not here to say Cleveland misses those specific players, per se. It appears, however, the Cavaliers very much miss one aspect those players (or perhaps just having traditional centers) provided: Rebounding.
You’re likely asking yourself how this can be the case. Kevin Love is a walking double-double, one of just a handful of players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds. Tristan Thompson is a rebounding machine, hauling in more than 10 boards a night, a career-high. LeBron James is just a hair shy of averaging a triple-double on the season. After spending the 2015-16 season as the third-best rebounding team in the NBA, however, this incarnation of the Cavs currently ranks 15th. As we get deeper into the season, this is no longer a fluke. It’s a trend. A trend that presents some concerns, as rebounding and extra possessions are a major weapon to combat a team like the Warriors and their incredible efficiency.
Their rebounding rates, as a team, are down across the board (no pun intended):
Interestingly, the Cavs’ best rebounders—Thompson, Love, and James—are having solid years. While their per-game numbers look solid, Tristan and Love are both actually rebounding at a better rate than the year before.
So where have all the rebounds gone? To tall people. And the Cavs suddenly have way fewer tall people than they did last year. Gone are Mozgov, Varejao, and even Sasha Kaun. Chris Anderson is a tall person, but he saw limited minutes before an injury knocked him out for the rest of this season. Channing Frye is a tall person, too, but one that is not known for his rebounding prowess. Frye is better suited to stand on the perimeter raining back-breaking threes than to fight for boards.
Between Mozgov and Varejao, the Cavs have over 1,600 minutes with a center not named Tristan Thompson or Kevin Love on the court last season. As you can see, both of those players gathered a high percentage of available rebounds.
This season, the Cavs don’t have that luxury. When Tristan or Love sit, the Cavs are forced to play small, with LeBron, Richard Jefferson, and Channing Frye assuming a large number of minutes as either the power forward or center. This has resulted in far fewer high-level rebounders being on the court.
You see the lack of big men manifest itself whenever Love or Thompson sit. With Thompson off the court, the Cavs are able to maintain an average rebounding rate through Love. But when Love sits, or both sit, the rebounding craters.
The Cavs are in a bit of a dire spot, or at least as dire a spot a team that is mostly guaranteed a trip to The Finals can be. They need a backup point guard to run the offense when Kyrie Irving sits. They need more wing depth as the Mike Dunleavy experiment looks less and less likely to pan out. And they need big men, for rim protection and rebounding. There is an extreme lack of resources to acquire any of these, and that means GM David Griffin will have to prioritize.
This isn’t to say that rebounding is the only way to beat the Warriors, or any other team. The Cavaliers have plenty of strengths, and Kyrie, Love, Frye, and Shumpert are all playing at levels much higher than the year prior. This team is still a monster, and still has LeBron James. Their identity, however, is shifting a bit this season. Griffin has worked magic in the past, acquiring the likes of J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Channing Frye for spare parts. The Cavaliers will have to hope he can do this once again, for as good as the Cavaliers are, they likely need to address a few areas on the roster before the playoffs. And rebounding is looking to be front and center on that list.