When Dan Gilbert and David Griffin pulled off the Kevin Love trade in the summer of 2015, the Cavs were instantly positioned as title contenders. Halfway through the season when they traded for Shumpert, Mozgov, and JR Smith, they suddenly had the personnel to match up with anybody. It didn't pan out (thanks, injuries) last season, so this season they traded for Channing Frye to drive the point home that they can match up with anyone.
So why do they insist on matching up with other teams instead of finding their own lineups?
The thing that made Golden State so good last year - and what made them so unique - was that they could switch almost everything that they needed to switch. Curry and Bogut would usually stay put, but some combination of Barnes, Thompson, Iguodala, Livingston, and Green would usually be in the 2-3-4 positions. Those guys could switch every screen, work interchangeably, and be fast enough to blow past teams on offense.
In several situations they would (and do) stick Draymond at the 5 and can switch almost anything 2-5. They dictate the lineups and other teams follow.
The Cavs are one of those teams that have followed Golden State's lead. In the finals, Cleveland tried to change things up and work their own pace, not letting the Ws dictate everything. It worked, nominally, and a 4-2 result (with 6 close games) was pretty damn good. There were times that Cleveland tried to match up and couldn't stick with the bigger guards or smaller front-court guys, but overall it wasn't a drubbing of a series.
That brings us to this year.
Mozgov has been the starter, but Tristan gets most of the minutes at the 5. Fine.
For a stretch, Tristan started because he's getting the minutes anyway. Fine.
Mozgov went back to the starting lineup to help reduce the beating that Tristan takes when he starts - fewer minutes against starting centers will help preserve his body for the postseason. Fine.
But why aren't the Cavs dictating the pace and flow of their games? A big part of the Channing Frye trade this season was to have a new Kevin Love for when Love sits or to put together a murderer's row of shooters around LeBron: some combination Irving, JR, Love, Frye, Delly, or even James Jones/Mo Williams/Richard Jefferson would make the Cavs an unstoppable shooting force. And yet, according to NBA.com's team tracking stats, since February 1 the most a unit consisting of any of those 5 has played per-game is 4.6 minutes for a Love/James/Frye/Irving/Jefferson combo. They played those 4.6 minutes in 1 game. They have otherwise not shared the floor*.
The most common recent lineup has been Irving, Smith, LBJ, Love, Thompson. The 2nd most-seen is to just swap Thompson with Mozgov, and the 3rd most-common lineup has been Delly, Smith, James, Love, Thompson. It's good to know that the Cavs have a lineup they like to use, but that 3rd lineup has appeared in just 10 of the last 24 games for an average of 2:30 per game. That doesn't exactly show consistency.
The Cavaliers hand-selected the players who would allow them to maximize options, and they still are not using them the way they initially planned. This is particularly egregious considering Mozgov insists on dropping roughly 100% of the passes that he gets inside (note: this number is an estimate). The Cavs don't need to play with a center on the floor if they can stretch everyone on the other end while out-quicking their defenders. If the Cavs utilize a lineup of, say, Irving/Delly, JR, Shump, LBJ, Frye/Love, they'll have the quickness to cover things on defense and a tremendous amount of open-looks on offense, but those lineups almost never happen. It's particularly notable how many of these possible lineups have only occurred 1-2 times in the past 20 games.
Unfortunately, it's probably too late for these things to get tweaked. When you're in the home stretch of the season the rotations usually shrink instead of grow to figure things out. For the Cavs, as nice as it would be to rest players heading into the playoffs, they clearly have lost a step on how they work together as compared to last year. The Cavaliers haven't settled on a rotation that exclaims "this is how we win, come get a piece" the way the other best teams in the league have. This is especially apparent when chasing the Warriors.
When Cleveland played Miami (and got destroyed), Mozgov was going to start and then was removed from the lineup. Why? So they could match what Miami was doing with their starters. The Heat started Amare Stoudemire so Lue started a smaller, faster lineup with Love at "center." This has become the norm. It has so clearly become the norm that the following game against Denver produced an audible gasp from this writer when the Nuggets put in Nurkic and Jokic but the Cavs refused to put 2 bigs on the floor in response.
It was the first time I'd seen the Cavs clearly say "this is what we like, this is what we want. Try us." That's the attitude that the Cavs need to find, and they need to find it fast.
* these lineup figures are accurate from February 1 through March 26th.