The Cavaliers are still atop of the East and will likely stay there. However, the Cavs are playing for June, so they may need to step it up.
It's no secret that the Cavaliers don't have the same problems as bad teams. The Cavs still have one of the best records in the NBA, are still the overwhelming favorite to reach the Finals from the East, and still have the guy who's going to end his career as one of the three best players of all time. You might think it's hard to come up with negatives to talk about with this team.
The Cavs defense is bad enough that every Sunday I start writing an article about how bad the defense is before I reconsider and change to something else. This week is no different. Over the past eight games (before the low-scoring win over the Pelicans) the Cavaliers allowed more than 107 points per game.
When the defense is running well, good things happen, like this.
Going into Monday's game, the truth is that the Cavaliers have a middle-of-the-road defense. They're 12th in the NBA in opponent FG% (per nba.com), with the opposition shooting 44.9% from the field on the season.
The defense was a big part of the Cavaliers' identity under coach Blatt and was definitely still a focus when Ty Lue took over. It should still be a focus, but the Cavs just aren't stepping up on a game-by-game basis. I know, you're probably thinking "because they're coasting to the playoffs" and unfortunately there's not a lot of evidence to argue against that. They're banking on their offense to bail them out and — so far — it's working.
The Cavaliers are fourth in the NBA in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions, which, if you haven't been reading about basketball over the past few years, is the go-to measurement for how efficient a team is) with 111.3 points per 100. That's great. However, the Cavs are playing for the Finals, so they're looking to match up against the Warriors... or maybe the Spurs. Golden State has an ORtg of 113 and San Antonio is 110. Fine. No biggie.
Defensively, Golden State is second in the league, allowing just 101.0 points per 100. San Antonio is fourth with 101.6. And Cleveland? 16th at 105.1. That puts the Cavs at 0.1 points per 100 possessions better than that defensive juggernaut the Houston Rockets.
But wait. I have a few more complaints about a team that's on pace to win 60+ games!
What's the one thing that San Antonio started doing that made the entire NBA change? You know, that one thing that Golden State took to an entirely new level over the past few years. What was that?
The pick and roll, of course.
Synergy Sports, one of the leading advanced-tracking stats sites around, keeps track of everything. In their breakdown of play types, there are three types of plays that have accounted for 14% or more of the opponent scoring chances: Spot-up shots are 20%, pick and rolls (ball-handler type, which means that the ball handler doesn't pass it down to the roll man) are 17%, and transition chances are 14.2%.
The Cavs are third in the NBA at defending spot ups. That's the good news. The bad news is that the Cavs are dead last, 30th, at defending the pick and roll. They are also 30th at defending transition. If you're any good at math (or even if you aren't) you can add up and see that 27% of the time the Cavs are on defense, they're the worst in the league at what they're defending. That's insane. Additionally, the teams who Cleveland will meet in the playoffs are teams with excellent pick and roll ball handlers: Toronto, Boston, Charlotte, and most likely Golden State. It worked out okay last year, but with guys nursing injuries and the drain of a 10-month season, you just never know.
For as often as things go well like in the video above, the defense produces a lot of this.
Like I said at the top: I would take the Cavs' problems over those of nearly any other team, but this isn't any other team. This is the defending champs with a real chance at repeating for a title. When the stakes are high, the scrutiny must also be high. These defensive struggles are things that David Blatt would've gotten killed for* when he was the coach, but it just doesn't happen under Ty Lue. That's not to say that it should happen to either of them, but it's worth noting.
In all likelihood, none of this matters. The Cavs will convince themselves that they can flip the switch when it's time to flip the switch. Until they fail to do that, it's just something that can get under the skin of a writer.
*Also, David Blatt was in the hot seat for 18 months because he "played LeBron too many minutes." Check his numbers this year.