Can the Cleveland Cavaliers Fix Their Broken Offense?

Jared DubinFeatured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2014

USA Today

The Cleveland Cavaliers have a problem, and it's a one they've had for a few years. They cannot score.

Head coach Mike Brown summed it up pretty well when asked about the team's current state of affairs after the Cleveland's loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Monday night. "Right now, we're not going to outscore anybody, so we have to try to get back to being a little gritty, grinding on the defensive end of the floor and utilize that to try to get us a win," Brown said, according to Jodie Valade of The Plain Dealer.

For the season, the Cavs rank 24th in offensive efficiency, scoring 98.4 points per 100 possessions, per Last year, they ranked 23rd. The year before that, they were 27th, and the year before they were 29th. This has been going on for a while now. 

Before determining whether they can fix it, it's important to determine what, exactly, is wrong. When looking at Cleveland's "Four Factors" numbers, the answer becomes quite clear.

The Cavaliers rank ninth in the NBA in turnover rate (the percentage of possessions that end in a turnover) and 12th in offensive-rebound rate (the percentage of available offensive rebounds actually collected by the offense), which means they do just fine at maximizing the sheer number of possessions they have in a given game. By not turning the ball over, and rebounding a healthy percentage of their missed shots, the Cavs probably come out ahead of the game in that arena.  

However, Cleveland ranks 21st in free-throw rate (free-throw attempts divided by field-goal attempts) and 29th in effective field-goal percentage (a measure of shooting that adjusts for the fact that three-point shots are worth an extra point over two-point attempts). What it essentially comes down to is that the Cavs can't shoot, and that they don't make up for it by drawing fouls. 

So again, we must discover what is behind the problem. Why is Cleveland's effective field-goal percentage so low? Cleveland ranks 19th in three-point shots made and 21st in three-point shots attempted per game, though that is likely as much owed to their slow pace of play (20th in the league) as their poor shooting. The Cavaliers' three-point percentage of 35.7 percent ranks 15th—it's essentially league-average. 

The main problem here is two-fold: (a) Cleveland takes too many shots from the dead zones of the court—the back half of the paint and the mid-range area; and (b) Cleveland simply does not convert its shots from the easiest area on the court—the restricted area. 

Cleveland averages 41.2 field-goal attempts per game from the back half of the paint (outside the restricted area) and mid-range combined, per, the largest number in the league. Only Memphis attempts a greater percentage of its total shots from those two areas than the Cavaliers.

Those shots carry lower conversion rates than close attempts but without the benefit of the extra point of a three-point shot. They are the worst areas on the court from which to be attempting shots, and the Cavs have made those attempts into nearly half of their offense—48.4 percent of their shots originate from the back half of the paint or mid-range. 

Meanwhile, Cleveland attempts fewer shots in the restricted area per game than all but seven teams in the league, and no team converts those shots at a lower rate, per Cleveland's restricted-area field-goal percentage of 52.6 is 3.6 percent lower than the next worst team (Chicago), which is the same as the difference between Chicago and 17th-ranked Memphis. 

You have to go back to the 1996-97 season to find a team that converted a lower percentage of restricted area shots than this season's Cavs. 

So again we must ask, what is behind the problem?

Much of it can be traced to the poor shooting of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters on drives to the basket. Irving averages 7.1 drives per game, according to SportVU player tracking technology data released by the NBA and STATS LLC, while Waiters averages 7.5 per game. 

Among the 41 players averaging at least 5.0 drives per game, Irving's 44.5 field-goal percentage ranks 30th, while Waiters' 35.2 field-goal percentage ranks 41st. Waiters has been so bad at finishing near the basket that he actually entered Monday's play with the fifth-lowest restricted-area field-goal percentage in the entire league (for players who had attempted at least 100 shots in the restricted area). 

But Irving's and Waiters' drives aren't the only factors behind Cleveland's poor restricted-area performance. According to mySynergySports (subscription required), Cleveland ranks 30th in points per play (PPP) on cuts and offensive rebounds, as well as 23rd in transition and 24th on plays finished by roll men in the pick-and-roll.

Those plays generally tend to carry higher conversion rates than others because the finisher is being put in good position to score by receiving a pass from a teammate rather than having to create for himself. Cuts often carry the highest conversion rate simply because most shots attempted off cuts occur in or around the paint, the easiest area from which to make a basket. 

Transition plays are so efficient because the defense is usually in crisis, which gives the offense a chance to take advantage by getting shots in the paint or from three. The Cavs aren't very good at making either of them. While the transition three is very powerful and Cleveland attempts a whole bunch of them, the Cavs aren't very good at it. They shoot it at a 33.3 percent clip, per Synergy, a brutally bad mark. 

Looking deeper into their Synergy statistics, the Cavaliers actually only rank in the top half of the league in two play categories: Those finished by the pick-and-roll ball-handler (usually Irving, Waiters or Jarrett Jack), and those finished by a post-up player. 

One particular area of struggle has been on isolation plays, where they rank 25th in PPP, unusual given that the Cavs ranked sixth in PPP in isolation last year and a solid 16th the year before. This is a problem that can be almost directly tied to Irving's performance on isolation plays. 

via mySynergySports

As you can see, Irving's field-goal percentage both overall and from three-point range in isolation plays is way down from last season.

Almost exactly a year ago, I was fawning all over Irving's ability to make plays for himself when isolated one-on-one against his defender, noting, "If he has the ball, it’s already over. Kyrie Irving is going to score. It’s just a matter of how. Everything flows from the simple fact that he can make a jumper from anywhere on the floor, whenever he wants. There’s not much anyone can do to stop him."

That has changed this year. When studying tape of Irving's isolation plays, you notice that he has actually attempted layups on a greater percentage of his plays this year than last (21.2 percent to 17.6 percent, per Synergy), and yet his field-goal percentage is still way down. He's no longer automatic on those off-the-dribble jumpers—particularly the threes. 

It's important to distinguish designed isolations that happen because the offense wants them to and bail-out isolations that happen because the defenses force them. The former is not an optimal offensive option, but with a scorer like Irving it is (or should be) a perfectly fine one. The latter is the least optimal result of any given possession. 

Last year, Irving excelled at both. This year, he's excelled at neither. Too often, his designed isolations have ended like this.

That's Irving getting a step on his man off the dribble and still pulling up for a short corner jumper and fading away. It's an inefficient look to begin with, and Irving makes it more difficult by fading from the basket. 

And his bail-out isolations have often looked like this: a jacked three without even attempting to shake his defender. It's basically giving up on the play and just hoping you can make the shot over your man. 

Waiters, meanwhile, is a master of the offense-breaking isolation—or at least he thinks he is. I can't say I've seen many players in the league break the offense to go one-on-one (and then miss, and miss badly) more than Waiters. His confidence in his own ability to score on his man would be somewhat admirable were it not so clearly misguided. 

So, can the Cavaliers fix these myriad problems?

Well, I suppose the cliche, "It's easier said than done," would apply here. If Irving starts making more of his jumpers; if Waiters stops breaking the offense; if both of them start finishing better around the rim; if the big men and wings start converting at a higher rate on their cuts, transition shots and shots that come off offensive you can see, that's already a lot of "ifs."

The Cavaliers organization is in disarray, if you believe the various media reports about Irving's attitude, per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, Waiters' practice habits (or lack thereof), Luol Deng's unhappiness and Chris Grant's impatience.

It's hard to see them getting anything going until all of that is straightened out. Frankly, it's hard to see them accomplishing much of anything until a new regime is brought in to clean up the mess. 

Advanced statistics courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

Jared Dubin works for Bloomberg Sports, writes and edits for the ESPN TrueHoopNetwork sites Hardwood Paroxysm and HoopChalk, is a freelance contributor to Grantland and is coauthor of We'll Always Have Linsanity.