Regular-Season Grades for Each Cleveland Cavaliers Player
The Cleveland Cavaliers killed 100,000 hot takes on Wednesday. All that talk about how their defensive woes were real and how the Boston Celtics were challengers in the Eastern Conference took a WWE-sized beating in the Cavs' 114-91 win in Boston.
LeBron James was at his kingliest, scoring 36 points, snaring 10 rebounds and dishing six assists. He was 14-of-22 on the night and went 7-of-7 from the charity strip as he reminded the world that he still wears the crown as well as the ring.
As writers across the nation were hitting CTRL+A, DEL on their respective keyboards and running printouts detailing the atrocities of Cleveland's defense through the paper shredder, the Cavs were making the Celtics look like a lottery team.
The upshot was the Cavaliers may have struggled a bit in March, slogging their way through games they didn't much care about, but they will be ready when the playoffs start. And yes, James really can just turn it on whenever he wants.
Still, there is a whole season of work here, not just the win over the Celtics. So, let's evaluate Cleveland's roster, grading each player against what is expected of him in his role. Here they are in order of importance.
Note: Players currently in the NBA D-League or who are no longer with the team are not included.
Reserves out of the Rotation
Larry Sanders, C
After an early retirement in the 2014-2015 season, Larry Sanders rejoined the NBA. The Cavaliers, much in need of rim protection, gave him a chance. He has played in only three games, totaling eight minutes. He has no timing and the appearance of someone who hasn't played in a long time. While the acquisition might pay off in the long haul, it's not likely to help much this postseason.
DeAndre Liggins, SG/SF
DeAndre Liggins is arguably the Cavs' best wing defender not named LeBron. Cleveland's defensive rating is 105.7 with him and 108.3 without him, according to NBA.com.
The problem is that Liggins doesn't offer much in the way of offense, and so he has dropped out of the rotation (6.9 points per 36 minutes on 38.2 percent shooting will do that to you). How about a D-plus for his plus-defense?
Derrick Williams, PF
Derrick Williams has done such a great job in his stint with the Cavs so far that he's on the Orlando Magic wish list for this summer! He's averaging 13.4 points per 36 minutes on 51 percent shooting and 38.8 percent from deep since joining the Cavs on March 4, but he's fallen out of the rotation since Kevin Love came back. He did what he was supposed to do, helping this team while it was short-handed.
James Jones, SG
James Jones' primary attribute is being James Jones, which he's literally better at than anyone else in the world. Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com quoted LeBron James in late 2015 as saying "He's my favorite player of all time," so what else are you going to do? Cut Jones?
He's averaged a whopping 2.7 points in 46 games this season, so it's not like his on-court contributions are why he suits up. But his off-court leadership is still important to the Cavs. He gets a C for "captain" (even if he's technically not one).
Richard Jefferson, SF
Richard Jefferson is the real Uncle Drew. You hear that, Kyrie Irving? He's averaging just 5.8 points and 2.5 rebounds per game, but every once in a while, the 36-year-old reaches deep into the way-back machine and looks like he's 25 and playing with Jason Kidd again. He won't be a big part of the Cavs' rotation, but he'll be good for at least one big playoff moment.
Reserves in the Rotation
9. Iman Shumpert, SG
Iman Shumpert is supposed to be a three-and-D wing, but he's a light—and somewhat disappointing—version of one. He's shooting 36.9 percent from deep on the year, which is only slightly above the league average of 35.8 percent, per Basketball Reference.
ESPN.com reveals his minuse-0.38 defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) is 37th out of 98 shooting guards. That puts him at slightly above average in both categories that are supposed to be his specialties. That's not great, considering that's about all he does, and he is making $9.6 million.
8. Channing Frye, PF
Channing Frye does one thing for the Cavaliers, and it's the thing he's asked to do: Make three-point shots. He does so at a 40.7 percent clip.
But he's not a defender. His minus-0.40 DRPM is 76th out of 93 power forwards this season. Compare that with Kevin Love's plus-2.02, and you can see one big reason the Cavaliers defense fell apart when Love was out. Frye is a backup, and in that role, he's an asset. But he just couldn't perform as a starter.
7. Kyle Korver, SG/SF
There's a nice symbiotic relationship between Kyle Korver and LeBron James. Korver shoots a whopping 51.9 percent from deep off the Monarch's passes. James, in turn, uses that threat and the corresponding extra space to attack the rim. He gets off 44.3 shots per 100 possessions inside the restricted area when he's on the court with Korver compared to 39.2 when Korver is on the bench, per NBA.com.
While Korver still gives solid effort on defense, he never had the foot speed to be elite. Now that he's aging, the 36-year-old is an outright liability with a minus-3.09 DRPM, which ranks 97th out of 98 shooting guards. Korver is a nice piece, but he is part of the reason for the post-All-Star-break woes.
6. Deron Williams, PG
When the Cavs signed Deron Williams off waivers in late February, they were hoping he would solve the problem of only having James and Kyrie Irving as creators. It's hard to determine if he's done that.
He's averaging 6.4 points and 3.6 assists as the backup point in 19.6 minutes per game, which works out to 11.7 points and 6.6 dimes per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Those passing numbers aren't prodigious, but they're better than what Kay Felder was doing (5.1), and Williams offers better defense.
In the game against the Celtics, he played just 16 minutes and failed to score on five shots, but he also had five dimes. It's been a funky time for the Cavs, so it may be that we won't have a final impression of the Williams signing until we see how it impacts them in the postseason.
5. JR Smith, PG
The Cavs have no bigger X-factor than JR Smith.
Their getting things on track seems to have a lot to do with Smith finally deciding to join the season. During the team's current four-game winning streak, Smith is averaging 15.8 points, 4.3 boards and 1.3 steals per game. More importantly, he's been pure molten-hot fire from deep, shooting 51.5 percent on 8.3 attempts per contest.
He's also brought his defense back up to standard, and the Cavs have a 104.7 defensive rating with him on the court, along with a colossal 27.4 net rating over the winning streak.
When Smith is hitting his shots and engaged on defense, he makes the Cavs a different team.
Unfortunately, the rest of the season counts, too. For reasons varying from holding out on signing his contract—which kept him out of part of training camp—to a slow start to injuries to getting back into playing condition to just being and doing JR Smith things, he averaged only 8.1 points on 33.2 percent shooting overall and played in just 33 games prior to that.
His overall DRPM is 56th out of 98 shooting guards (minus-0.99).
Not all the problems are his fault, but when you hold out for a four-year, $57 million contract, you're held to a higher standard.
4. Tristan Thompson, C
Tristan Thompson's consecutive games-played streak ended when his teammates played Boston, and he sat. It was the first time in 447 games he didn't suit up for the Cavaliers as he sat out with a sprained thumb. It had been the longest active streak in the NBA.
And that's a good place to evaluate Thompson, because what you don't get with him is crossover dribbles or brilliant, lights-out shooting. What do you get is reliability.
It says a lot about him that he was the one LeBron James apologized to after calling out his teammates.
Referring to calling out Thompson on the court during the Cavs' overtime win against the Pacers on April 2, James told Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon: "I can't show up my teammates, that's for sure, especially Double T worked hard for our team, he's a big-time player for our team so I had good intentions of what I wanted to happen, but the way it came out was ... it didn't look good on TV."
That describes Thompson to a "T"—a Double T, even!
Whether it's hustling to clean the offensive glass (3.7 per game) or leading the team in possessions defended with 1,011, according to SynergySportsTech.com (Kyrie Irving is second at 772), Thompson just brings hustle all the time.
Even when the Cavs struggled, Thompson was the one guy who was always trying. He's not the most important playmaker on the Cavs, but he's the engine that makes them go.
3. Kevin Love, PF
Being a power forward on a team with King James is complicated—just ask Chris Bosh. We can trace the life cycle now: First, watch your numbers plummet and as haters make Two and a Half Men jokes about you. Then, win a ring. Then have people start appreciating you again.
Such was the story with Bosh. And so goes the story with Kevin Love. Since coming back "permanently" 10 games ago, (he had one game before that where he played just 20 minutes, then took the next contest off), Love is averaging 16.0 points and 10.7 boards per game. He's shooting 38.2 percent from deep, along with a 56.0 true shooting percentage.
His rebounding is a big part of the reason he has a plus-2.02 DRPM, 13th among power forwards. The Cavaliers' defensive rating is 109.9 when Love sits and 105.6 when he's on, per NBA.com. No one on Cleveland, not even James, makes a bigger difference.
Let's be honest for a moment: Two and a Half Men never worked without Jake, and the Cavaliers don't work without Love. Between his court-stretching, outlet passing and rebounding, he plugs a lot of holes for the Cavs. Sometimes you only see that when the leaks are springing, though, as we did while he was absent.
2. Kyrie Irving, PG
There are two things that are emphatically true with Kyrie Irving. No. 1: He's one of the most dangerous men in the world with the ball in his hands. No 2: So is whoever he's guarding.
In regard to possessions plus assists, Synergy has him at 1.311 points per possession (ppp), which puts him in the 87th percentile. He is at his best in isolation where he scores 1.15 ppp overall, utilizing the whole court. He averages 1.029 to the left side, 1.197 to the right side and 1.212 on the top side. When he kicks the ball to a shooter, his teammates score 1.29 points.
When he's the initial defender on the play, though, his opponents average 0.98 ppp, which places him in the 21st percentile overall. He's in the 22nd percentile against the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, the 23rd percentile in spot-up, and the 13th percentile in isolation, all per Synergy.
And that's why his being second on the Cavs in possessions defended isn't a good thing. That doesn't mean he's active; it means he's weak, so opponents are going after him.
His DRPM is minus-2.18, which is 77th out of 89 point guards. He is, by far, the weakest spot on the Cavaliers defense. He couples inattention and a lack of effort that would make James Harden blush in the worst year of his career, and yet he gets a pass.
Cavaliers fans like to believe he shut down Stephen Curry last year, but that was a Curry who was far from his best and was playing hurt. Irving has been in the league long enough now (six years) that there is no excuse for his not having developed into an average defender.
His tremendous offense and failing defense combine to give him an average grade.
1. LeBron James, SF
Probably no player is harder to grade than LeBron James. He is able to play at a level no one else in the league can, and arguably no one in history could other than Michael Jordan.
How do you evaluate him? Do you go by what he is doing or by he could be doing? He's averaging 26.3 points, 8.7 dimes and 8.6 boards. We'd be talking about how close he is to a triple-double if it weren't for the video-gaming James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
He's also efficient, shooting 54.5 percent from the field and 36.2 percent from deep. He needs 10 more treys to tie his career high—a distinct possibility.
The problem is that as good as that is, his player efficiency rating is down to 27.0, according to Basketball Reference. So are his .221 win shares per 48 minutes. And his DRPM has dropped from plus-3.30 to plus-1.20. So how do you judge that when his "down" numbers put him in the MVP conversation?
We also have to consider that he's 32 years old and striving to get back to the Finals for the seventh straight season. He's played more minutes than anyone else in that span.
So, it's understandable if he "coasts" in mere MVP-esque and not greatest-of-all-time fashion through the regular season at times.
Still, some of the defensive struggles of late are on his lack of effort, so we do have to dock him a little.