CLEVELAND — Consistent rotations were never coach David Blatt's strong suit. It's now up to Tyronn Lue to fix what the former Cleveland Cavaliers boss couldn't.
The boiling point perhaps came on Christmas Day against the Golden State Warriors, when well-respected veteran Richard Jefferson was pulled from the rotation without notice, his first missed game all season. During this same time, minutes for Mo Williams and James Jones were slashed as well.
Another well-liked presence on the team, and the franchise's longest-tenured player, Anderson Varejao has seen his court time fluctuate throughout the season.
"It’s not easy," Varejao said of not knowing when his time would come. "With our team, I know we are very deep and have a lot of talent. I'm just trying to stay ready and wait for my chance. It’s not easy but hopefully I can get more minutes from now on."
The Cavaliers will only go as far as the power trio of LeBron James (24.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists), Kevin Love (15.8 points, 10.4 rebounds) and Kyrie Irving will take them. With Irving rounding into form (25.7 points, 5.9 assists over the last seven games), Cleveland's Big Three is once again producing at a high level.
Now, the rest of the supporting cast must follow suit after past inconsistency led to a drastic difference between the efficiency of starters and reserves.
|Stat (NBA Rank)||PTS||REB||AST||FG%||+/-|
|Starters||125.1 (2nd)||49.3 (3rd)||25.9 (9th)||46.3 (10th)||+8.1 (4th)|
|Reserves||75.3 (29th)||41.8 (15th)||18.4 (20th)||43.9 (16th)||+2.8 (6th)|
"We know it starts with us, finishes with us, but everyone has to be involved," James stated previously this season. "Obviously we know the offense runs through us (Big) three, but at the same time it’s not just about us, it’s about everyone. We want to get everybody moving and the ball moving."
While the trade deadline may shake up the roster further, Lue must figure out his rotations, maximize his players' abilities and keep the locker room both satisfied and focused.
Starting with the (Other) Starters
The problem with (not) establishing roles began in the starting lineup and trickled its way down.
Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson have both headlined at center this season, and while Thompson seems to have won the job, this may not be the case long-term.
"Coach already told him that certain games they may be flip-flopped with who starts at the 5, but both guys need to be ready," James said. "Over the course of the season, Timo may start, Tristan may start, but both will give great efforts."
Thompson has been the better player by far this year and fits nicely as the glue guy around James, Love and Irving. He's under contract for the next five seasons, and at 24, has plenty of room for growth.
Mozgov has already been brought up in trade rumors, via Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, is five years older than Thompson and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Lue needs to officially name Thompson his starter and avoid flip-flopping the two immediately.
As for the final starting job, J.R. Smith appears to have shooting guard on lockdown. Smith's begun all 47 contests he's suited up for, and continues to be an excellent floor-spacer between James and Irving.
In fact, moving Smith to a sixth-man role where he would have more freedom in the offense is a terrifying proposition. When sandwiched between stars, Smith's offensive game becomes simplified and efficient. When he's given the freedom to dribble, create and pull up, problems arise.
The 30-year-old is shooting an impressive 43.9 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, but just 27.3 percent on pull-up threes, per NBA.com. He's also leading the league in three-point makes (5.7) and attempts (13.0!!!) per game since it was announced he wouldn't be participating in the event at All-Star weekend, despite an endorsement from James.
Smith and Thompson should permanently remain starters due to their complementary skills of floor-spacing and rebounding, respectively. That certainty should apply to the rest of the rotation as well.
Who's in, Who's out?
Overall, Cleveland's role players bring a nice balance of shooting, rebounding, defense and hustle to place around the Big Three. The rest of Lue's bench consists of Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, Mozgov, Jefferson, Varejao, Williams, Jones, Jared Cunningham and Sasha Kaun.
From this list, Cunningham and Kaun are purely insurance, which leaves the other seven to essentially fill four or five spots. While it's not uncommon for teams to run 10-deep, anything past that would be cutting into Big Three minutes, which isn't going to happen.
"I’m pretty close," Lue told Bleacher Report when asked how much longer it would take to finalize a rotation. "I feel confident in what we’re doing."
Shumpert is arguably Cleveland's best perimeter defender and signed a $40 million extension this past summer. Dellavedova has leapfrogged Williams as Irving's backup, thanks to his defense and outside shooting. His on/off rating of plus-12.5 is second on the Cavs only to James, via Basketball-Reference.com.
These should be the only two must-plays on Cleveland's bench.
Mozgov is still Cleveland's best rim protector and has actually been better as a reserve than a starter on a per-minute basis. Given that the team sacrificed two first-round picks for him last season, Mozgov will still see minutes.
Jefferson has been solid, but not spectacular. At first, Lue left him out of the rotation upon taking over but has since changed his mind.
"I put Richard Jefferson back in the lineup because I think he takes a lot of pressure off LeBron," Lue said. "I don’t want to play LeBron too many minutes. Getting him back in and playing at the 3, playing at the 4, I think will help us because he is a big body. It takes a lot off a pressure off LeBron, so I’m going to keep doing that."
For those counting at home, that's already a confirmed nine players that need court time.
What about veterans like Williams and Varejao who have played well when their numbers have been called?
"I talked to those guys and told them to stay ready," Lue told B/R. "They’ve been professional about the way they’ve handled it. I know everyone wants to play but I’m not able to play everyone. We’ve had that talk and discussion, and they we’re fine with it. If I know I’m going to need those guys, I’ll try to give them a warning before the game to let them know so they can prepare themselves in a different way than they probably usually do."
Williams got a lot of run early in the season while Irving was rehabbing from a knee injury, and he's getting some burn again while Dellavedova recovers from a hamstring issue. With Love out nursing a bruised left thigh against the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 6, Varejao stepped up big. In 27 minutes he registered 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks while clearly bothering Pelicans' star Anthony Davis.
It was a performance that led Lue to claim, "the way he played tonight, I’ve got to step up and find him minutes somewhere."
If Lue does indeed squeeze Varejao into a crowded frontcourt, that would mean a 10-man rotation, and that's exactly where Blatt started struggling.
When healthy, this is a team with tremendous depth and players hungry for court time. It may be a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. Championship teams always have guys who swallow their pride and take on a lesser role, and this group must do the same.
Blatt never had the respect of the locker room for players to buy in to this concept. Lue, however, can communicate these expectations with players being far more likely to listen. His placement and management of his supporting cast will go a long way in the hunt for a title.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @CavsGregBR.
All quotes were obtained firsthand. Stats via Basketball-Reference.com and accurate as of Feb. 9 unless otherwise noted.