The 2008-09 Cavaliers finished last season with a 66-16 record. The 2009-10 Cavaliers currently hold a 32-11 record, and their final record is currently projected to be 60-22. Four of the team’s five starters from last season have returned, along with five of the team’s top six minute-getters.
However, the 09-10 Cavaliers feel like a very different team from the 08-09 Cavaliers. A lot of this has to do with how the Cavs no longer start and finish games the way they did last season.
In 2008-09, the Cavs’ starting five was an absolute engine of destruction. The Ilgauskas/B. Wallace/James/West/Williams starting lineup went up and down the countryside, took out any defenses, burned down the buildings, and salted the earth so that no crops could ever grow there again. It was something to behold.
For all his flaws as a player, Ben Wallace was a revelation in the Cavs’ starting lineup last season. He had tons of energy and played all-NBA quality defense; he showed hard on every screen and then recovered to shut down the paint. The ball generally moves more in the first quarter than it does in subsequent quarters, at least for the Cavaliers. Wallace took advantage of this fact, and used his passing ability, smart screens, and acumen for cutting to the hoop to be effective in the starting lineup. Since the Cavs rarely got bogged down in one-on-one play, Wallace’s historic shortcomings as a one-on-one offensive player and scorer rarely held the offense back.
LeBron would come out setting up his teammates and moving without the ball, confident that he would get it back later in the possession if he had a better shot. With the excellent playmaking and shooting that surrounded him in the starting lineup, he was correct more often than not.
To repeat myself: this lineup destroyed teams at the beginning of games. A few numbers to support this:
-The Ilgauskas/Wallace/James/West/Williams lineup was the second-best lineup of the regular season last year in terms of raw +/-, despite the fact it was only used in 30 games.
-The Cavs outscored their opponents by 4.4 points in first quarters last season. The next-best team in the first quarter was Orlando, with an average margin of +2.4 in the first quarter. The gap between the Cavs and the Magic in this regard was the size of the gap between the Magic and the Raptors, the 14th-best first-quarter team last season. The best margin of any other team in any other quarter last season belonged to the Lakers, who outscored teams by 3.1 points in third quarters in 2008-09.
(By the way, the Cavs’ starting lineup was not quite as effective when Anderson Varejao replaced Ben Wallace due to Wallace’s injury, but they were still extremely effective. Also, most of the unit’s organizing principles stayed the same.)
This season, Mike Brown is going with a different strategy to start games. Replacing Anderson Varejao with JJ Hickson in the starting lineup briefly seemed like a legitimate solution. JJ had some great offensive performances, and seemed to be able to provide the offensive spacing that Varejao could not. Hickson has since revealed himself as easily the worst player in the Cavs’ regular rotation. Hickson’s hands are atrocious, he makes perplexing decisions with the ball, he rarely hits jumpers, and his defensive fundamentals are absolutely terrible.
However, Anderson Varejao is having a career year coming off the bench and Mike Brown has few other options to start at the power forward spot. This has led to the bizarre reality of the Cavaliers starting one of their worst lineups. This is almost unprecedented among contending teams, but the Cavs seem to be making it work. The Cavaliers have so much success in the first quarter after one or two of their “starters” come out that they are still the second-best first quarter team in the league this season. They’re not the opening-frame juggernauts they were last season, but their first-quarter margin of 2.8 trails only the Lakers’.
There are two other major factors in the Cavs’ relative ineffectiveness at the beginning of games. The first one is that the Cavs spent a lot of time trying to “establish” Shaq at the beginning of games earlier this season. In principle, this was a good idea, but in practice it meant awkwardly and predictably tossing the ball to Shaq 10 feet away from the hoop. If that was successful, Shaq would often awkwardly and predictably toss up a flat running hook. As the year has gone on, the Cavs have learned how to properly establish Shaq early in games, moving the ball, getting Shaq moving, and tossing him the ball where he has an easy conversion under the rim. Even still, the Cavs’ growing pains with Shaq have had an effect on the overall first-quarter margins.
The second additional factor is Delonte West being replaced in the starting lineup by Anthony Parker. It’s obviously a move Mike Brown was forced to make because of non-basketball factors. And from a basketball point of view, Parker is probably a better fit in the starting lineup, and West a better fit on the bench. I’ll talk about this at length in an upcoming post, but 09-10 Anthony Parker is nowhere near as good as 08-09 Delonte West.
So the Cavs are less effective at the beginning of games this season than they were last season. What might be even worse news is that the Cavs have regressed at the end of games this year. Mike Brown’s lack of offensive imagination at the end of games has long been maligned, and not-so-lovingly dubbed “LeISO” by Cavalier fans. (As far as I can tell, the actual phrase was coined by realcavsfans.com poster “PIP.”) However, I’ve always been a semi-defender of Mike Brown’s basic late-game strategy, because up until recently it’s worked quite well.
The Cavs’ strategy when the game is on the line has never been a state secret. They give the ball to LeBron at the center of the court, put him in an isolation or give him a ball-screen, and let him go to work. They generally spread the floor with shooters in these situations, giving LeBron options to pass off to if the defense clogs the lane to stop his drives.
Last year, the Cavs boasted a fabulous LeISO lineup. They had excellent shooters in Ilgauskas, West, and Williams, all of whom were comfortable catching and shooting. What’s more, all of them were smart enough with the ball to be trusted in late-game situations. They could make a play if it was there or get the ball back to LeBron if it wasn’t, rarely forcing shots or making a poor decision. Anderson Varejao was also invaluable in these situations. He makes great cuts to keep the defense from cheating on LeBron, has the hands and finishing ability to make plays if LeBron fed him with the pass, and in general isn’t the kind of offensive liability that Ben Wallace was.
The results were quite good. The Cavs were +2.0 in fourth quarters, second only to the Blazers. They only lost three games by three points or less all season. And LeBron’s stats were freakish. Here’s how LeBron fared in “clutch” situations last season:
55.9 Points per 48, 61.1 eFG%, 12.6 Assists per 48, 24.2% foul rate, +/- of 44.6 per 48
Those aren’t empty stats, either. Go back to the play-by-play data from close games last year, or read my increasingly incredulous recaps of LeBron takeover after LeBron takeover, particularly in the second half of the season.
This season, the Cavs’ late-game offensive strategy hasn’t evolved much, but the personnel no longer executes the strategy as well. First of all, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West have both regressed tremendously as outside shooters this season. While their shots have been coming around recently, Mike Brown doesn’t trust them to close out games like he did last season.
This leaves Brown with worse options. Late-game offense is not Shaq’s forte on this team, because he doesn’t space the floor for LeBron or make quick enough cuts to thrive in the drive-and-kick LeISO game. Also, there is always the danger of Shaq getting put on the line late in games. Moon can do some nice things when healthy, but isn’t a great outside shooter, has trouble handling the ball, and isn’t much of a decision-maker. Anthony Parker has certainly shot well in late-game situations, but can’t do much if he’s closed out on, and had a disastrous performance in the clutch against Utah. Jawad Williams is far from proving that he’s a reliable crunch-time option. Perhaps the Cavs’ biggest late-game issue has been the play of Mo Williams, who was an assassin late in games last year but has played poorly in those situations this year.
This has led to a lack of spacing and much more confusion in late-game situations for the Cavs, and LeBron’s crunch-time numbers are consequently now on the charts. The top of the charts, but on the charts:
60.8 Points per 48, 55.2 eFG%, 7.9 Assists per 48, 9.4% Foul Rate, +/- of 30.8 per 48
(Some of that, of course, could simply a regression to something approaching a mean for LeBron in crunch-time situations.)
All of these factors have made the Cavs a less effective team in the fourth quarter. They are currently the NBA’s 12th-best team in the fourth quarter, scoring only 0.6 more points than their opponents in the fourth. They have already lost five games by three points or less. Brian Windhorst has been on this tack for a while, and I am too: something must be done to improve the Cavs’ execution in late-game scenarios.
Okay, that went on for a bit. And the truth is, there’s almost as many pros to the Cavs’ new approach to lineups as there are cons. However, the pros are much less tangible. Mike Brown doesn’t have starting and finishing lineups that inspire awe this season. What he does have is far more options, many more possible effective permutations, and can match up much better against teams with different styles of play.
Last year, Mike Brown’s most reliable bench options were Varejao, Wally Szczerbiak, Sasha Pavlovic, and Daniel Gibson, and Gibson was enjoying easily the worst season of his career. (Joe Smith provided some help after the Cavs picked him up late in the season, but wasn’t in the rotation much in the playoffs.) After Ben Wallace got hurt, he wasn’t very effective coming off the bench, further limiting Brown’s number of options.
This season, Brown has options galore. He can use Varejao as a center or power forward. He can bring Jawad Williams or Moon off the bench to provide some length and outside shooting on the perimeter. He can use Delonte West as a Swiss Army knife. I discussed yesterday how surprisingly versatile Shaq has been, especially considering he was billed as a productive but one-dimensional player. Some of the Cavs’ depth has been overstated, because they achieve it by starting Hickson, but they’re certainly a much deeper team than last year’s squad.
The Cavs have played a bit worse in the second quarter this season than they have last season, but I expect that number to come up. The reason I believe this is that Shaq only started playing with the LeBron-less second unit recently, and the move has paid immediate dividends. The Shaq/Varejao/Moon/West/Williams lineup is already at a +12 in 44 minutes, and the Cavs haven’t leaked many points during the opening stretch of the second quarter since Shaq started coming on with the second unit. Last season, the Cavs’ most-played second unit was -62 in 122 minutes, so an effective second unit of any kind is a tremendous bonus for the Cavs. (Although, in the interest of full disclosure, that lineup did include J.J. Hickson. He’s proven difficult to hide so far in his young career.)
The quarter that the Cavs have seen the greatest improvement in is the third quarter. The Cavs are almost a full point better in the third this season, outscoring their opponents by 1.5 points in the third as compared to 0.6 points last season. Mike Brown is no longer powerless against other team’s halftime adjustments, and can confidently make changes on the fly if the Cavs’ energy is not high enough coming out of halftime or heading into the final quarter.
Most importantly, the Cavs no longer get blindsided by bad matchups the way they did last season. They already have road wins against top teams and a win against the Lakers, and they accomplished neither of those goals last season. As I mentioned, they have the ability to play against any style and neutralize another team’s strengths. Since the Cavs don’t have much top talent outside of LeBron, matching up with elite teams has proven to be a more effective strategy than trying to impose their will.
In conclusion, the Cavs might not feel like as much of a juggernaut as they did last season, but their new philosophy has paid dividends where the Cavs have wanted them most. Thursday’s game against the Lakers should be a good measuring stick for whether or not the Cavs’ new outlook is really working. Until then, folks.