The Pistons handed it to the Cavs last night, but that doesn’t take away from the Cavs super hot start. Okay, well, maybe a bit. But Cleveland still looks like an elite offensive force. John Krolik knows what got into the Cavs this season…
It’s early, and I understand that. Despite the fact I wish the season was three weeks long, there’s a long way to go. Even still, the unofficial title of “the League’s best team” seems to be a three-horse race between last year’s defending champs and the two teams that got closest to stopping them in last year’s Playoffs: The Cavs and Lakers. (The Hawks, both in their playoff run last year and hot start this year, fully warrant discussion, but on another day.) That’s hardly news.
What is news is the way the Cavs have been doing it. Last year, you all saw the Celtics put the clamps on Cleveland’s terrifyingly unimaginitive and stagnant offense that featured as much activity as a Beckett play: In the Cavs’ four losses, they scored 72, 73, 69, and 92 points, with the latter effort coming on the shoulders of this LeBron James character going off for 45. And you saw the Lakers’ defense get ravaged over and over again by the Celtics’ offense to the point where they allowed the biggest comeback in NBA Finals history. So when you take a peek at the old Hollinger Team Stats and see the Cavaliers lead the League in offensive efficiency and the Lakers lead the League in defensive efficiency, it’s something that definitely merits investigation.
Just how have a severely offensively challenged team and a seemingly porous defensive team become the class of the League in those respective disciplines? Let’s find out.
We’ll start today with the Cavaliers’ turnaround, by far the more dramatic of the two. Despite the fact the Cavaliers suited up the League’s leading scorer last year, they finished the year 20th in offensive efficiency. Now, with only Mo Williams, Tarence Kinsey, J.J. Hickson, and Lorenzen Wright coming in as new additions, they lead the entire league. (I keep repeating this. I’m sorry. If you watched Mike Brown send LeBron into five defenders over and over again last year as much as I did, there is no overstating how unbelievable this is.)
First and foremost, one of the Cavaliers’ new additions is making a huge difference, and it’s not Tarence Kinsey. Mo Williams has, in many respects, been exactly the point guard the Cavaliers have coveted for the last five years. He hasn’t done much to get the Cavaliers out in transition (the Cavaliers are currently 25th in the League in “pace,” which is even slower than last season), but he’s done everything else, getting the Cavaliers into their offense, allowing LeBron to operate on the weak side, allowing the second unit to hold its own when LeBron is off the floor, pushing the ball intelligently and appropriately, banging open shots, and even unleasing absolutely torrid stretches of scoring that can bury a team from time to time by shooting off the dribble.
Just as pleasant a surprise has been the play of Delonte West, who ended the previous season a competent point guard capable of running an offense and making plays. But this year, with Mo Williams allowing West to play off the ball, West turned into an absolute sniper who’s nearly automatic when he can get his feet set (51.5 percent on threes), and who’s dynamic enough to slash to the basket when a seam is left on the weak-side or get the ball to the open man when he doesn’t have a good shot, all of which have turned him into, if he keeps this up, the best shooter LeBron has ever played with and have him with a tidy 69 percent True Shooting percentage.
Additionally, Anderson Varejao seems to have shed the malaise and bad habits (not to mention the weight) he acquired during his hold-out that precluded him from training camp last summer and is attacking the basket with renewed energy off of pick-and-rolls and is only making the simple play, which has allowed Varejao to have a 65 percent True Shooting percentage.
Even big Zydrunas Ilgauskas is having a career year, somehow turning the jump shot he favors into a true weapon (Z’s eFG% on jump shots has gone from 37 percent to 47 percent, for no apparent reason–he’s always been left wide open for those shots), and his former point guard skills (seriously, he was a PG), are being better utilized as he increasingly gets the ball in the high post. Z now has the sixth-highest PER in the League among centers despite the fact his post game has devolved from “ugly and awkward but somehow effective” to “true affront to Jesus.” Hell, even Ben Wallace is shooting a positively torrid 56 percent from the free-throw line.
It really does all come back to the infinitely more dynamic backcourt of Williams, West and Gibson–the ball movement Williams brings and the floor spacing that all three players bring to the court has opened up lanes for Varejao to dive into, allows Z to play in the high post where he’s more comfortable, and the increased ball movement has even allowed Ben to be able to quickly rotate the ball and look for easy dunks and tips rather than strand him in a one-on-one situation, which is where horrifying happens.
And of course, there’s one last, fairly important element of Cleveland’s offense. LeBron James, coming off a season where he posted 30, 7 and 7, has completely revamped his game. When LeBron came into the League, he was a point guard. Soon after, he was moved to the wing. Now he’s realizing his destiny as a big man who plays on the perimeter. Magic and MJ are the ones most talked about when comparing MJ, but what LeBron may be as much as anything else is a taller, more skilled Charles Barkely.
LeBron still starts games at the three and spends a good deal of time out on the perimeter working off screens 30 feet from the basket and will keep the defense honest with deep jumpers every now and again, but the dynamic backcourt play has allowed LeBron to weave elements into his game that we previously only saw on Team USA–playing the high post and driving from the elbow, posting up deep, sealing off and getting easy buckets, getting more fast-break looks and quick post-ups early in the shot clock before the defense can load up, weak-side and back-door cuts often finished with Alley-Oops, and 1-3 pick-and-rolls with Mo Williams that have been effective both ways. He’s been off-the-charts effective when put at the four, where he spends about half as much time as he does at the three–his per-48 minute stats at the four-spot are (this is not a typo) 50/11/9 on 60 percent shooting, for a PER of an even 50. I’ll take that. The +/- statistics for LeBron at the four are favorable as well–the team’s best five-man unit is the reserve crew that puts West and Gibson in the backcourt, Wally Szczerbiak at the small forward (and Wally’s been terrible), and LeBron and Varejao in the front-court. While the unit doesn’t defend or rebound well enough to be a true option, as a curve ball it’s been devastatingly effective.
The results of LeBron’s new gameplan have been staggering. LeBron’s percentage of shots taken “inside,” which is a good place for LeBron to be because he’s one of the five best players in the NBA at converting from that area and easily the best perimeter player, has gone up from 38 to 45 percent, easily the best mark in the NBA for any perimeter player who takes nearly as many shots as LeBron, and his foul drawing rate has also risen. (He’s even displaying a far more confident free throw stroke.) All of these things have LeBron on pace to finish with career-high marks in points per 48 minutes, field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, assist rate and PER, despite the fact his jumper has been way off to start the season. (Despite LeBron’s second consecutive summer of showing a confident outside stroke, LeBron has started the year shooting what would be an easily career-worst 24 percent from three-point range and 35.7 eFG% on his jump shots–usually he finishes at 40 percent.) LeBron is basically dominating without a jumper right now, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t come around to at least his career-average in the coming weeks.
So there you have it. Mo Williams is moving the ball around and making things happen that haven’t before, Delonte West has become a deadly efficient scorer from the perimeter, the big men are making the most of all that nice new space in the painted area, and LeBron has fully hybridized his game into a terrifying amalgamation of a big men with the speed and skills of a top-tier guard, albeit one who can’t hit water from outside to start the season. All of these things have made one of the League’s most maligned offenses and miserable teams to watch into an unholy terror dropping 100 points a night on an eight-game winning streak and haunting Doc Rivers’ dreams.
Tomorrow: Believing in Big Baby Bynum, The Advent of Ariza, the unleashing of The Doberman, and all the other elements that make up the Lakers’ league-best defense, which is even scarier than the Cavs with offense.