There is a four-letter word in the NBA that makes executives turn up their nose and stat snobs turn in disgust. That word is “bigs.” The league is trending smaller and smaller, with power forwards looking more and more like wings and centers trending in a similar direction. We’ve entered a post-post play era of the NBA, and it leaves many players and teams in a bit of a flux. Here’s a look at the Cavaliers’ big men and how they fit in this year:
We’ve become so accustomed to questioning Kevin Love’s fit on the Cavaliers that our muscle memory just takes over as soon as the topic is broached. Meanwhile, Love went out and put on a clinic last year, averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds and earning an All-Star appearance. Love was really good last year. Really, really good. He recorded highs in rebounding rate, true shooting, and usage as a Cavalier. His ability to create switches and force fouls helped to keep the offense moving in times when things would get bogged down. While a small sample of only 136 minutes, the team was also eight points better per 100 possessions with Love on the court and LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the bench.
With Kyrie Irving gone and Isaiah Thomas out until at least Christmas, I would have loved to predict a big season from Kevin Love. There seems to finally be some trust there between Love and James and Love was more aggressive in looking for his own shots last year. Alas, the additions of Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade probably mean Love will be used more for his spacing and as a decoy than anything. It would be great to see Love get the chance to run the offense a bit and show some of the passing ability he showed in Minnesota. We’re entering another season of head coach Ty Lue saying the offense would look to maximize Kevin’s ability, but at this point we know that’s just lip service.
There is also the change in the starting lineup bumping Kevin Love from power forward to center. Rather than play next to Tristan Thompson, who can cover for many of Love’s deficiencies on the defensive end, he will now be playing next to a smaller wing-type player in Jae Crowder. Love will be asked to bang with bigger players and defend the pick and roll on a constant basis. Love’s main attributes as a defender are that he doesn’t foul and grabs an incredible amount of rebounds. So while he doesn’t defend many shots, he doesn’t give away free points and limits the opportunity for second-chance points. But as a center asked to protect the rim, especially with Rose and Wade defending (if you call it that) on the perimeter, the Cavaliers’ defense could be ugly.
That being said, Love played solid to good defense in the Finals last year. He was active and caused a lot of deflections and turnovers. He’s never going to be an elite defender, but he seems to understand where to be and how to keep his hands up. His ability to avoid fouls and grab boards is also highlighted in his full-court passes coming off of misses. He’s a sneaky valuable player on that end, but one that can also be exploited when schemed for.
With Wade and Rose now in the starting lineup, Love is invaluable to making the offense work. His ability to stretch the floor from the center position is the only thing that makes this offense work.
It remains to be seen if Tristan Thompson’s move to the bench will be beneficial. His ability to switch onto scoring guards and maintain solid defense is one of the most important skills in the NBA. He doesn’t provide elite rim protection, but has grown as a help defender. His rebounding is relentless and he forces fouls on guys by shear effort. Do those qualities play up against second units? There’s a question of whether he’ll need to take on a larger role with the bench unit and that will expose his weaknesses while failing to maximize his (many) strengths.
That being said, Derrick Rose appears to be looking to push the ball at all times, and with the second unit featuring a lot of long, athletic players, Thompson can run the floor and finish lobs. I could see him exhausting and overwhelming second units and having a lot of success. I would also expect him to heavy crunch-time minutes with Kevin Love as their rebounding slow down games and limit possessions when they become more important.
Frye is deadly in select situations. His floor spacing and elite shooting can provide sparks and make the Cavaliers’ offense unguardable. When he shares the floor with Kevin Love and LeBron James the defense just doesn’t have an answer.
But he’s nearly unplayable on the defensive end and for a veteran seems to have very little on-court savvy. He makes stupid mistakes and finds himself out of position regularly. I wouldn’t expect a ton of Channing Frye minutes this year barring major injuries. He’ll be used, but his elite-level podcasting is likely his biggest contribution this season.
While originally thought of as a throw-in to the Kyrie Irving trade, Zizic has looked solid in the preseason. He is massive, and could earn minutes at center this season against larger centers (Andre Drummond, etc.) He has shown an ability to roll to the rim and finish with surprising athleticism. Many people seemed down on Zizic following Summer League, but he appears to have bounced back and now could play into the Cavaliers’ future. He’s only 20 years old and while traditional centers are being phased out of the NBA, there is still a need for guys that can set screens, roll to the rim, and rebound. Zizic provides someone to watch in terms of development as the Cavaliers try to bring some youth to their lineup.
Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are really good. Thompson’s value is more evident in a playoff setting, but he stays healthy, plays lots of minutes, and is malleable enough to take on many roles. Love is primed for a big season if he can get the touches and remain a priority. Those two provide more than enough value at the position. Channing Frye provides a different look off the bench and one that can send teams scrambling in the right situations. With Zizc, the Cavaliers have a lottery ticket for the future. This unit as a whole is solid and should be a strength for the Cavaliers. They can match up against almost any look or force teams to change their rotations to match the weapons the Cavs put on the floor.