Mike Brown has Kyrie Irving's attention.
Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown was brought in for the purpose of bringing hard work and defensive proficiency to a young Cleveland team that had lacked both under former coach Byron Scott.
Through the first seven games of the 2013-14 season, there is ample evidence suggesting that the Cavaliers have bought into the coach’s message. The team’s defensive rating, which measures the amount of points a team gives up per 100 possessions, ranks eighth in the NBA. If this number were to hold, it would present a significant improvement from last season’s rank of 27th.
The young Cavaliers’ new defensive acumen passes the eye test as well. Tristan Thompson has been up and down offensively but appears to have taken a significant step toward being an elite defender. He has had success slowing down Kevin Love and David West in early-season matchups. His perimeter defending in particular has been impressive.
But the improved defense extends to the perimeter as well, where Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving have both shown intensity and effort previously absent from their respective games. Irving and Waiters, and the Cavaliers as a whole, are far from a finished product defensively, but the early signs are positive.
There is still work to be done and adjustments to be made. The Cavaliers want both long- and short-term success. Here are some things Mike Brown can fix or emphasize to put Cleveland in the best position to win games, now and in the future.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
Whatever you think of Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters or Anthony Bennett, all three of the Cavaliers' top picks following Chris Grant's selection of Kyrie Irving are athletic and have the ability to run the floor and get out in transition. Except that the Cavaliers don't really run that often.
Cleveland has a young team that rebounds well (fourth in total rebounding), forces turnovers (second in steals) and has gifted passers in Irving and Waiters and athletic wings and bigs like Alonzo Gee and Thompson. That should be the recipe for a team that punishes older and slower teams who can't keep up. Instead, the Cavaliers are 15th in the NBA in pace. They aren't slow, exactly, but there is potential to speed things up and get opposing teams on their heels.
The Cavaliers have struggled to score and currently have the second worst offense in the league per 100 possessions. Mike Brown should have the team running off of steals in hopes of getting easy baskets to alleviate some of the growing pains of putting together a new offensive system.
Tristan Thompson received a lot of attention for the improvements he made to his game last season. There were significant increases in his field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, player efficiency rating and defensive rebounding. Many Cavaliers fans who had been ready to write off the young power forward as a bust slowly changed their tune, to the point where Thompson is now a fan favorite in many corners.
Thompson's improvements as a passer, though, got less attention. In his second NBA season, Thompson recorded 108 assists, a 400 percent increase over his (albeit lockout-shortened) rookie year when he handed out only 27. His assists per 36 minutes more than doubled, and he even cut down on his turnovers. Thompson may not have been a threat to shoot from the high post, but he kept the ball moving and showed skill finding cutters.
This season, though, Thompson's offensive opportunities, when they happen at all, appear to be coming away from the high post and in isolation. He is being asked to create for himself more than ever when the ball comes his way. The result: more turnovers and only one assist through seven games. Mike Brown should put Thompson in the high post.
Dion's fadeaway mid-range game has to go.
This one is pretty simple. The Cavaliers are fourth in the NBA in field-goal attempts but just 11th in three-point attempts. All too often, guards Jarrett Jack, Dion Waiters and even Kyrie Irving settle for mid-range jumpers that don't come within the flow of the offense.
The statisticians revolutionizing the way we understand efficiency in the NBA have come to something approaching a consensus when it comes to three-pointers: They are really valuable. Here is Zach Lowe from Grantland describing the Raptors' attempts to embrace analytics:
'A lot of coaches will say how great it is that analytics confirm what they already see,' Boyarsky says. 'The fact of the matter is, that's not really true.' An example: The analytics team is unanimous, and rather emphatic, that every team should shoot more 3s — including the Raptors and even the Rockets, who are on pace to break the NBA record for most 3-point attempts in a season.
Not all three-pointers are created equal, of course. Dion Waiters shot 31 percent from three-point range last season. Through seven games, Waiters is shooting above 41 percent from three-point range. Per NBA.com, every single one of Waiters' made three-pointers have been assisted.
Mike Brown must put Waiters and the rest of the Cavaliers in better position to take and make shots from distance.
Mike Brown must also emphasize attacking the rim and trying to create free-throw opportunities. In theory, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack should be putting pressure on opposing backcourts for 48 minutes. This just isn't happening yet.
The Cavaliers are fourth in field-goal attempts and just 18th in free-throw attempts. Field-goal percentages tend to increase the closer you get to the basket, and it is easier to create contact in the paint, where defenders are more willing to give up a foul than an easy layup.
If this sounds simple, it's because it is. Irving and Jack in particular are great free-throw shooters. A concerted effort from Mike Brown to free up the lane could help them get to the line.
And then there is Anthony Bennett. The Cavaliers have both long- and short-term goals. Bennett has been terrible by nearly any metric you can use. His player efficiency rating of 0.1 is a far cry from the league-average 15. Billed as an NBA-ready scorer, he has exactly one basket through seven games.
He probably can't help the Cavaliers win right now. But you know what? The Cavaliers aren't competing to win the NBA championship this year. For whatever he has shown (or failed to show) in his first seven games as a professional, he needs to be given the time to develop. He can't do that on the bench, and he probably can't do that against inferior competition in the D-League. The Cavaliers used the first overall pick of the draft on Bennett and have too much invested in him to let him languish without consistent minutes.
Mike Brown should go to Bennett for 18 minutes a game—provided Bennett can stay on the court without foul trouble—with two nine-minute stretches that include time alongside Irving, Thompson and Anderson Varejao, who can keep him involved with the offense.
Bennett has averaged under 11 minutes a game thus far, and while he hasn't come close to earning more than that, extended stretches of play could be what it takes for him to get comfortable on the floor and find a rhythm.