The Cleveland Cavaliers began the 2017-18 season with the inability to stop their opposition. As the rotation was in a state of flux and Tyronn Lue was moving players in and out of his starting five, LeBron James was playing entirely too many minutes and the fluid nature of a team that had also added seven new players resulted in defensive sequences that ranged from poor to what-the-hell-was-that? They were getting destroyed on pick and rolls, picked apart at the three-point line, and embarrassed in transition, leading to them winning just five of their first 12 games.
Then something clicked.
As the Cavs have started to find their groove, they have continued to produce some of the best offensive efficiency numbers in the NBA. The difference over their last 10 games has been a dramatic spike in their defense, large in part to three players who would otherwise not be considered high-end individual defenders: Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green, and Channing Frye.
As a team, the Cavaliers have produced the fourth-best net rating in the NBA. As a whole, their 101.9 dRtg is well north of league average (105.2), but a closer look at some of the parts, and your mind will be blown by a trio of players who looked old, slow, and out of shape—three very tough headwinds—through the the first few weeks of the season.
LeBron James’ offense simply cannot be denied. While some of his 115.5 oRtg is impacted by his 23-point fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets, James is producing efficiency numbers that are the best of his career despite being just weeks away from his 33rd birthday. While he will not be up for any sort of Defensive Player of the Year consideration, James dRtg has recently floated on to the right side of average, and his individual abilities were on display in Thursaday night’s win over the Atlanta Hawks, especially when it was needed the most.
Look at where LeBron's hand is on this block pic.twitter.com/z3xGR9h5i1
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) December 1, 2017
James’ dominance, however, is undeniable. The Cavaliers, however, have struggled mightily to score when James is off the floor. During his first season back with the team, the Cavaliers were 16.7 points better with James on the floor, being outscored on a per-1oo possession basis by 6.9 points. During their 2015-16 championship season, the Cavaliers were 16 points better with James on the floor than off of it, outscored by 5.8 points when James would attempt to rest.
In 2016-17, when LeBron James was on the floor, the Cavaliers were seven points better than their opponents on a per-100 possession basis. When he sat, they were 8.5 points worse. These numbers ballooned when it mattered most in the postseason, with the Cavs having a 27.4-point difference between James being on the floor versus off.
Currently, the Cavaliers, while understandably better with James on the floor, are outscoring their opponent by 0.9 points per 100 possessions when he sits, a marked improvement over the past two seasons, and the first time this number is positive since his return. Over the last 10 games, all of which have been wins for the wine and gold, the reserve unit has a net rating of 7.0, fueled largely by a 95.3 dRtg, but showing that they’ve not just held leads, but have increased upon them.
Over the last three seasons, Channing Frye has been unplayable in many instances, falling in and out of Tyronn Lue’s rotations large in part to defensive issues. Jeff Green was brought to Cleveland as a versatile, utility-type player who could spell James throughout stretches of play, but by no means was expected to be the next Scottie Pippen. Wade, James’ Pippen in Miami, is now 35 years of age, and was one of the biggest offenders early in the season when teams were blowing past the Cavs.
The 3-man lineup of Channing Frye (34), Kyle Korver (36) and Dwyane Wade (35) in 145 shared minutes entering tonight's game:
372 points for, 292 points against, +90
120.3 ORtg, 92.4 DRtg, +27.9 Net
— Jacob L. Rosen (@JacobLRosen) November 29, 2017
For starters, Wade moved to the bench, allowing a systematized rotation to be put in place. J.R. Smith rejoined the starting five and Wade became the primary ball-handler for the second unit. Green has settled into his role as the primary wing off of the bench. Frye, who was collecting DNP-CDs earlier in the season, has benefitted mightily from the calf injury suffered by Tristan Thompson. This unit, complete with Kyle Korver (who has the second highest nRtg on the Cavs) and the tenth man du jour, has gelled. They’re getting up the floor and executing on the offensive end, but more importantly have dug in and executed upon Lue’s defensive system that switches on pick and rolls for both guards and both forwards, but forces the center to blitz in the paint in 1-5 situations.
“Channing’s been great with the blitz,” Lue told WFNY following the Cavaliers’ win over the Miami Heat. “I think that’s helped him a lot, now allowing point guards to get downhill and attack him. Jeff is just a utility man. We can put him on 1-through-5, and he usually has the toughest matchup in that second unit. And then D-Wade is just big as far as blocks, getting steals on the backside, and just making big plays. Those three guys, they’ve been fantastic.”
Among qualifying players, Wade leads the Cavaliers in blocked shots on a per-36 minute basis (1.4). Only James (1.1) has more than a block, showing that the Cavaliers are a team without much in the way of rim protection. A team-based defense, Lue’s schemes tend to focus on simply making shots difficult for the opponent while taking care of the ball offensively to limit transition opportunities. When needed, however, the 6-foot-5-inch Wade has been huge, blocking a set of seven-footers in Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid within the last several weeks.
“His timing is just great,” Lue said of Wade’s defensive prowess. “He’s in the right spot and his timing is really good.”
Then came the jokes.
“I don’t know if he’s jumping that high,” he continued, “but he’s blocking so his timing must be really good.”
The impending return of Isaiah Thomas and Tristan Thompson will serve to shake things up a bit. One may be the team’s weakest defender while the other has been its best defender over the last four seasons. Will Lue be able to find minutes for Frye when Thompson returns? Will Thomas’ eventual insertion into the starting lineup shake up how the guard minutes are allocated? It’s crazy to fathom, but if this season’s rating holds, it would be the first time since James returned to Cleveland that the Cavaliers were able to outscore opponents with him on the bench.
While the winning streak will eventually end, 10 games is enough of a sample to show that the process is bearing fruit. James, though approaching 33, is still James. It took some time to gel, but it would appear that he finally has a supporting cast that can not only play respective roles, but also not be a liability. Getting this to carry into the postseason will be a completely different animal, but as the Cavaliers look to get back to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season, allowing James to rest throughout the regular season will be key.