Cavaliers, WWW

Cavs’ Lineups and live Live: While We’re Waiting…


Hello, WFNYers. Is it the weekend yet? Sorry, even though the mere existence of this Thursday edition of “While We’re Waiting…” is prima facie evidence that it is not the weekend, I couldn’t help asking. Let’s move these next few hours and weeks along and proceed to Opening Day, the NBA Playoffs, the NFL Draft, and summertime, amirite? But while we’re waiting…

So the Cavs? Not so great right now. I make it a point not to let March NBA games affect my mood, but the Cavs’ conflagration against the Spurs on Monday put me in a foul disposition. I thought it an appropriate time to step back and look at the Cavs’ lineups this year and how they’ve performed in an attempt to recalibrate my broader perspective for a team that’s sputtered in March. The results are summarized in the purrty picture below, with the lineup type’s margin against opponents1 on the y-axis and the minutes played for each lineup on the x-axis.2


Here are my observations and thoughts:

  • The Cavs starters (Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson) are playing winning basketball with a plus/minus of 4.39 per 48 minutes. So that’s … nice.
  • The Cavs starters are not playing dominant basketball by any stretch. Last season, the same lineup was +12.8 per 48 minutes. To be fair, the starters have only played 372 minutes together as a unit while they played 465 minutes together last season even with Irving’s missed time. The Warriors starters have played 532 minutes together even with Kevin Durant’s injury.
  • The Cavs are better with bigger (two-big) lineups (+6.20 per 48) than with smaller lineups, even if the difference isn’t huge (+3.72 per 48 for small lineups). Love and Thompson together post a solid +7.67 per 48 minutes while out-rebounding teams at a rate of five boards per game.
  • The Cavs are fine with the Big Three at +8.75 per 48. That’s Spurs-esque. So … deep exhale. The success with one or two of the three varies greatly, and they’re dreadful with none of the Big Three at -7.78 per 48, which is worse than the Los Angeles Lakers as a team. So basically the Cavs are like if a slightly worse version of the Lakers (like if Jordan Clarkson had a peg leg or something) added LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love.
  • At medium-sized samples, the Cavs are really good with four wings and no bigs (+14.47 per 48) but lousy with four wings and a big man (-3.11 per 48). As an example, a lineup of James-Richard Jefferson-Kyle Korver, and the Williams brothers is +19 with a small sample size of 18 minutes (+45.47 per 48). Meanwhile, a lineup of Channing Frye-James-Jefferson-Korver-DeAndre Liggins is -18 in 34 minutes. I thought there was no discernible reason for the big difference, but the lesson may be that the Cavs don’t want Frye to be the only big.3
  • One of the great challenges the Cavs face, as always, is what to do when James sits. While the Cavs haven’t always dominated with James, they’re a minus team (have a negative margin) without him. That doesn’t happen with Love or Irving — the Cavs are still a plus team with them off the court.
  • Although you would think he could stabilize a second unit, Kyrie Irving doesn’t save the team when James is off the court. So what should Tyronn Lue do? Maximize when James and Irving are on the court together and cobble together a defensive-minded second unit with Deron Williams at point guard? Or continue letting Irving flounder with second units without James? I lean towards the former actually … maybe a unit of Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson/Derrick Williams, Kevin Love, and Channing Frye? Solving that conundrum is one of Tyronn Lue’s greatest challenges, and if they can be neutral team most of the time when James if off the court, the Cavs will be fine. But Coach Lue isn’t experimenting enough with these lineups to have any good data.
  • The Cavs’ 250 most-used lineups only account for 3288 of their 3524 minutes. They’ve been outscored by 107 in those “lost” minutes. In other words, they Cavs have been outscored by nearly 22 points per game using lineups that have played less than four total minutes and will likely never be seen again. That’s a piece of slight encouragement, as these lost lineups hurt their overall numbers.
  • The Cavs’ best unit all season involves Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, DeAndre Liggins, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson. In fact, this has been the second best lineup in the NBA this season4, a +31.29 per 48. It’s no mystery why it should work in theory: J.R. Smith is not playing great on either side of the ball, and DeAndre Liggins is a good perimeter defender asked to do little or nothing on offense. This lineup has outscored teams 482 to 364 with a defensive rating of 97.9 — it’s basically the Cavs’ only lineup with a sub-100 defensive rating. Is it too small a sample (181 minutes) to draw any broad conclusions? Probably not.5 Even if it is a small sample, why is this lineup gathering dust in the shed? After outscoring teams by 86 points in only 88 minutes in December, this Irving-James-Liggins-Love-Thompson lineup has zero minutes as a unit in March.
  • Bonus: Here’s my amateur attempt to rectify the D.Williams-D.Williams parsing dilemma. Does Derrick Williams have braids or dreadlocks? Whatever, I was frustrated with spreadsheet fatigue.


Your Calvin and Hobbes strip of the day. We “big picture” people rarely become popular sports personalities.


And now for the random 90s song of the day. I hate to end this Thursday with a downer of a song about, in the words of its author Ed Kowalczyk, “the end of the world and the apocalypse and all that.” But at least Kowalczyk mitigates the heavy subject matter with the disclaimer, “Don’t get too depressed on me or nothing. It’s a good thing … I think.” Well that’s reassuring.

In addition to having one of the worst band names of all time, Live had one of the best albums of the 90s with Throwing Copper. (In Live’s defense, search engine optimization wasn’t a priority when inventing a band name in the the mid-80s.) “White, Discussion,” is a fairly heavy song that manages to straddle the very thin line between aggressive and catchy. Live’s performance of “White, Discussion” from their hit 1994 album (which also had “Selling the Drama,” “Lighting Crashes,” and “All Over You”) kicks a decent amount of ass at Pinkpop 1997. Fortunately for Kowalcyzk, Live’s heyday came at a time in the 90s when a white guy with a bald head and combat boots could have a God complex before guys with swastika tattoos went mainstream and made it a little harder to pull off that getup successfully (American History X came out in 1998). But “White, Discussion” is a great song off a great album from a band I actually enjoy quite a bit.

Look where all this talking got us, baby
Look where all this talking got us, baby
Talk on

  1. Per 48 minutes. So, basically how much that lineup category would win or lose by if they played an entire game, on average. []
  2. Feel free to ask me on Twitter for the finer methodology points. only provides the top 250 lineups in terms of minutes, so not every lineup is included. It’s worth noting that every lineup receiving more than four minutes of playing time is included. The “big” and “wing” comparisons were technically judgment calls, though fairly straightforward. There is also unfortunately no way to differentiate between Derrick Williams and Deron Williams as both are D. Williams on’s lineup page, so I’m over-inclusive on both fronts in that regard but hopefully it doesn’t fudge my rankings too much. []
  3. Although Frye has been playing poorly lately, some of the Cavs’ most successful lineups this season involve Frye. There is a huge tradeoff with his great shooting and the spacing it provides and his lack of rim protection. []
  4. With over 100 minutes. []
  5. The Warriors’ Stephen Curry-Kevin Durant-Draymond Green-Andre Iguodala-Klay Thompson lineup has only 224 minutes, and that will definitely be a lineup they rely on in a playoff series, if not their most-utilized playoff lineup. []