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David Blatt's Biggest Scheme Challenges with Much-Improved Cleveland Cavaliers

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David Blatt's Biggest Scheme Challenges with Much-Improved Cleveland Cavaliers
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Even with a heavily upgraded roster, David Blatt faces many challenges now that he's taken over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

With a collection of mostly young (yet talented) players, Blatt will have to channel his inner teacher while converting his offensive and defensive schemes to the NBA.

He's already been on the sidelines, having coached the Cavaliers summer league team to a 4-1 record in Las Vegas.

While the signings of LeBron James, Mike Miller and James Jones will make things easier on the 55-year-old, Blatt will still have to overcome the following challenges when leading the Cavs this upcoming season.

 

Ball Movement

By now it's known that Blatt relies on a Princeton-style offense, first learned when he played at, well, Princeton in the late 1970s to early '80s.

The Princeton relies heavily on movement, multiple screens, backdoor cuts and a heavy dose of passing.

Pretty much everything that last year's Cavaliers squad didn't do.

Mike Brown didn't have much of an offense, instead relying on players like Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters to create off the pick-and-roll or isolation play. Because of this, Irving's points and shooting percentages took a dive from the previous season while playing under Byron Scott.

While Irving, Waiters and others should be thrilled to take part in an offense that actually puts them in a position to succeed, they'll have to shake some bad habits first.

Here's where the Cavs ranked in key ball-movement statistics last season, via NBA.com/Stats.

Stat Assists/Game Passes/Game Secondary Assists/Game Assist Opportunities/Game Points Created by Assist/Game
Total 21.2 301.5 5.2 42.6 49.9
NBA Rank 26 20 25 27 25

Obviously, having a guy like James (6.9 career assists per game) helps, but Blatt will have to make Irving and Waiters more willing distributors.

Irving is the key player here.

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

While his 6.1 assists per game last season was technically a career best, his per-36 average of 6.2 was actually down from his rookie year (6.4).

Irving's assist percentage (percentage of field goals a player assisted teammates on while on the floor) came in at 31.6 percent last season. This ranked him just 14th among all point guards, even below guys like Jameer Nelson and Brandon Jennings.

Along with James, Irving needs to set the tone as a willing passer and facilitator of Blatt's Princeton offense.

 

Lack of Passing Big Men

The Princeton offense likes to get all members of the team involved and handling the ball, even power forwards and centers.

While at Maccabi Tel Aviv, Blatt liked to run a set called "two down" that started with the center coming all the way up to the three-point line. The ball-handler passes to the center who then makes a pass back before running to the baseline to set a screen for the off-guard.

In one of his sets called "fist down," the power forward is asked to handle the ball at the top of the key before initiating a weave pass from shooting guard to small forward.

For players like Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett, this is uncharted territory.

Once the ball made it to either of the Canadian forwards last season, it rarely left.

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images
Big men like Thompson and Bennett will be asked to handle the ball more with Blatt.

Thompson finished the season with 72 total assists in 82 games, or 0.9 dishes per contest. Bennett was even worse, totaling 17 assists in his 52 games (0.3 per night).

Blatt's best facilitating big man is definitely Anderson Varejao. The Brazilian center followed up his career-best 3.4 assists in 2012-13 with 2.2 a game last season. Originally entering the league as just a hustle player and rebounder, Varejao has really worked to develop his overall game. His vision for the court really improved when Varejao added the 18-foot jumper to his arsenal. This enabled him to find players cutting to the basket after receiving the ball out on the elbows.

As Thompson and Bennett improve their outside shooting, they'll be more comfortable away from the paint, thus giving them better assist opportunities.

For now, don't be surprised if Blatt plays small ball a lot, going with James at the 4 and Varejao at center for a better overall passing lineup.

 

Outside Shooting

Blatt loves him some three-point shooting.

Last season with Maccabi, 36 percent of the team's field goals were three-pointers. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, only took 23.5 percent of their shots from outside.

Maccabi didn't just fire away blindly, however. It made a whopping 39 percent of its three-pointers, a number that would have ranked second in the NBA behind only the San Antonio Spurs. The Cavaliers converted just 35.6 percent of their attempts, 18th in the league.

To be fair, GM David Griffin has acknowledged this need by signing sharpshooters like Miller and Jones to deals. Miller knocked down 45.9 percent of his three-pointers last year, while Jones came in at 51.9 percent.

The rest of the roster will need some work, however.

Cleveland's best three-point shooter last season was actually center Spencer Hawes at 44.8 percent. Hawes has since signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, leaving the Cavs with few proven outside shooters.

Irving has shown the capability, winning the 2013 All-Star three-point contest, but he came in at just 35.8 percent last season. Waiters and Matthew Dellavedova are the returning qualified leaders from long range, each checking in at 36.8 percent a year ago.

Andrew Wiggins has shown strong shooting mechanics, but made just 15.4 percent of his three-pointers in the summer league. Bennett made nice improvements from deep as the season went along, but still can't be relied upon as a threat from the outside the arc.

There's a certain forward for the Minnesota Timberwlolves that would be the ultimate stretch-4, should the Cavs make a deal for him.

Now, Blatt does use a lot of screening for his shooters that Brown rarely utilized. This should give guys with good natural ability like Irving the space they need to convert.

 

Defense

It's unclear exactly how Blatt will attack opponents on defense, given that he's still getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of his players.

He does seem to be adaptable to his personnel, however. Probably a good quality to have after switching hemispheres. Blatt talked about his defensive principles in an interview with Zach Lowe of Grantland:

My teams have always been multifaceted and multitasking on defense — a lot of different looks, different kinds of presses, different matchups, matchup zones, trapping schemes. I don’t know that that’s gonna change all that much. Defense is the side of the floor where you adapt less and teach more.

Teaching is something he'll have to do a lot of, especially if the Cavs ever do swing an Andrew Wiggins-Kevin Love swap.

Irving has never been a willing defender, and Waiters has been very average. Even Tristan Thompson has seemingly regressed since his rookie season. Blatt does have James and Varejao, but defensive question marks remain everywhere else.

USA TODAY Sports
Irving and Waiters will have to step up their intensity on defense under Blatt.

Kurt Helin of ProBasketballTalk.com notes that Blatt is already emphasizing his team's defense, even in the summer league.

Blatt leaps into a low defensive crouch with his arms extended to urge Steven Gray to get in a better defensive position late in a tight game. He talks to his guys more about defense than offense.

Blatt is intelligent enough to know that even with James and a more mature roster, there's plenty of work to do.

His personal transition to the NBA may take time, as will getting to know his players and opponents. Blatt's ability to adapt will be key, something he's had to do throughout his career when moving from country to country.

There's no doubt the Cavs are already much improved from a season ago, even before they take the court. Blatt's schemes and principles will make a big difference as well.

 

-GS

 

All stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

Play information courtesy of BBallBreakdown.

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