The Cleveland Cavaliers’ season begins on Tuesday night and while Kyrie Irving will be there, he’ll be wearing the wrong uniform. Not actually, of course. He’s a member of the Boston Celtics, and will be donning their white and green uniforms. But for Cavaliers fans, it’s going to take more than one likely unfriendly visit to the Q to get used to his new look.
The show must go on, and the Cavaliers spent their offseason prioritizing the point guard position. They did it on the first day of free agency by signing Jose Calderon. They made waves by bringing in former MVP Derrick Rose. And, of course, by shipping Irving to Boston in exchange for Second Team All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas. The position is one with incredible upside but also some pretty obvious weaknesses. And by weaknesses, I mean defense. Let’s look at how each member of the roster fits in.
Thomas had a career year last season, finishing third in points per game at nearly 29 points per game. But it wasn’t about the volume of points as much as his efficiency. Thomas had a true shooting percentage of 62.5 percent, the highest of any player using more than 28 percent of his team’s possessions. For reference, Irving’s true shooting last season was 58 percent.
While Kyrie Irving’s passing has been a sticking point for many Cavaliers fans, there may not be a huge difference in the switch to Thomas. They averaged nearly the same number of assists per game, and while Thomas had the worse supporting cast, they also averaged nearly an identical number of potential assists. Perhaps with more talent around him, Thomas will be more willing to find teammates, but there’s a good chance Thomas will look a lot like a miniature Irving in terms of his role on offense.
Another sticking point with Irving was his defense, but there, again, Thomas will likely provide similar or perhaps even worse results. While Irving was not a plus defender, he had stretches of solid play. Thomas’ five foot nine inch frame puts a limit on his ability on the defensive end. No matter what level of effort he puts forth (and that’s not saying he’s Delly out there), there just isn’t much he can do if, say, switched onto six foot seven inch Klay Thompson.
While I’m not going to make assumptions on health, Thomas’ impact on the roster will likely be that he looks a lot like Irving. His career numbers were unlikely to be replicated in any situation, so his efficiency will likely dip to Kyrie’s level. He’s a worse three-point shooter but likely better moving in an offense and working to create easy looks instead of going full ISO. He will be constantly attacked on the defensive end, so expect to see him and Kevin Love put in a lot of pick and rolls. The main difference will be in how he scores; Thomas shoots significantly more threes than Irving (44 percent of his shots compared to 31 percent for Irving) and gets to the free throw line significantly more (8.5 free throws per game compared to 4.6 for Irving.)
Derrick Rose is not an MVP level player anymore. He’s not going to be one with the Cavaliers. Let’s just make that clear.
Rose is a polarizing player. He has spent the last few seasons as a volume scorer without much in terms of efficiency. He’s not a great passer and doesn’t defend. What he does do is force the issue and put pressure on a defense. When LeBron James said “we need a f***ing playmaker” last season, Derrick Rose is a guy that can fit that bill. As a guy coming off the bench that can score and keep the offense moving, he could certainly be an asset. As a starting point guard on this unit, he’ll likely struggle. He can’t shoot, doesn’t defend, and has never shown he’s savvy enough to work off the ball. If you’re into discussing all players through the lens of how they can play against Golden State, he’s like to disappoint you. Also, it’s going to be a long season for you. But Derrick Rose is a guy that can help you during the regular season and help take some of the pressure off the rest of the roster.
The Cavaliers signed Jose Calderon on the first day of free agency and wow does that look like a mistake. It was somewhat surprising that he was prioritized over Richard Jefferson. But, with Thomas out until at least Christmas, Calderon will provide depth at point guard. Head coach Ty Lue has already stated that Derrick Rose will sub out early to run the second units, and that will likely mean Calderon will see time with the starting unit. A former elite-level shooter at 41 percent from three, he dipped to 31 percent last season. This dip would be less concerning if Calderon wasn’t entering his age-36 season. Calderon is as likely to pepper LeBron with dad jokes as he is to have a bounce-back season. LeBron is going to ask him “Are you gonna make a shot?” and Calderon is going to respond, “No, my name isn’t ‘Are You Gonna Make A Shot’ it’s Jose.”
But, Calderon is a veteran who can run an offense and there is some potential that he can make open shots. He can’t defend at all. And not in the “Thomas and Rose are bad at defense” kind of way, but in the “his body literally can’t do the motions that make you do defense” kind of way. It’s like he lacks the defense muscle.
Without Thomas, this unit is not a strength. There’s a chance Lue experiments with lineups that don’t feature any of the points guards and let LeBron manage the offense. With Thomas, the Cavaliers have a potentially impact player who actually had a much better season than the incredible Irving last year. He is likely more of a negative against the eventual Golden State lineup than Irving, but should be a regular season upgrade when healthy. In the end, the Cavaliers have three legitimate point guards, which, if nothing else, means we should see much less of Iman Shumpert dribbling this season. I’d call that a win.