The Changing Cavalier Defense And What It Means

December 4th, 2009 by John Krolik

As some of you may know, I’ve been skeptical of the Shaq trade ever since it happened, and have upgraded to power-skepticism of the trade since the season began. In particular, I’ve blamed a lot of the Cavs’ regression on the defensive end this year on Shaq, whose pick-and-roll defense has always been regarded as atrocious. Commenter “KJ” has called shenanigans on me a number of times on this, and has pointed out that the Cavs’ defense in the paint has actually gotten better with Shaq in the lineup. As the Cavs’ defensive struggles continued without Shaq in the rotation, I admit that I had some causation/correlation issues with blaming the Cavs’ defensive woes on Shaq. (Although I maintain that the gap between Delonte West and Anthony Parker is much bigger than most would think.)

Last night, commenter KJ said that the Cavs’ improved defense in the paint this season is worth a post. Commenter KJ is right. So here’s an analysis of how the Cavs’ defense has changed this season, and what it may mean down the line.

One of things I’ve lamented about a number of times in my recaps this season is that defense is harder to pick apart and analyze than offense is, especially in real-time. A bad defensive game can be the product of bad individual defense, blown interior rotations, or simply the other team hitting tough shots. Fortunately for guys like me, there’s the wonderful, which breaks down where the opposition is shooting from and how effective they’ve been defensively.

Shaq has certainly changed things defensively. Mike Brown is old-school in his defensive philosophy on the pick-and-roll. The big man shows hard on the dribbler and then recovers back to his man, with the original defender staying with the play. Big Z has traditionally sagged back into the paint while Andy shows high, and it worked a vast majority of the time. Shaq has changed the equation. He can’t show high, and always sags back into the paint when teams try to exploit him on the pick-and-roll. He does get caught in no-mans land much more often than Z did, but when he sags into the paint, he shuts it down.

KJ correctly notes that the Cavs’ defense in the paint has greatly improved this season, in part because Shaq is so adamant about shutting the paint down defensively. Only Boston gives up less baskets at the rim than the Cavaliers have this season, and opponents only convert 57% of their opportunities at the rim, one of the lowest marks in the league. This is actually an improvement over last season, when the Cavs allowed a full extra basket per game at the rim on about the same field goal percentage.

However, Shaq’s inability to step out on the pick-and-roll, among other factors, has caused the Cavs to regress in how well they’ve defended the mid-range shot. Last season, the Cavaliers were better than the league average at defending shots from <10 feet, 10-15 feet, and 16-23 feet. This season, opponents’ FG% from all of those areas is better than the league average. Last season, the Cavs allowed 13.3 baskets per game from midrange. This season, they allow 16 baskets per game from midrange, and with the better percentages they’re allowing from midrange, that regression more than cancels out the Cavs’ defensive improvement in the paint this season.

The Cavs were excellent at defending the three-pointer last season, and that’s continued this year. The Cavs only allow opponents to make 5.5 three-pointers a game this season, on a very low eFG% of 47.5%. Essentially, the Cavs are a weak at defending midrange shots, but great at defending the perimeter and the rim.

Last season, I would’ve rejoiced at this news. As any advanced-stats junkie knows, threes and shots at the rim are far more efficient than midrange shots, and cutting off those weapons is a great way to neutralize an offense.

However, when I was doing some research this off-season, I found something that shocked me. I did a regression analysis of offensive efficiency against what percentage of a team’s shots came from midrange, and there was absolutely no correlation. None. The midrange shot might be inefficient compared to threes and shots at the rim, but that gap can be overcome by converting the shots a team takes at a high level, and it’s easier to get good looks from midrange than it is to get good looks at the rim or from deep.

What that means is that the Cavaliers are a very good defensive team against teams that practice the “extreme skew” offensively, and a mediocre one against more “conventional” offensive teams. Since the Cavaliers are built for the playoffs, and the Shaq trade was made in large part to fix the Cavs’ matchup problems in the playoffs, let’s see which potential Cavalier playoff opponents practice the “extreme skew” and which ones don’t. Contenders are in no particular order.

1. The Boston Celtics

Boston is very good at the rim offensively, making a slightly above-average 16.4 shots at the rim per game on a league-best 67% mark from inside. That’s a good thing with how well the Cavs have shut down the paint.

Boston is also excellent from the <10 foot range, making a basket more per game than the league average from that zone on a top-three field goal percentage. That’s less good. From the other midrange zones, they make about the average number of baskets on a far better FG%. They are an average team from three-point range. Overall, the Celtics would be a slightly favorable matchup for the Cavs’ new defense. This is because they rely on converting at the rim above all else, but have shown the ability to be very effective from midrange in limited attempts. If the Cavs can shut down their interior game, it will be interesting to see if they get flustered offensively or have trust in their midrange game.

2. The Orlando Magic

The Magic were one of the biggest “extreme skew” teams in the league last season, and that was a big reason they were able to punish the Cavalier D in the conference finals. This season, they haven’t attempted that many shots at the rim, but still favor shooting a lot of threes over midrange baskets. They attempt a below-average amount of shots at the rim and from every midrange zone, but only the Knicks attempt more threes per game. The Magic are still trying to get healthy and get some offensive chemistry, but this matchup would ultimately come down to how well the Cavs defend the three.

3. The Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks are average in both attempts and FG% from every area except the paint, where they make the 5th-most shots with the 2nd-best FG% at the rim. This is a team who the Cavs should be able to defend better this season than they would have been last season.

4. The Miami Heat

The Heat don’t attempt all that many shots. They’re only the 17th-most efficient offense in the league, and play at a very slow pace. Only the Pacers make less shots at the rim per game than the heat, and they aren’t all that gret in any other area from the field either. Where the Heat live is at the line, especially Wade. The defensive key in this series will be making sure the Heat have to get all their baskets from the field.

Well, that’s all for tonight. The Cavs are cutting off the extreme skew with a vengeance this season. Hopefully that’ll be a recipe for success come the real season. Until tomorrow, all.