The NBA is moving more and more towards “positionless basketball.” No, “positionless” is not a reference to Channing Frye’s defense, it’s a term that highlights that as teams switch more and more on defense, players need to be able to guard anyone on the court. Traditional big men are being phased out as they can’t keep up with wings and guards that force them to guard all the way out to the three point line. In this new “positionless” era, there is an arms race to collect high-quality wing players. You’ve seen this in Boston as they selected Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum while also signing Gordon Hayward, and you’ve seen this in Golden State, where the entire roster can guard up and down a lineup on defense and dribble and shoot on offense. The Cavaliers have followed this trend, as well, loading up on wings in the offseason.
Here’s a rundown of the Cavaliers’ current crop of wings:
Probably the player most suited for “positionless” basketball in the history of the game. He’ll be asked to play literally every position this season. There is a high likelihood he’ll get time at point guard surrounded by wings and big men, and also that the Cavaliers will size down and he’ll be playing center, surrounded by shooting. And he can do all of that. He is one of the best passers in the league. He showed that he can protect the rim. He can defend the perimeter. He unlocks an incredible amount of lineups and this is maybe the first Cavaliers roster to surround him with players that let him do that.
A big reason the Cavaliers can let LeBron road to so many positions is the addition of Jae Crowder. Crowder has the size and speed to guard shooting guards, small forwards, and power forwards. He can shoot and does all of the little things well that help a team keep moving. He’s been a darling of ESPN’s RPM stat for years, and while I don’t love the metric, it certainly shows that he has a positive impact. Remember Shane Battier playing next to LeBron in Miami? Crowder should be an even better version of that.
Crowder’s three point shooting spiked last season, jumping from 34 percent the season before to 40 percent last season. This has happened with players before, only to see that number drop off the next season. Draymond Green is a great example of this. But if Crowder can maintain that high level shooting, he should be an absolute perfect fit for the Cavaliers. Crowder doesn’t need the ball to be effective and brings some aggression to a team that sometimes lacked it.
While he isn’t starting this season, J.R. Smith is a player that plays an extremely important role for the Cavaliers. After a rough season highlighted by a hold out, an injury, and the premature birth of his daughter, Smith (understandably) never quite hit a rhythm last year. If his defense can reach the level it had in previous seasons with the Cavaliers, the Smith-James-Crowder wing group could be devastating for the Cavaliers.
In many ways, Smith’s acrobatic three point attempts unlock the Cavs’ offense. He forces a defense to stay honest and hits shots even when they are (as a former Cavalier will tell you, buckets don’t lie.) When a defense already has to account for Isaiah Thomas, LeBron James, and Kevin Love, a J.R. Smith falling-out-of-bounds-fading-away-from-the-basket-as-the-shot-clock-expires-three is a backbreaker. His ability to guard point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards will help unlock different lineups for the Cavaliers. With so many non-shooters on the roster this year, Smith’s versatility will be hugely important. I expect a huge season from him, and for him to force his way back onto the starting unit.
Dwyane Wade has shown a lot of veteran savvy in the preseason. He can still score, and is a smart player that should be able to find shooters and cutters around him. If he can play within the offense and not try to take over too many possessions, he could be a really nice addition to the Cavaliers’ offense. He can’t shoot, but is great off the ball and has chemistry with James from their time in Miami. His promotion to the starting unit is likely what moved Tristan Thompson to the bench, as they live in the same areas working off the ball. It will be interesting to see how he fits with Derrick Rose, as both are probably best suited to serve as ball handlers for the second unit.
Wade defense will be an issue. He’s slow and won’t be accused of exerting much in terms of effort. He hasn’t gotten back in transition since LeBron still had a hairline. I guess if you’re into silver linings, he’ll probably be the recipient of a lot of Kevin Love full court passes because he won’t even cross half-court on defense.
Korver, like Smith, provides positional flexibility and shooting. A natural shooting guard, Korver can play small forward and even spent five percent of his time at power forward after joining the Cavaliers. A smart veteran, Korver having a full offseason to get used to playing next to James and the rest of the Cavaliers. His quick-release and deadly accuracy keeps a defense honest and lets guys like James, Thomas, Wade, and Rose get to the rim. In his days in Atlanta, Korver was often the guy defenses keyed on to stop. Even in his time in Cleveland, he was often face guarded even with the other stars on the court. A lineup featuring Smith, Korver and James should be unguardable.
Korver’s defense is obviously an issue. Like Kevin Love, he doesn’t possess the physical skills to be above average on that end and can be beaten when trying to defend the ball. But he is smart and knows where to be within a scheme. He’s a guy that won’t hurt you if he’s part of a strong defensive unit. The Cavaliers will have to be careful with their lineups, as they have too many minus defenders, but should be able to maximize Korver’s ability fairly easily. If nothing else, Korver has the size to disrupt shots when guarding smaller lineups.
Shumpert isn’t the backup point guard this season and that is about the nicest thing I can say about him. When he plays within himself and focuses on defense and hitting open shots, he’s a nice player, albeit an overpaid one. But he rarely stays within himself. He dribbles out of open threes and into long twos. He struggles to dribble and turns the ball over. He drives at the rim but fails to finish, flailing out of bounds as the other team ignites a fast break. I wish his defense was better. His reputation as a defensive stopper may have been true once, but too often he’s living on that reputation. His role on this team is to be determined, and it’s likely he is traded this season. The Cavaliers simply have too many other (better) options.
I tried really hard to look at Jeff Green’s stats and find some nice nugget that looked like it would play up with the Cavaliers. I could not find that nugget. Ty Lue seems really excited about him. LeBron James does, as well. He had some nice plays in the preseason and there is a chance that second unit with Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Tristan Thompson lives in transition. I could see a situation where that is fun.
But Green can’t shoot. Or defend. Or create efficiently. He doesn’t pass well. He doesn’t do anything that makes you look at a stat sheet and say he had a good game. There’s a chance this environment coaxes more out of him, and the Cavaliers are certainly going to try. All of that being said, he’s the ninth guy in the rotation and as far as that goes, he’s fine. He might surprise. If not, there are other options and he wasn’t expected to do much, anyway.
Cedi is a young player that has the tools to be a solid NBA player. In his limited exposure in preseason, it looks like that player is still a few years away. It would be great to see Cedi get some minutes with the Cavaliers to learn the NBA game, but he is most likely best served in Canton honing his skills. His future is bright; he’s smart, has a feel for the game, looks like he can defend at the NBA level, and gives maximum effort. But this season will likely feature very little Cedi Osman.
The Cavaliers loaded up on wings this season, and will likely feature a wide mix of these players. They have shooters, and athleticism, and veteran savvy. They don’t necessarily have all of those things in one player. I would expect the cream to rise to the top and Lue finding the few guys that work well together and riding them. If nothing else, the number of options at his disposal will let him ride the hot hand.