Small Ball 2016-17 Season Previews: Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers – 57-25

Key Additions: Mike Dunleavy -F (Trade – Milwaukee), Chris Andersen -C (FA – 1 year, $0.9M), Kay Felder -G (Draft -2nd Round, 54th overall)

Key Losses:

Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov

People tend to forget that going into 2015-16 the Cleveland Cavaliers were favored by most experts, analytics and oddsmakers to finish with the best record in the league and win the championship. When the Warriors got off to their unbelievable start that tune quickly changed, but even after the Cavs lost to the Dubs on Christmas Day, they still looked to be destined for another NBA Finals match-up with their Western Conference foes. Cleveland still had an immensely talented roster and them winning it all shouldn’t be looked at as the huge surprise that some made it out to be. During the regular season, Kyrie Irving struggled while coming back from his injury and the Cavs had to deal with off-court drama and a coaching change. Nevertheless, once they got it together in the playoffs and LeBron turned it all the way up, there was no stopping them. Kyrie was great in the playoffs and his shot in Game 7 will be remembered for a long time, especially in Cleveland. Plus LeBron demonstrated that even as his athletic ability has slightly waned, he is still the best player in the league and by a solid margin, no disrespect to Steph.

In general, most of Cleveland’s success last year can be attributed to their commanding offense. The method that allowed them to achieve such a high efficiency was quite interesting and unusual. For example, they were 5th in the league in so-called “hockey” or secondary assists. The four teams in front of them were the Warriors, Hawks, Spurs and Bulls, and the Boston Celtics came in right behind them. These teams are all known for playing a free-flowing style with lots of ball and player movement. All of them but the Cavs that is, who are more known for stubbornly picking on mismatches and depending heavily on Kyrie and LeBron isolations and pick-n-rolls. As further evidence for this, in average seconds per touch, meaning how long on average each player on the team has the ball every time they touch it, the Cavaliers ranked 8th in the league. The Dubs were 30th, the Celtics 29th, the Hawks 28th, the Spurs 21st and the Bulls 20th. In essence, the Cavaliers were an outlier in that they were the highly unconventional “bad ball movement but good passing” team. That generally never happens, but of course when you have LeBron James on your roster, things are never going to be ordinary. This ability to create shots for others, along with great shooting (number two in the league in catch and shoot eFG%) and a strong transition game (second in the league in points per transition possession) automatically makes them one of the hardest to stop in the league. Even considering the addition of Al Horford to Boston, the Spurs coming off a 67-win season and the Clippers having their Big 3 back intact, Cleveland is a consensus top two team. Unfortunately for them, being second won’t be enough. LeBron brought the NBA championship to Cleveland for the first time and he can do no wrong for now but this team has extremely high expectations. Anything less than another parade in June is a disappointment, no matter the strength of the competition. Can they beat an even stronger Warriors team?

Season Outlook

For the second consecutive off-season the Cavs are forced to deal with a key player holding out during the offseason. Just as Tristan Thompson did last year, JR Smith has had difficulty finding common ground with the Cleveland front office in terms of a new contract. Otherwise, most of last year’s core is back and the offense should once again be a juggernaut. On the other hand, their already inconsistent defense is further depleted after the losses of Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov. Opposing guards have been able to create vast amounts of separation against Kyrie Irving at the point of attack and while Tristan Thompson is useful as a big who can switch out on perimeter players, rim protection is certainly not one of his strengths. Ty Lue had some strong praise for Smith’s defense and last season was the most effort we’ve seen him give on that end in a long time. LeBron is almost 32 years old now and that will mean eventually having to slowly hand the keys to the offense over to Kyrie, especially in the regular season. James is probably the best rim protector on this team and can still conserve his energy since he can just hang out by the rim and not have to chase around the Kevin Durants, Paul Georges and Kawhi Leonards of the world. Unfortunately, there are questions as to how pragmatic it would be to play LeBron at power forward extensively. The chances of Kevin Love becoming a shot altering defensive presence are impossibly slim, which makes him tough to play at center.


The Cavs are still easily the favorites in the East, but it’s possible that due to a lack of motivation the Celtics and/or Raptors jump them in the regular season standings. Even so, there is no question the other teams in the conference don’t have the same type of aggregate talent. No matter who is on the court, LeBron is still the most dominant individual force every time he suits up. His offensive genius is well documented but his all-around impact is still to a point, sold short. His effort defensively was criticized at times, but last season he was number one in the league in differential on FG% he allowed defensively compared to the average FG% from that spot, according to SportsVU. Players shot 7.3% less on FGs defended by LeBron than they did on FGs defended by all other players. Synergy player tracking data shows that among the 95 players that defended at least 65 isolations last year, he was fourth in points allowed per possession, just behind Thabo Sefolosha, Robert Covington and Dwight Howard. He also had the second highest defensive real plus/minus for a small forward, right behind DPOY Kawhi Leonard and far ahead of third place Covington. Admittedly, the eye test shows that complaints about his effort have some truth to them. However, his exceptional physical tools immediately stand out and allow him to be one of the best defensive forces in the league. Rebounding is another aspect where James is undervalued. Somewhat quietly, offensive rebounding was a huge X-factor for the Cavaliers last year. In games that they won, their offensive rebounding percentage was 26.8, which would rank third in the league. In losses it was only 21.7 percent, which would rank them 24th. Cleveland’s team offensive rebounding percentage is 4.6 percent higher with LeBron on the court then on the bench. Playing a lot of minutes with Tristan Thompson helps, but James is an elite rebounder as well. Out of the 764 times LeBron was within 3.5 feet of a rebound in 2015-16, he was the one that ended up with the rebound 86.1 percent of the time. Among the 205 players with at least 400 such opportunities, he lead the entire NBA. Not to mention, 28.5 percent of those rebounds were contested, a much higher percentage than anyone else in the top-12 of the aforementioned percentage of rebounds per chance statistic. Outside of inconsistent perimeter shooting, pretty much every attribute is a major strength for James. Few other players can claim the sort of versatility that allows him to be a huge positive in almost any situation. That’s why, even with the 73-win Warriors adding Kevin Durant, the Cavaliers are still likely to have the best player in a potential finals rematch. Certainly NBA history has shown that to be a factor. The regular season might be child’s play in their eyes and as previously mentioned, I wouldn’t be surprised if Boston, Toronto or some unforeseen up-and-comer stole the number one seed. However, once May and June roll around, injuries are the only thing that can stop LeBron from being four wins away from a ring for a 7th consecutive time. What happens when he gets there? We shall see, though it’s the journey that excites me more than the result.


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