Can Kyle Korver be the Cavaliers’ X-Factor?

Enough ink has been spilled answering “How will the Cleveland stop Golden State’s offense?” that LeBron and company will have to take a boat home from Oakland. But very little time has been spent on how Golden State can hope to stop what has been the best offense in NBA playoff history. The Cavaliers are scoring 121 points per 100 possessions, nearly five points better than the lauded Warriors. And it isn’t just the Cavaliers’ loaded starting unit; the bench units featuring LeBron James and Kyle Korver are not only maintaining that blistering level of scoring, but reaching even higher levels.

The Warriors feature two devastating lineups, the starting unit with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Zaza Pachulia and the “Mega Death” lineup with the four stars but Andre Igoudala replacing Pachulia. These lineups have crushed opponents in the playoffs, scoring 126 and 124 points per 100 possessions respectively. But when either Curry or Durant sits, the Warriors struggle (relative to their normal dominance, anyway) to score. With Durant on the bench, the Warriors score only 106 points per 100 possessions, and without Curry on the court, only 98. In fact, their second most used lineup in the playoffs features neither Curry or Durant. That lineup, with Thompson, Green, and Igoudala joined by Ian Clark and David West is scoring only 100 points per 100 possessions, and actually has a negative 1.4 Net Rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating.)

This opens a major opportunity for the Cavaliers to dominate the minutes that either Curry, Durant, or both spend on the bench. LeBron is going to play 44 plus minutes each game, and the Cavaliers’ bench unit featuring LeBron James with Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and either Channing Frye or Tristan Thompson has been able to maintain the explosive offense, with an offensive rating of 124 with Frye and 123 with Thompson.

While the bench unit has done damage throughout the playoffs, Kyle Korver has been perhaps the linchpin to many of the Cavaliers’ best lineups. Korver has had a quiet playoffs, scoring only 6.4 points per game. As was often the case in his time with the Atlanta Hawks, teams have made every effort to prevent him from getting open looks. But by dedicating so much effort to staying with Kyle Korver, opponents have left the floor open for Kyrie Irving and LeBron James to live at the rim.

Korver has always appeared to be the perfect compliment to LeBron James. Elite shooters who are smart and understand how to get open thrive next to James. It’s the reason James Jones is on his way to his seventh straight Finals, or that Mike Miller was a staple on LeBron teams for so long. But Korver provides the elite shooting skill as well as the motor and mobility to fly around screens and find ways to get open. Look at how much effort the defense expends trying to stay in front of Korver.

He also is not a massive negative defensively. He will struggle in isolation situations, but is smart and focused, knowing where to be within the team concept. His overall numbers for the playoffs are skewed by minutes he played with Channing Frye, but with Korver on the floor and Frye off, the Cavaliers had a 103 defensive rating. Against a ball-movement heavy team like the Warriors, his style of defense can actually be a plus, as he is less likely to get lost or lose his assignment for backdoor cuts.

One major change so far this playoffs, is that Korver has spent more time at the small forward position. According to basketball reference, Korver spent only 34 percent of his minutes at small forward with the Cavaliers, more than at any point in the last four years. That number is up to 76 percent in the playoffs. The Cavaliers have a number of wings they like to play with Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and minutes where Williams and Irving share the backcourt. Korver’s height allows him to shift down a position to get more defense and shooting from the wing and still be able to stay in front of his man. Look for him to be an option in small-ball lineups.

Using Korver is various lineups has also allowed the Cavaliers to experiment with different ways to get him open that don’t involve waiting to see if he can get freed around multiple screens. Against Boston the Cavs used Korver as the screener for LeBron, forcing Terry Rozier to switch onto James and the much better defensive player in Jaylen Brown stick with Korver. The Cavs ran Korver as the roll man in pick and rolls only four times all season, but did it three times already this playoffs, resulting in three shots and three makes for Korver. If the Warriors try to hide a lesser defender on Korver, this could be an opportunity to get the switch the Cavaliers covet. Look at how this two-man game with James and Korver forced the defense to bend.

Korver has the ability to swing a game at any moment. While it’s unlikely he’ll be a major player for an extended period in this series, he provides the sort of match up nightmares that can force a team to react and expose other weaknesses. If Korver can manage defensively, he could have a huge impact against the Warriors, even if it is in limited minutes.

  • Pat Leonard

    I’m still shocked that Korver hasn’t supplanted JR Smith as the starter at SG. I’m not sure that Smith’s defense is that much better than Korver’s, and I think Korver scares opposing teams more.

  • scripty

    There are times when the Cavs are going to go Kyrie-Deron-JR-Korver-LBJ and that’s going to leave Korver on Dray or Iggy. Cavs are going to NEED him to contribute.

    I still think they should have kept Derrick Williams in the mix as I’d like to see him in the mix to wear down Draymond.

  • humboldt

    “Against a ball-movement heavy team like the Warriors, his style of defense can actually be a plus, as he is less likely to get lost or lose his assignment for backdoor cuts.”

    I hope this plays out in the series. These 7-game slugfests become so much about matchups, and Korver is someone whose lack of quickness can be exploited. Still have nightmares of Shaun Livingston shooting over Irving and Delly last year in the first couple games before adjustments were made.

    Would also love to see Korver outshoot the more heralded GS stars in this series.

    So many potential storylines of intrigue…

  • humboldt

    Smith’s defense in the playoffs has been fantastic. His athleticism and quickness is superior to Korver, and, while I haven’t studied the tape like the WFNY guys, he appears to be playing his role in their defensive schemes to near perfection. A real sign of maturity and professionalism that JR has been willing to apply his formidable athleticism mostly on the defensive end

  • Pat Leonard

    I had only seen Smith’s defense anecdotally… haven’t seen any stats. I thought he looked to be playing worse defense than last year, but I could be wrong.

  • humboldt

    Someone aim the WFNY bat signal skyward – we need an article analyzing this now!

  • Jeff Nomina

    It’s really difficult to measure simply bc the Cavs cared so little for the regular season haha. I will say LeBron and Lue have both talked about JR’s defense – and they seem to think of him as a guy they can put on challenging match-ups. For that reason his numbers are likely to look worse – because he’s often drawing the hardest match-up. He’s great on-ball and chasing guys around screens (he used to shut down Korver, for example.) Korver’s skill is more anticipating back door cuts and navigating a system when things start to break down. But I’d say JR is the better defender.

    I’d also very much like to see them together. Maybe replacing Love in the starting unit (Ky-JR-Korver-LBJ-TT)

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