The Cavs have started the season on a hot streak. Part of it is winning ugly, part of it is hitting the three, and part of it is bench-contributions. How things go from here will depend largely on the most basic play in basketball.
When the Cavaliers pulled off the now-infamous Iman Shumpert/JR Smith trade two years ago, Shumpert was the focal point. He was the perfect accent to LeBron James: He was young, had elite perimeter defense skills, and could knock down the open shot. That's all it takes to be a perfect complement to LeBron James.
By this point, we all know how that shook out: Shump had some injury issues which opened the door for JR Smith to start and now Smith is one of the most popular players Cleveland has ever had. Right as JR was rising, Shumpert was falling. Shump's time in New York wasn't a highlight reel of three-point shooting, but he hit over 35 percent during the year and a half before coming to Cleveland, so the theory was that he could hit the wide open looks that he'd get when defenses scrambled to double team LeBron or Kyrie.
It didn't work that way in the early-going. Shumpert continued to battle injuries over the second half of the season but played huge minutes in the Finals loss to Golden State. Last year was more of the same: Shumpert played in just 54 games over the course of the season and never really found his rhythm, shooting a dismal 30 percent from beyond the arc. He made some important plays, but he ultimately just couldn't find his shot.
Coming into this season, however, things have changed.
Iman Shumpert entered training camp looking much slimmer than in years past, and with the "retirement" of Mo Williams, Shump suddenly had a shot to play some backup point guard minutes. This, in addition to the contract holdout of JR Smith, meant lots of early playing time for Shump and some new responsibilities as well. It has paid off.
Warning: Small Sample Size
Through nine games Shump has been on fire. Per Synergy Sports, he is in the top 8 percent of the NBA in points per possession (PPP) on both spot-ups and transition possessions. He's scoring 1.5 PPP when he has a catch-and-shoot, putting him in the 97th percentile in the league right now. Those moments that people expected from playing alongside LeBron have started coming to fruition: 45 percent of Shump's shots have been off of passes, and he's hitting over 47 percent of them.
No matter how you slice the numbers, he's gone 11-22 from beyond the arc, 12-20 inside the arc, and has already dunked 1/3 as many times from last season combined. Something is working for Shump, and he's being rewarded for it. He has played 27 and 32 minutes in the last two games.
But there's one problem: The pick and roll. The PnR is a staple of almost any basketball team, and it's doubly important when you have a lineup like the Cavaliers have. There are various reasons for using the PnR, but when you have a crew of shooters like Cleveland has, a well-run pick and roll forces the defense to collapse and stop an easy bucket, thus allowing an open shooter outside.
With Shump at backup point guard, he has handled the ball in the pick and roll 16 times thus far (again, small sample, I know). The Cavaliers have scored seven points on those 16 possessions. Six of those 16 possessions resulted in turnovers. Of all players in the NBA who have been the ball-handler in the PnR, Shump is ranked in the 6th percentile in points per possession. Yikes.
Just as remarkably, he's been bad on the other side of the ball, too. On defense, while Shumpert still rates as an above-average defender, he's only in the 36th percentile defending the PnR ball-handler. That's bad, right? Well, grab hold of something, because the rest of the team sucks at it too.
The Cavaliers are 28th in the NBA in points allowed to the PnR ball-handler, and they're only slightly better at stopping the roll man from scoring (Cavs rank 18th against the roll man). The above clip shows that what's happening is simple: Kyrie tries to fight through the pick, but Tristan picks up the ball handler (in this case, John Wall, who is good). Thompson is back on his heels as Wall starts to drive, allowing for an easy pull-up 15-foot jumper. This has become the norm for the Cavaliers so far, especially for Tristan Thompson.
When we think of Tristan we think of how great he was at stepping out and shutting down guards when he had to switch outside. The operative word here is "was." So far this year opponents are shooting a ridiculous 61 percent when TT attempts to stop the ball handler on PnRs. That's insane. But while Tristan has been especially bad, it's the whole team.
Nic Batum wasn't about to beat LeBron off the dribble. This is just lazy defense. LeBron didn't even know who he was guarding on this possession.
What's the Point?
There's good news and bad news. Bad news first: The Cavaliers are bad at defending the pick and roll right now. I mean, really bad. The best defenders on the team are ranking in the bottom third of all players when it comes to defending the most basic play in basketball - one that good teams run constantly. If the Cavaliers can't figure out how to defend it, this season crashes and burns.
The good news now: It hasn't mattered yet. Cleveland will likely get a little bit better at this as last year's squad was 15th at stopping the ball-handler (but they were an abysmal 29th in scoring against the roll man), and they've played some very good guards in the first few weeks. Additionally, winning eight out of nine basically means that whatever you're doing is working well to get by. No matter what shortcomings the Cavs defense have, the offense has more than made up for it.
Wins are wins.