During the upcoming season, the Cleveland Cavaliers, with a full offseason under the tutelage of Tyronn Lue, are looking to play small to maximize their potential on the court whilst masking their potential lack of front court depth.
The Cavaliers enter the 2016/2017 season as reigning champs in the NBA. This is not new for players like LeBron James, Chris Andersen, and James Jones, but for everyone else on the roster, this will be a new experience. This is also the first full training camp that will be led by Tyronn Lue, where the team will have a full year to run Lue's system as he intended.
Starting the new season, the Cavaliers will be running the full Tyronn Lue system, and they will also be incorporating a new rotation in the front court. The Cavaliers front court now consists of Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Chris "Birdman" Andersen, and Channing Frye. Many will think that this lineup is not that different than it was the year prior, but now there is no longer a true center on the roster. Kevin Love is a 6'10" power forward who primarily plays behind the three-point line. Channing Frye, another true power forward, is almost exclusively, a three-point shooter, 71 percent of his field goal attempts for the Cavaliers were taken from distance. Chris "Birdman" Andersen will act as a center on this team, but at 6'10", he is an undersized center at best. Finally, the man who will be the team's workhorse at the center position is Tristan Thompson. At a mere 6'9," Thompson is among the shortest of the centers in the league.
Due to these height and size limitations in the front court, there is an obvious direction that the Cavaliers will look to go: small.
In the 2015-2016 season, the Cavaliers' three most successful lineups, in terms of points per 100 possessions involved LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson. The other players involved in these lineups were Kyrie Irving, JR Smith, and the since departed Matthew Dellavedova. What does this show about the potential lineups for the Cavaliers in the upcoming season? They're going to look to emphasize this matchup - having Thompson in the middle to voraciously attack the offensive and defensive boards whilst surrounding him with shooters. This will allow James to have the freedom to drive and kick to open teammates on the wings when the defense crashes to stop the penetration.
Looking back to last year, there is a sneak peek at what may be seen on the court next year. Last year, the highest rated five-man lineup for the Cavaliers, with at least two-quarters of on court time, features Kyrie Irving, JR Smith, LeBron James, Channing Frye and Tristan Thompson. This lineup averaged 155.3 points per 100 possessions, shot 60.4 percent from the floor, an effective field goal percentage of 72.9 percent and shot 57.1 percent from distance. This is a lineup that will be seen very often next season, assuming that at some point the Cavaliers come to terms with JR Smith.
The lineups on the court next season will not seem all that different than they were last year, but the Cavaliers are looking to put these lineups on the floor more often. The Cavaliers will rarely, if ever, have lineups with two "bigs" on the court at the same time. Birdman and Thompson will likely not see the court together for longer than 100 possessions all season, but expect one of them to be on the court in most circumstances. Then, the "Final Form" of the small ball lineup will feature neither one of them, with the "bigs" being either Kevin Love or Channing Frye if not both.
The beauty of going small is that it opens up the floor for shooters, opens the lane for penetration and it causes defenses to be on their heels because there are more players on the court who are a threat to make a move off the dribble. If the Cavaliers have a lineup consisting of Irving, Smith, James, Love and Frye, all five players could theoretically camp out on the three point line waiting for the open shot.
This is not realistic, but the point remains the same: LeBron James could be positioned in the mid-post with the ball, and as he begins to back his defender down, the defense collapses slightly on James, giving space to the shooters on the perimeter. James can now pass out of this position to give a teammate an open shot, or the teammate could pass to another teammate as the defense falls apart due to the unselfish ball movement.
One final advantage to playing small is that typically the opposing team has to match this because the center will be drawn away from the basket largely nullifying the size down low.
One final reason that the Cavaliers are likely to play small is that it allows for an increase in pace. One of the major fundamental changes that Coach Lue wanted to introduce last season when he took over for David Blatt was that he wanted the Cavaliers to play with more pace. Playing small would help immensely with this goal. Without having a lumbering stiff in the middle of the paint, it is much easier to run up and down the court. This increased pace will allow for more possessions, giving more opportunities to score and this is one of the core reasons that Coach Lue wanted this style implemented.
This will be one of the most exciting seasons in the franchise's history and look to see smaller lineups on the floor more often throughout the year, after all, bigger isn't necessarily better.