With the Cleveland Cavaliers down 0-2 to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, it’s clear that something has to change. Tyronn Lue needs to be the guy does that. The Cavs should have won the series opener, but were thoroughly outplayed by the Warriors in game 2. Cleveland’s bench scored a grand total of 12 points, and no team is going to win the championship with that kind of reserve production.
But the lineup and rotation hasn’t changed much all postseason, and that’s a big problem. Multiple players are getting significant minutes and aren’t helping the team at all. Terrible matchups are not being addressed. These are just some of the problems that could begin to be solved just by changing the rotation up a bit, but that’s not something that head coach Tyronn Lue seems to be interested in doing.
The first issue is J.R. Smith. His boneheaded play at the end of regulation that likely cost the Cavs Game 1 aside, Smith has not been good for the majority of the playoffs, and especially in the Finals. This postseason, Smith has is averaging 8.6 points per game on just 35% shooting. For reference, during the 2017 playoffs he shot 51% from the field.
Smith’s performance this season is not at the level of a starter on a championship team. The problem is, the Cavs don’t really have much to replace him with. Smith kind of has to play. He’s still a decent defender, although he’ll make some mental mistakes here and there and commits a few unnecessary fouls per game.
The options to replace Smith include Kyle Korver, Cedi Osman, and Rodney Hood. Korver has had a big role all playoffs, but Golden State has done a good job of neutralizing him thus far. In 33 minutes played in the series, Korver has only been able to attempt six shots, making just one three-pointer.
Korver’s ability to get a shot off depends on the other Cavaliers moving the ball and setting screens. Korver will not take a shot off the dribble; it’s either he gets open due to a screen or takes an immediate shot off of a pass. He cannot create space himself as he doesn’t have the athleticism or ball-handling to drive to the basket.
Korver is also helpless defensively against any Warrior not named Patrick McCaw. Shaun Livingston is too tall, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Stephen Curry are too skilled, and Draymond Green is too strong. The longer Korver plays, the better chance Golden State has of scoring.
Korver shouldn’t be starting, but the Cavs have to do a better job of getting him time, and Korver has to do better with his limited opportunities.
Because he is a rookie, Osman hasn’t seen much playing time in the playoffs. Tyronn Lue doesn’t seem to trust him enough to play him outside of garbage time, and usually, this is just the usual protocol for young players. But this is not a normal situation. Osman is not as proven as Smith is, but he still shot 37% from three-point range in the regular season.
Osman is not the most skilled scorer or the best defender, but he will play smart and hard. He will go after loose balls and give the most effort out of anyone on the court. He can knock down an open shot. He can drive to the basket. He can defend at a decent level. Why not boost the energy of the team by playing him a few minutes per game? He can’t be any worse than Smith has been.
The same goes for Hood, who was supposed to be a key rotational player for Cleveland after being acquired from Utah at the trade deadline. Instead, Hood has seen his role disappear. He fell apart in last year’s playoffs for the Jazz, so there is historical precedent for pressure getting the best of him.
However, Hood was able to play for a bit at the end of Game 2 and looked solid. He is a long, athletic wing who can defend and create his own shot. He can do everything J.R. Smith is doing right now, but he can do it better. Hood hasn’t proven he should get significant minutes, but he should be playing more than he is now. The Cavs need defense and a player aside from LeBron James who can score, and Hood has the potential to do that.
One of the players that Tyronn Lue currently uses to spell Smith is Jordan Clarkson, who has arguably been Cleveland’s worst player this postseason. In the playoffs, Clarkson is averaging 4.7 points per game on 30% shooting, including 24% from beyond the arc, and a paltry 0.7 assists. For a scoring point guard, these numbers are pathetic.
For the primary bench scorer on a team in the NBA Finals, they’re laughable.
During his 25 played in this series, Clarkson has taken 13 shots. He has made three of them. They aren’t simple layups either. His attempts include off-the-dribble threes, floaters from the free-throw line with two defenders in his face, and shots thrown up from the key while heading out of bounds at full speed.
When Clarkson is passed the ball, it’s as if horse blinders are placed on his head. He almost never passes the ball, and the consequences are brutal. His defense doesn’t redeem him, as he fouls too often and loses his man on screens. Clarkson shouldn’t be playing, which is all the more reason to give Hood and Osman larger roles.
After watching Kevon Looney struggle at center during Game 1, Warriors coach Steve Kerr made an adjustment, as he started JaVale McGee at the five for Game 2. McGee responded by scoring the game’s first four points, and finished 6-6 with 12 points in 18 minutes.
Why was McGee so effective? Because he was an embarrassing mismatch for the Cavaliers. No one in the rotation is capable of defending him, as he stands seven feet tall and weighs 270lbs. McGee’s athleticism was on display as he made some powerful dunks that ignited the crowd at Oracle and further demoralized Cleveland.
There is one Cavs player who could’ve provided some resistance, but he only got 3 minutes in garbage time. Ante Zizic is 6-foot-11, 250lbs, so McGee still has an advantage, but it’s a much smaller one than when he is defended by the 6-foot-9 Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr.
Zizic also has experience playing against big, athletic centers, and he has had success against them. In a five-game midseason stretch, Zizic totaled 88 minutes against the likes of Andre Drummond and Jonas Valanciunas. He scored 59 points and pulled down 24 rebounds.
The Cavaliers were dominated in the paint, giving up 52 points inside on Sunday. They gave wide-open lanes for players like McGee to score, and even when there were players to provide resistance, they weren’t tall enough to present a deterrence.
Zizic would help to fix this, and he wouldn’t even need to play much, just a few minutes at a time when McGee is in. Reacting to how the opposing team is evolving, their gameplan is a key component of good coaching, and that’s something that Lue really struggles with.
Tyronn Lue has all the pieces in front of him to give his team a better chance of winning, but he isn’t using them. That needs to change if the Cavaliers don’t want to be swept.