Since the All-Star break, the Cavaliers have been able to put up some impressive offensive numbers – second highest three point percentage at 38.8%, sixth highest field goal percentage at 46.9%, and fourth most points per game at 110.4. However, their exists a glaring issue within the Cavaliers’ play as of late – they have allowed the second most points per 100 possessions – 111.5 – in the same stretch. The only team during that span with a worse Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) is the Los Angeles Lakers, who have coupled their 113.8 Defensive Rating with a 1-11 record. Before the All-Star break, the Cavaliers’ Defensive Rating was just 106.5, a full 5.0 points better than what they have allowed since then. Why are the Cavaliers slipping so much in what was already one of their weak spots, and how big of an impact will it make moving forward?
Offensive hasn’t been an issue, with the Cavaliers scoring virtually the same points per 100 possessions before and after the break. However, since the All-Star game on February 19th, the Cavaliers have averaged 3.3 less steals, given up 5.0 more points per 100 possessions, and have allowed their opponents to shoot 1.1% better on three point shots. Some of the biggest points of regression lie in their hustle and effort. In the stretch after the All-Star break, the Cavaliers have had 3.6 fewer deflections, 0.5 fewer loose balls recovered, and 1.1 fewer contested defensive rebounds per game (Even with the return of Kevin Love), as well as having averaged less total distance traveled while on defense. However, looking at some of their other stats, the defensive lapse may not be as apparent. They are allowing less fast break points, points off turnovers, and points in the paint, and have held their opponents to a lower percentage on two point shots.
While this is troublesome on the whole, it does not spell certain disaster for the Cavaliers moving forward. Looking at their each quarter separately since the break shows that they slack off in the middle of the games, as they have the best Defensive Rating in the first quarter and the fourth quarter. As the Cavaliers look to play their bench more in the middle, and as there continues to be new lineups to test with new or returning players, this makes sense. This trend could possibly also be interpreted by some as the Cavaliers merely slacking in the middle of games, as they get complacent. With the strong fourth quarter following the weak third quarter, it seems as if they are able to basically “turn on” their defense when they need, suggesting that the issue may not be exactly talent but defensive effort. With the lineups in the playoffs being more defined and the starters playing together more throughout, the defensive issues – while glaring and disconcerting – might not be as bad as they seem.
Supporting this further is the Cavaliers defense when looking at different scoring margins. Since the break, the Cavaliers have actually averaged a better defensive efficiency when behind than they do when they are ahead. When losing, they allowed 3.8 fewer points per 100 possessions. On the whole, their best Defensive Ratings came when behind by 6-10 points [98.7], tied [99.8], behind 16-20 points [103.9], and behind 1-5 points [107.4]. One outlier was when they were up by 20+, essentially constituting garbage time for both teams, where they posted their best Defensive Rating at 98.0. Interesting, when up by 1-5 points, the Cavaliers were outscored an average of 3.6 points per 100 possessions, and when up by 6-10 points, they were outscored by 6.7. This serves to further the argument for defensive complacency, and once again points to the Cavaliers’ recent tendency to step up defensively only when needed. When ahead, the Cavaliers may feel they are able to coast, especially during nearly meaningless regular season games.
If the Cavaliers are able to hold their opponents when it matters the most and prevent deficits from growing in regular season games, it may be safe to assume that they will be able to shift their defense into gear when they take to the playoffs.
All in all, the Cavaliers have struggled since the All-Star break. They are 7-7 since then, and have had a Defensive Rating comparable only to the Los Angeles Lakers. Even in favorable match-ups, they have wavered. But in the end, it’s the regular season. The Cavaliers have now already secured a spot for the playoffs, and while the first seed would be nice, it is by no means necessary. The only thing that the Cavaliers need right now is to maintain the ability to play at an elite level. With the continuation of lineup experimentation, and with the return of J.R. Smith and Kevin Love – who still average the two best individual Defensive Rating on the team – the brief flashes of defensive potential only when it’s needed should be reassuring to Cavaliers fans. Yes, they may lose games now, but hopefully, starting in mid-April, no one will be talking the Cavaliers’ defensive issues in a few regular season games – they’ll be talking about how the Cavaliers have the possibility to reach their third consecutive Finals and earn the chance to go back-to-back.