The belief for two years has been that the Cavs can flip a switch when they want to tighten down on a good team. Is that still true?
Remember the spring of 2016? The Cavs were fighting their way through the east, getting used to Ty Lue as head coach, and some people were convinced that the intensity would turn up in the playoffs. Not everyone believed they could flip the switch, though, and with good reason: Ty Lue had never been a head coach, his record was worse than David Blatt's, and he was trying to juggle the integration of new players along with resting his studs. It was tricky.
When the playoffs started, you know how it went. The Cavaliers swept the Pistons in round one, although the stats suggest that this was a closer series than 4-0. Detroit shot better from the field than Cleveland (48% for Detroit vs. Cleveland's 46%) but the Cavs had a notable advantage beyond the arc, shooting 45 more threes than the Pistons and making 22 of those. Even so, Games 1, 3, and 4 were one-possession games down the stretch.
In round two the Cavaliers simply out-shot the Hawks and there was nothing Atlanta could do about it. Cleveland averaged 104 ppg in the regular season and suddenly scored 112 per game while shooting 51% from deep against Atlanta. The Hawks didn't play badly per se, but they just couldn't keep up. Cleveland's defense, which allowed 98 ppg in the regular season, gave up about 99 ppg against Atlanta. So far, this is all making sense.
Round three is where the Cavaliers seemed to turn it up a notch. Toronto took Games 3 and 4 but over the six-game series, they only scored 90 points per game.
In the Finals, we saw more goofiness, as Golden State scored 699 points in seven games (to Cleveland's 703) despite averaging 107 in their three wins. Golden State's first three losses were just ugly games where they couldn't hit their shots. Game seven, of course, was a pressure-packed, slow-moving, low-scoring game. (Also notable: the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals).
So why does all of this matter now?
It matters because there were question marks going into last year's playoffs, just like there is this year. However, this year the questions are a little more pressing. Last year's defense was 10th overall in defensive rating, allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions (DRtg is the number of points allowed per 100 possessions). That 10th place DRtg was kind of a big deal. People were worried that the Cavs - if they made it back to the Finals - would have no chance of stopping Golden State's historically potent offense.
According to NBA.com, this year's Cavs are 22nd in the NBA in DRtg at 107.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. That's an enormous difference. If the Cavaliers matched last year's performance this year, they would be 4th best in the NBA, trailing only the Spurs, Warriors, and Jazz. Instead, Cleveland is sandwiched between perennial title contenders Minnesota and Orlando.
Hang on. It gets worse.
The Cavaliers are 24th in the NBA in DRtg since January 1, allowing 109.6 points per 100. The only teams that are worse are the Nets, Kings, Lakers, Suns, Magic, and Nuggets - of those six teams, only Denver has a winning percentage above .388.
Hang on. It gets worse.
Since January 1, Cleveland is 21st in the NBA at defending the three. Teams are shooting 37% against the Cavs from outside the arc. Detroit and Denver are the only two serviceable teams with worse opponent three-point percentages (and Detroit just got blitzed by Cleveland's 19-30 performance on Tuesday). Why are teams making so many threes against the Cavs? To find the answer, you'll have to do me a favor. I'll need you to...
Hang on. It gets worse.
Since January 1, Cleveland has allowed the 7th most "wide open" threes by opponents (no defender within six feet of the shooter). Opponents are shooting 41% on these shots. The Cavaliers have also allowed the 6th most "open" threes by opponents (closest defender is four-six feet away). Opponents are making 37% of these. The Hawks, Kings, and Hornets are the only teams that are worse than Cleveland in both of those regards.
Example: The wide open three here was a team effort. First, there's Derrick Williams couldn't cut off Gordon's drive. Not a big deal, but could've been better. Next, Derrick recovered enough that Gordon has a really tough layup here without Deron Williams coming over to help. But Deron does come to help. And he whiffs. Hard. Next, LeBron doesn't rotate over. If Deron's blitzes into the paint, the rest of the team has to cover and scramble around to the next assignment. The Cavs are normally pretty good at this, but with two guys on the floor who've been on the team less than 15 games, there's just not that level of comfort, trust, or knowledge yet. That's the problem. The result is everyone standing around looking confused after the shot falls.
Last point: NBA.com has a category on their stats page called "hustle" stats. They keep track of how many loose balls, pass deflections, charges drawn, and shots contested that a team tallies. Cleveland is 25th in the ranking of "shots contested" this season. Maybe that means the narrative is correct and they're just not trying during the regular season, but maybe it means they're just not as good defensively as last year. So which is it?
They're not as good defensively as last year
This year's Cavaliers have had plenty of chances to show that they can flip the switch and they simply haven't. Recent tight losses to Boston, Houston, and Miami would have each been nice chances to flex. The Cavs didn't. They allowed 103, 106, and 117 points in those games.
You'd have to go all the way back to December 13-14 to find consecutive games that the Cavs kept their opponents under 100 points and Cleveland has allowed 100+ in 28 out of their last 32 games. Even in the Cavs last nine wins, they're allowing over 107 points per game. I wrote a while back that the Cavaliers may have to just commit to outscoring teams, and that's looking truer than ever.
Another reason the Cavaliers aren't as good defensively this year is the roster situation. Last year's team had a bulldog of a second unit that included Delly, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov. Mozzie wasn't a defensive juggernaut, but at 7'0" he could dissuade guys at the rim. Delly and Shump, of course, were the head of the metaphorical snake - neither guy was likely to get beat off the dribble so the rest of the defense could lock in on their assignments.
Look at how annoying that guy is. Can you imagine Deron Williams doing that?
This year, thanks in part to injuries, the second unit has included Korver, Deron and Derrick Williams (who, by the way, is slowly reverting back to the Derrick Williams he's been for several years), Richard Jefferson, and Channing Frye. None of those guys are known for the defensive prowess even if Frye and Derrick have been OK on that end.
Theoretically, this is about to improve. JR Smith's return provides another solid defending guard, meaning Shumpert can get back to hounding guys on the second unit. Additionally, while Kevin Love isn't exactly Scottie Pippen out there, he's statistically a good defender. Having him back on the court is a net gain, even on defense. Lastly, once everyone is back healthy, there will be less worrying about roles with the new team members. Figuring out if Larry Sanders can get into a low-minutes rhythm will be far less of a priority when the top eight in the rotation are back, healthy, and in their comfort zones again.
However, even with all of these guys getting back to what they're used to doing, Deron Williams is a major defensive downgrade from Matthew Dellavedova. That means the Cavaliers will not be as good defensively.
On the bright side, they still might be good enough. As we've seen, anything can happen in the Finals.