Building the Perfect Rotation for New-Look Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue has some tough decisions to make.
No, not whether he wants to watch Isaiah Thomas or Derrick Rose taking their turn getting destroyed by opposing guards, but rather a more pleasant problem.
Thanks to an eventful trade deadline, he's got plenty of shiny new toys to play with. Many of these toys can even play multiple positions, shoot and defend.
Building the perfect rotation will take time, especially when there are 11 players worthy of minutes when Kevin Love returns from a broken left hand in late March or early April. Lue has preferred to keep his rotations around 10 guys, a number that could shrink even more come playoff time.
Of the four new players acquired at the deadline (George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr.), only Hill began his Cavaliers' career as a starter. If Lue makes the right decisions, this will soon change.
It won't be easy, and some feelings may get hurt along the way, but the Cavaliers' best starting lineup and rotation should look as follows.
Starter: George Hill
Keeping Hill as the starting point guard is an easy call. The 31-year-old veteran has become the Cavaliers' best overall player behind LeBron James and Kevin Love.
There are no words to describe how much of an upgrade Hill will be over both Thomas and Rose, two players who struggled with their shot and were turnstiles on defense.
"George Hill’s basketball IQ complements me," James said, via Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated. "The guy has been in so many big games. You can tell he knows how to play the game smart. [He’s] big, physical, so we’re definitely going to work well together."
Is Hill the same package of talent that Irving was working alongside James at point guard? No, but he's still a good all-around player that should work well with this starting unit.
Reserve: Jordan Clarkson
Clarkson should get plenty of run handling the ball in the second unit, pushing the rock in transition and putting pressure on opposing defenses.
A 6'5" combo guard, Clarkson brings size and athleticism as a playmaker. He's best when in motion and getting to the rim, but he can struggle as a spot-up shooter (31.6 percent shooting on all jump shots this season, per NBA.com).
Together, Hill and Clarkson should be able to shoulder the load at point guard and help ease the playmaking burden on James.
Dwyane Wade did an admirable job as the team's reserve point guard. Clarkson will be even better.
End of Bench: Jose Calderon
Even though he's played as well as anyone could have asked, Calderon is now out of the rotation due to numbers.
The Cavs have gone 17-8 this season when Calderon starts at point guard, proving he can still get the job done when called upon. He leads the team with a 45.0 percent shooting mark from three.
Should Hill or Clarkson need a night off, Calderon can hold down the fort in their absence.
Starter: Rodney Hood
This is the most difficult position to confidently pick a starter. Hood, Smith and Kyle Korver can all make a case based off of upside, chemistry and outside shooting.
In the end, Hood makes the most sense here.
Smith, 32, has fallen off considerably on both ends the past few years. Hood is 25 and will become a restricted free agent this summer. The starting job and a juicy new contract are likely forthcoming.
As a starter, he can play-make or be a spot-up shooter between Hill and James. His addition would mean a starting lineup consisting of four players 6'8" or taller, giving them plenty of long, athletic wings that can switch on defense.
Moving Smith to the bench in favor of Hood may upset him, but it's the right thing to do for the future of the franchise.
Reserve: JR Smith
Smith looked rejuvenated in the team's 121-99 win over the Boston Celtics, scoring 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting and putting forth a strong defensive effort. After a miserable start to the season, an inspired Smith still belongs in Lue's rotation.
"People saying, 'Quit on J.R., give up on J.R.,' it’s not right," Lue said, via Tom Reed of The Athletic. "And he gives us effort and energy every night. Sometimes, your shot is going to come and go, that’s just part of the game. For the most part, his effort is there every night. That’s why I wanted to stick with J.R. and I don’t want to lose J.R."
Moving Smith to the second unit gives him the opportunity to dribble-drive more and create for others, something he's capable of doing but rarely does when sharing the court with James. Smith is only shooting 37.5 percent off passes from James this season (per NBA.com), proving his production isn't tied to sharing the court with the four-time MVP.
Starter: LeBron James
James' minutes (37.0) and usage rate (30.8) are still fairly high, especially for a 33-year-old that has yet to miss even a single game this season.
While his playing time has always been a hot topic, James should finally be able to take the court less and less given the number of scorers and playmakers now around him.
Lue can get creative with James, using him at starting power forward (as he's doing now with Love out) or at point guard in giant lineups with Hood, Cedi Osman and two big men.
During Cleveland's three-game win streak, James is putting up 27.7 points, 10.0 rebounds and 14.7 assists while shooting 46.7 percent from three.
In the flurry of trade deadline moves, lighting the spark back under James may end up being the biggest difference of all.
Reserve: Kyle Korver
There's an argument to be made for Korver as the team's starting shooting guard, primarily because it guarantees he sees minutes alongside James.
The pair have the highest net rating of any Cavalier combo (plus-11.1 in over 695 minutes). When sharing the floor with James, Korver is averaging 21.6 points, 46.8 percent shooting from three and a plus-minus of plus-12.6 per 100 possessions. Without James, and these numbers fall to 19.8 points on 38.0 percent from deep with just a plus-2.0 rating.
Lue needs to do his best to play James and Korver at the same time, even if it means pulling James a little early in the first quarter and reinserting him with some of the bench in the early second.
Age (turning 37 in March) and defensive limitations aside, Korver is too good a shooter to not be in the rotation.
Reserve: Cedi Osman
Could Osman go from starter to benchwarmer with the return of Love? The answer, simply, is yes.
As long as Love is in recovery, Osman will be in Lue's rotation either as a starter or key sub. When Love returns and creates 11 healthy bodies that need minutes, someone will have to sit.
Lue's only options here are Smith (who he just professed he wouldn't give up on), Korver (43.2 percent three-point shooter), Green (10.7 points on 54.0 percent shooting inside the arc) or Osman.
Nothing against the rookie, but it appears his time in the rotation will be tied to Love's return.
Starter: Kevin Love
Before a broken hand and Isaiah Thomas happened, Love was having a monster season as the team's second option on offense.
In 35 games before Thomas made his season debut on Jan. 2, Love was putting up 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and shooting 40.9 percent from deep while being named an All-Star. In 13 games since, those numbers plummeted to 11.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 38.6 percent shooting from three in 23.5 minutes.
The days of Love starting at center should be over given that Thompson and Nance can both handle the position.
Working Love back in with all the new bodies, presumably just a few weeks before the playoffs, will be tough for Lue and staff. Watching him once again put up big numbers on a team that should be challenging for best record in the East will be worth it.
Reserve: Jeff Green
Green has been one of the few Cavs to show consistent hustle and effort all season and could go down as one of the NBA's best minimum-deal players.
The 31-year-old should now see all of his time at power forward with the arrival of Nance after logging 17 percent of his minutes at center prior to the trades. His three-point shot is lacking (32.7 percent), but he's the only floor-spacing big now that Channing Frye is on the Los Angeles Lakers.
Green should enjoy some extended minutes with Love sidelined, and needs to be a continuing member of Lue's rotation when he returns.
Starter: Larry Nance Jr.
I don't fault Lue for keeping Thompson as his starting center for now while the dust settles from the trade deadline, but at some point Nance needs to be promoted.
Not only is Nance the better athlete, but the Akron-born big man averages more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per 100 possessions than Thompson. His 19.3 player efficiency rating easily tops Thompson's mark of 14.0, and the mere threat of a Nance dunk off the pick-and-roll draws help defenders in off the wing.
Perhaps lost in the plethora of young, talented Lakers the past few years, Nance is a darn good NBA player that deserves to start over Thompson.
Reserve: Tristan Thompson
Once the NBA's iron man and an elite rebounder, Thompson has fallen back into a bit of mediocrity. He's more than a serviceable NBA player, but the days of hoping he'll develop any sort of an offensive game are probably gone.
Thompson and Nance should never see the court at the same time unless one of them magically starts popping threes. Until then, there's not enough spacing with both in the game, meaning we'll likely see an even split in minutes between the two.
Thompson has shown some life lately after a rough start to the season (11.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 72.4 percent shooting over the last four games), and should get back to his rebound and rim-protection ways if he can stay healthy.
End of Bench: Ante Zizic
There are too many big men on the roster right now for Zizic to see any rotation time.
A 6'11" rookie, Zizic is the last player to survive the Kyrie Irving-Celtics trade for the Cavs. He'll continue to spend most of his time with the G-League's Canton Charge.
In 15 games for the Charge, Zizic is averaging 15.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 24.5 minutes of play.