Cavaliers' Title Hopes Depend on a Much More Determined Defensive Effort

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterNovember 17, 2014

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — Numbers don't lie, and in the Cavaliers locker room, they don't hide either.

On the wall near the entrance, there's a board with room for 15 slates, intended to represent the NBA's top half in terms of limiting opponents' field-goal percentage. The tenants of this building, ideally, would not only be among those stingy 15, but somewhere near the top, at or above eye level for even the team's tallest players.

Instead, if you wanted to spot "Cleveland" on Saturday evening, you needed to take your gaze lower. Much lower. In fact, if "Cavaliers" didn't need to be up there for the purpose of comparison, it wouldn't have been up there at all. After 14 other teams, you saw this: "29. Cleveland, 49 percent."

That percentage, incidentally, is much higher than the chances of the Cavaliers seriously contending for a title if they continue to let opponents shoot at anything approaching that rate.

Saturday, then, was a start.

After allowing Atlanta to shoot 57.9 percent in the first quarter, Cleveland held the Hawks to 40.8 percent the rest of the night, and 44.4 percent overall, in a 127-94 victory.

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That was the second-best recording in that statistic in the Cavaliers' eight games this season (after holding New Orleans to 44.1 percent) and a marked improvement over the previous night in Boston, where the Celtics blistered them at a 54.5 percent clip. It also inched the Cavaliers ahead of the Lakers, to 28th in the NBA in the category.

The other teams in the bottom six? Philadelphia, Utah, Boston and Minnesota, none with serious playoff, let alone championship, aspirations. 

Dig deeper, and you'll find that the Cavaliers ended Saturday ranked 26th in defensive rating, per NBA.com, at 108.3 points per 100 possessions, a number worse than last season's Cavs team that finished 33-49. 

Never, in James' first seven seasons with the Cavaliers, did they post a defensive rating higher than 103.7. In James' four seasons in Miami, the number ranged from 97.1 to last season's 102.9. The Heat were fifth, fourth and seventh in the NBA during James' first three seasons with them.

Shawn Marion has been an exception on a Cavaliers' defense that ranks among the worst in the league in the early part of the season.
Shawn Marion has been an exception on a Cavaliers' defense that ranks among the worst in the league in the early part of the season.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Last season, they were 11th. And James' most erudite teammate, Shane Battier, took it as a terrible sign of their title worthiness.

"Unfortunately, I made the mistake of looking at our defensive rank before the Finals," Battier told Bleacher Report, just after the Spurs routed the Heat. "And I know that no team outside the top 10 had ever won the title. So we'd have to do something pretty historic to beat the best offensive team in the league. And that [11th] ranking is not the result of two weeks or a month of basketball. It's the result of an entire season. And we just didn't have the fundamentals to stop an offensive juggernaut like the Spurs. And we were exposed."

Will the Cavaliers be similarly exposed?

First, it must be acknowledged that evaluating an eight-game sample size is akin to assessing a Polaroid picture before 90 percent of the image fills in.

Attitudes, rosters and rotations change over the course of the season—already, there are reports from ESPN's Marc Stein that the Cavaliers are trying to add elastic forward Corey Brewer, who has done some decent defensive work over the course of his career.

Still, since the Cavaliers' early defensive struggles were widely anticipated, it's worth wondering if they have the ability and attitude to improve to average, at the least, to support and at times ignite a dynamic offense.

How do you create a decent defensive team when your roster is short on guys known for their defensive disposition?

"Well, you got to teach," Cavaliers coach David Blatt said. "You have to raise the level of expectation, and the level of accountability, and you have to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes if you're not blessed with great individual defenders, your principles have to be that much stronger, and your helps and your court recognition have to be that much better.

"And that's why it's taken us longer in that area of the game than on the offensive end. ... Defense, like offense, in a team sport, in the dynamic of a basketball game, is very much made up of team concept, team principles and the willingness of everyone to buy into that and to be accountable for that. And that's what we're working on."

David Blatt believes a well-planned scheme can help create a better defense no matter the abilities of the players.
David Blatt believes a well-planned scheme can help create a better defense no matter the abilities of the players.USA TODAY Sports

While some of the changes are subtle, or even unseen, Blatt did make one significant switch, one that was made easier by Dion Waiters' minor injuries.

Blatt put Shawn Marion in the starting lineup.

Now 36, Marion lacks the lateral quickness, and vertical explosiveness, that he possessed in his youth. But he still has the right mindset. His career defensive rating is a solid 101, better than even James (102), and according to Basketball-Reference.com, he's accumulated nearly as many defensive win shares (60.3) as offensive win shares (62.9) over the course of his career. (By contrast, Kevin Love's 34.1 offensive win shares dwarfed his 12.9 defensive win shares coming into this season, and Kyrie Irving's ratio was 12.2 to 3.9.)

Even on the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix squads, Marion stood out for dirty work, while Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire were as lenient on defense as they were lethal on offense.

Cavaliers' Slow Defensive Start (Through Eight Games)
Opp. PPGNBA RankOpp. FG%NBA RankDef. RatingNBA Rank
104.124.48428108.326
ESPN.com

Prior to Saturday's game, Marion was asked whether it is sometimes tougher to dig in defensively when you're on a team that can score easily, as those Suns could, and these Cavaliers can.

"I don't believe that," he told B/R. "I've always played defense. And I think that's a cop-out. I've always prided myself on stopping my man. I've been truly blessed to be able to play both ends of this floor throughout my whole career, and do it very efficiently. If I'm gonna get 20, my man is gonna get 10. That's how I feel. It's not gonna be trading baskets, not a wash-wash, I don't believe in that.

"I believe in playing both ends of the floor. I believe in stopping my man. I just always believed in that. I'm a competitor like that. That's how I am. Everybody's not like that, some guys can give up 25 and score 25 and they're comfortable with that. You know, that's not me."

Marion acknowledged that not everyone has the same defensive instincts. But he insisted that effort, and communication, can overcome that. It can, as he put it, "beat the odds."

Shawn Marion earned a reputation as one of the NBA's best defenders while proving one of the few Suns in the Steve Nash era who could consistently make stops.
Shawn Marion earned a reputation as one of the NBA's best defenders while proving one of the few Suns in the Steve Nash era who could consistently make stops.MICHAEL SOHN/Associated Press

"You got to want to do it," Marion said.

Sometimes, he said, you've got to be willing to shout it.

"That's probably been the hardest part, because we've got a lot of guys who are really soft-spoken, and it's really hard to hear on the floor," Marion said. "And that's what fuels and energizes defense. So that's what we're trying to get comfortable with, and get guys to understand, when you're communicating with each other, it makes the game that much easier for you. ... I mean, I can't basically talk normal on the floor to you. You can't hear it. It's not even functional out there. You've got to yell out there."

Off the floor? Marion said he isn't overdoing the preaching.

"I talk when it's time to talk," Marion said. "I try to lead by example. Sometimes, talking is not enough. Sometimes, guys need to see it. I've been trying to show it. I've been trying to show the hustle and just the little grit, trying to bring some grit, trying to bring some competitive nature on the defensive end, just to help us get some continuity on the defensive end going. That's what's going to make us go that much farther."

All of the Cavaliers struggled defensively at times in Boston, dealing with the breakneck pace. But Marion did make a stand when it mattered, switching onto Rajon Rondo after Jared Sullinger plowed rookie Joe Harris out of the frame. He bothered Rondo enough that the All-Star point guard uncharacteristically bobbled his dribble, then stayed locked on, as the Celtics star tried to beat him to the right and then ducked back to the left.

Rondo didn't get a game-ending shot off before the buzzer, sealing the Cavaliers' victory.

Kyrie Irving is among a handful of young Cavs players that have shown renewed flashes of defensive effort, albeit not on a regular basis yet.
Kyrie Irving is among a handful of young Cavs players that have shown renewed flashes of defensive effort, albeit not on a regular basis yet.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Then, against Atlanta, Marion was charged with controlling Hawks marksman Kyle Korver, who had made 57.7 percent of his three-point attempts. Marion never let him get loose, as Korver attempted just one shot (from 12 feet) in 13 minutes in the first half, before giving way for good to John Jenkins for the second.

"You have to give credit to Matrix tonight," Irving said unprovoked, while summoning Marion's nickname. "He did an incredible job on Kyle Korver. We were watching film today, and he's a sniper out there, just shooting the ball incredibly well. Tonight, Matrix did a great job of staying in the passing lane all night. And it gave us great intensity to pick up our transition offense."

At times, Irving did it himself, as when he read Thabo Sefolosha's eyes, grabbed a floating pass and fed James for a transition flush. At times, he, Waiters and even Love have shown flashes of defensive determination, which makes the other times so much more noticeable.

"We're definitely talented. It's just about going out and doing it on a consistent basis," Marion said. "We show signs, but it's not consistent yet. We're still learning each other out there, and getting comfortable with each other, so it's not there yet."

It won't need to be at the Bulls' level to get to the NBA Finals, since the Cavaliers are still more versatile offensively. It may not need to get to the level of the 2010-11 through 2012-13 Heat, either. But by season's end, it can't be much worse than the defense of the 2013-14 Heat, a team that, in Battier's view, didn't defend well enough.

Those Heat teams had some proven defenders—James, Battier, Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem, for starters—but they were generally short on rim protectors (with the exception of Joel Anthony and, later, Chris Andersen), and at different times, they had to cover up for the likes of Ray Allen and James Jones. But most of them, generally, adopted the Heat's emphasis and bought into their system.

Chris Bosh credits being around other defense-minded players with transforming him into the Heat's defensive anchor.
Chris Bosh credits being around other defense-minded players with transforming him into the Heat's defensive anchor.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Chris Bosh was probably the best example, and the one Love and other Cavaliers can emulate. Regarded as a barely adequate defender while with the Raptors, he evolved into an elite pick-and-roll blitzer while with Miami, and as the anchor of their overall defense. So his experience is instructive, in terms of learning to become a defensive asset rather than liability.

"I think it's contagious being around coaches, organization, system, players—they can inspire you to play good defense," Bosh said. "I think it was an all-around help for me, being here, learning to grind games out, learning to rely on defense. And then guys like Shane [Battier], numbers guys, knowing a guy's tendencies, really getting into the stats and books part of it. That helped out a lot. Because guys are good in this league, and you pretty much have to anticipate what they are going to do sometimes."

He called it "a long time coming."

"But it's all about effort, too," Bosh said. "You have to want to do it, too. Once you buy in, it works out well."

Bosh came to learn that he had better defensive instincts than he believed once he put in the work he hadn't earlier.

"I think it was all about laziness," he said, laughing. "I was just being lazy."

Better not tell Toronto that.

"No, Sam, he used to tell me," Bosh said of his former coach, Sam Mitchell. "He just told me that I needed to play better defense. You know, I thought I was doing it. But sometimes you have to look at it objectively. After coming here and giving up some of my offense, a lot of it, that's pretty much all I had some days was defense."

Perhaps some of James' new teammates, other than Marion, will come to that same realization. Only then will the Cavaliers still be playing come June. 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick

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