Thursday, November 20th, 2008 at 8:49 am  |  43 responses

Break It Down: New-Look Cavs

How the League’s no. 1 offense happened.

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…

by John Krolik

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 The major change.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 Can't touch this.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 Delontebefore, 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.

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  • Ken

    I think the Cavs are real deal. They have a good shot at winning the East.

  • Ken

    Can you imagine LBJ playing in a system where he is an undersized 4, like in D’Antoni’s old Suns?

  • http://nba.com GermanMavsFan

    LBJ best player in da league,hands down!

  • http://www.shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com Eboy

    The SLAM Top 50 list’s top two spots looks like pure horsesh*t currently. Sorry boys (and gals) you fuc*ed up big this time.

  • jaywhy

    wad’s happened to wally?????????????????


    dude’s my top 5 fav playa

  • neaorin

    They turned into last year’s Cavs for roughly half a game last night, but that’s a pretty thorough look at this Cavaliers team. Though I’m not sure Doc Rivers has any trouble sleeping right now.

  • Eric

    The Cavs “hot start” is an illusion. They have been playing horrible teams. The three quality teams that they have played Boston,New Orleans and Detroit, they have lost to.

    And Lebron has been in the league for 5 or 6 years and he still can’t shoot from anywhere on the floor. If he hasn’t picked up that skill by now, he never will.

  • neaorin

    During that 8-game winning streak there were at least 2 or 3 games that last year’s Cavs would have most likely lost. They’re not the absolute best team right now, but there is visible improvement both in personnel and in the offense itself.

  • neaorin

    And LeBron has a decent enough jumper to keep people from backing off him and prevent him from driving to the hoop. Though he will get hot on occasions, the J will never be his main weapon. That’s why moving closer to the paint and starting more possessions off the ball were both logical things to do.

  • arthur

    Now that’s good statistical analysis. And you weren’t even patronising!

  • riggs

    theyre still meh to me.

  • kev

    very impressive team that is still a work in progress. If lebron isn’t the best player in the league, he is at least the most exciting unleashing sick passes, thunderous dunks and demoralizing blocks(on everyone from 1-5 spot) argue kobe’s jumper if you want but lebron bring me the most enjoyment to watch and thats what its all about

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    Nice analysis. It’s been clear for a long time that Bron would be more dangerous without the ball, Im just glad they got him a respectable point guard to be able to do so. Theyre just a couple of pieces away from being a real threat for a chip. I dont think hes going anywhere.

  • http://slamonline.com Khalid Salaam

    Cavs look like real deal contenders. The age of their frontcourt is a concern but they are really close. 1 frontcourt back-up big man is all they need.

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    Preferably one who could score. Z is nice and all, but it would be nice to have some semblance of athleticism on that front line outside of Stonehands Wallace.

  • http://www.ballislife.com Arek

    Kev, you said.. “he is at least the most exciting unleashing sick passes, thunderous dunks and demoralizing blocks”

    Have you watched Kobe this year? did you watch the last game? Pistons game? Rockets game?

  • http://www.ravingblacklunatic.blogspot.com Allenp

    Yo, this was a very nice write-up. Good use of stats to back up what I had noticed from watching games, but couldn’t explain with such detail. I particularly agree with the variations on how Lebron attacks the basket making a huge difference. I think I said it in another thread that Lebron in the high post or curling off elbow screens is a nightmare for the league.
    Finally, I think I said Mo Williams would be good. Just saying.

  • http://www.manutd.com Z

    Kha, like Dice? They’re rumored to be throwing all kinds of money at him.

  • http://www.manutd.com Z

    The thing is, playing Bron at the 4 is not even small ball. Dude is bigger than Wallace!

  • http://slamonline.com Khalid Salaam

    Dice would work for them yesh but i’d be surprised if he went there. money talks tho, so you can never be too sure.

  • Jackie Moon

    Too bad great defense beats great offense in a seven game series.

  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osborne

    Great stuff, John. Cavs-Lakers in the Finals?

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown


  • http://www.shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com/ TADOne


  • ChrisBay

    Im a fan of Lebron and the Cavs have improved, but for people to act as if they are “the best team in the L right now” is over the top. As mentioned, just about every quality team they have played so far this season they have lost to. SO lets wait untill mid season before we crown them as “the real deal”.

  • http://www.ravingblacklunatic.blogspot.com Allenp

    Only problem with Bron at the 4 is on defense. He’s big, but he doesn’t always think or play like a dude his size. He’s become better at giving help from the weakside for blocks, but sometimes he doesn’t mix it up inside like a true power forward would. but, Bron at the four is a good change of pace thing.

  • http://www.manutd.com Z

    Someone mentioned it already but Bron playing the 4 in a Mike D kinda system with a Nash-like pg sends shivers down my spine. He would be absolutely DEVASTATING.

  • http://www.twofistedpress.com Pve84

    Great, informative read. Describing Z’s post-game as an “affront to Jesus” was all too fitting, but he’s really doing well for himself this year, especially considering his age.

  • witness

    lebron > the son of christ

  • Stacey

    Eric-Think about those teams that the Cavs beat would have beat us (im a fan) last year..Their hot streak an illusion..never that..they finally listened to LBJ and went and got somebody that will help him out..but thats just a start..They still need another star or even somebody that can keep up a LeBron type play..As far as the Cavs being the real deal-almost- we are almost there..but trust me alot of teams are keeping one eye open with the Cavs..

  • jaymes

    The cavs backcourt does look a shed load better than it has, and Z is playing well, but he’s had plenty of good 20-30 game stretches in his career,come playoff time he always looks banged up and plays accordingly..

  • http://hibachi20.blogspot.com/ Moose

    Ryne, if you’re still checking this post, the Anthony Morrow piece is done on Hibachi 2.0.

  • jrp14

    Is it weird to anyone else that Kobe hasnt a had a breakout game yet??? I know they have the best record in the league, but even when the Bulls were like a team from another universe, Jordan was still averaging 30+…so does anyone think that those injuries Kobe has neglected to take care of are actually effecting his offensive game???

  • The Wolffman

    They stunk up that second half last night, which goes to show they still have room to grow and still aren’t completely comfortable in the new offense, but if they keep their turnovers down. They’re championship contenders now. Add a quality big man via someone getting bought out, or Wally’s contract and you’re looking at a dominant team. Then they, along with the Lakers, would be a championship favorite.

  • The Black Clark Kent

    I knew the Cavs were going to be a problem. They are only going to get better and better as the season progresses. I feel good about my Cavs-Lakers Finals prediction I made before the season started.

  • Gumdrop

    Somebody get Ryan! This guy’s using math to explain basketball.

  • Anton

    co-sign witness

  • T4inc

    So basically, Lebron right now is Lebron Ames… but the Cavs are winning because everyone else is shooting better.

  • ecks

    cavs arent the best team in the league
    just behind celtics and lakers
    they have to trade szcerbiak for a decent forward/center
    szcerbiak for someone like al harrington would be good
    then the cavs would be the best

  • JT

    I don’t get how people still aren’t taking this Cavs team seriously? Every great team in the league will lose to good teams. They lost to Boston on RING NIGHT, they lost to NO on their HOME OPENER, they lost to Detroit on the 2nd night of a BACK-to-BACK…

    Look at what just happened to Detroit on their second night, they got smashed by Boston. It happens!

    This is a better Cavs team than the one that went to the Finals TWO season ago and better than the one last season who gave Boston their HARDEST series and came within SECONDS of going back to the FINALS!

    Dice is still a possibility to sign with us and don’t forget about Wally’s expiring contract that could be used to make this team even BETTER!

    Come on guys, wake up!

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  • http://www.freewebs.com/betcats BETCATS

    “and Wally’s been terrible” truest words ever.

  • barry

    one thing not mentioned is that they’ve also been playing *wally* at the 4 as part of their “small ball” lineup.