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Cleveland Cavaliers: 5 Goals for the Final 6 Weeks of the Season

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterFebruary 27, 2018

From left to right: Jeff Green, Jordan Clarkson, LeBron James, Larry Nance Jr., JR Smith
From left to right: Jeff Green, Jordan Clarkson, LeBron James, Larry Nance Jr., JR SmithAssociated Press

CLEVELAND — Normally the NBA regular season holds little value for the Cleveland Cavaliers, as an annual date in the Finals has almost seemed predetermined.

Times are quite different now in Northeast Ohio.

With just 23 games remaining to mesh four new players (and the eventual return of Kevin Love from a broken hand), every contest from here until the start of the postseason matters.

Cleveland has already experienced some incredible highs with its new squad, picking up road wins in Boston and Oklahoma City before dropping home contests to the Washington Wizards and San Antonio Spurs.

The Cavs aren't going to catch the Toronto Raptors for the No. 1 seed in the East (currently seven games behind) and instead should be more concerned with maintaining a top-four spot in the rankings (one-and-a-half games in front of the No. 5 seed Indiana Pacers).

To best prepare themselves for what's undoubtedly going to be a more challenging playoff run, the Cavaliers must try to reach the following five goals.

          

1. Re-establish George Hill as a Top-15 Point Guard

Hill is off to a shaky start in Cleveland, giving the team just 9.0 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 27.2 minutes per game.

He looks like he's playing without much confidence, resulting in marks of 32.6 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from deep. At the time of the trade from the Sacramento Kings, Hill led all point guards in three-point shooting at 45.3 percent.

I initially believed Hill was confidently the third-best player on the team behind LeBron James and Kevin Love. While his defense has been solid, Hill's lack of contribution in the box score is hurting a backcourt that also sports a wildly inconsistent JR Smith.

Bradley Beal and George Hill
Bradley Beal and George HillJason Miller/Getty Images

Cleveland needs the Utah Jazz version of last year, one that ranked seventh among all point guards in ESPN's real plus-minus.

One of George's former head coaches, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, believes Hill will eventually fit in wonderfully with Cleveland.

"He brings just a totally selfless type of game," Popovich said. "He's a great teammate. He'll do whatever he has to do to win. Skill-wise, he can shoot the three, drive it. He can also play solid defense. He's fun to play with. He gets along with everybody. He's just a huge plus for a team."

Hill should round into form as a near-40 percent three-point shooter, especially alongside James. In 132 minutes together, the James-Hill combo is registering a net rating of plus-6.0, per NBA.com.

"It may sound trite, but anybody who's on the court with LeBron gets better," Popovich said. "It will be a symbiotic sort of relationship where they benefit from each other. George is that kind of guy, and obviously LeBron is so talented in so many ways."

Cleveland doesn't need Steph Curry-like scoring or Chris Paul-esque passing from Hill but rather a committed defender who can get others involved and drop 10 to 15 points per night. Anything close will be considered a success.

         

2. Become the No. 1-Ranked Transition Team

Despite being the NBA's oldest team for much of the season, the Cavaliers have kept a stranglehold atop the league's transition rankings.

Cleveland is sixth in transition points per possession (1.13) and fourth in total scoring (1,252 points).

Head coach Tyronn Lue has long preached about playing with pace, something he feels he can finally do with the additions of Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.

"It starts with the defensive end. When we're getting stops and rebounding the basketball, getting steals and deflections, I think turning defense into offense is good for us," Lue said.

He continued: "Just looking at the film, all five guys are running and getting to their spots. LeBron and Clarkson and G-Hill are making the right play and the right pass. It starts with our defense first, and then once we secure the rebound or secure the steal, we can get out in transition and open the floor up. That makes it easier on us offensively instead of getting bogged down in the half-court offense. We've got to continue to do that."

Lue is also rolling with a small lineup that features James at power forward and rookie Cedi Osman as the starting small forward. Osman regularly covers opposing point guards on the wing, meaning he's already near half court by the time the Cavs grab a defensive rebound and look up.

"Having four guys on the floor at all times that can rebound the ball and push it out on the break gives us an advantage," Lue said. "We have to continue to keep working on that and continue to fill the right spots in the lanes and stuff like that. We have the personnel to do that and have to continue to get better at it."

James and Clarkson are two of the best transition players in the NBA. Together they average 11.3 points per game on the break alone, shooting 66.5 percent and 71.4 percent (with the Cavs), respectively. Nance can single-handedly grab a board and start a break, while Love can launch a touchdown pass with precision at a moment's notice.

Lue needs to utilize this new stable of mustangs and let them run free as much as possible.

         

3. Develop a Consistent Second Scoring Threat

The Cavs' newfound depth is great, but in the playoffs so much comes down to being able to put the ball into a star's hand and let him score.

James can do this. Love is capable. Anyone else?

The early results would indicate this role would come down to Clarkson or Hood, two guys who can provide instant offensive in a variety of ways.

Clarkson's role is unlikely to change. He'll be the point guard of the second unit, looking to push the pace and score whenever possible. If you ignore the lack of playmaking or desire to get others involved, Clarkson has been great. He's put up 14.2 points (second only to James) on 52.7 percent shooting from the floor and 39.1 percent from deep.

This is where Hood's role needs to change. He's averaged just 10.6 points and 9.0 shots off the bench, down from the 16.8 points on 14.2 shots before the trade with the Utah Jazz.

Rodney Hood
Rodney HoodLayne Murdoch/Getty Images

"We definitely have to get him more touches," Lue said, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "That's why I was saying we don't have a lot of stuff in. So we have to make sure we have a balance of getting the ball in his hands and getting the ball in Jordan's hands with that second unit and letting those guys be aggressive. Also at times when he has the ball he has to be aggressive. I think right now he's in between, not sure. But we need him to be aggressive and score the basketball."

In a 110-94 loss to the Spurs on Sunday, James was fantastic with 33 points against a tough San Antonio defense. The rest of the starting lineup would only combine for 14, something that can't happen in the postseason.

Hood and Clarkson don't both need to go for 20 on the same night, but one of them has to until Love returns.

         

4. Establish a Perfect Playoff Rotation

Time should help reveal where most guys deserve to be in this rotation, and right now it's just a matter of figuring out who plays best with whom.

"There's just a bunch of new guys learning how to play together," Nance said. "It's me and JC [Clarkson] trying to figure how to play with Rod [Hood], who's trying to learn to play with Jeff [Green], who's trying to learn how to play with me and JC. So it's, you know, were all trying to figure it out and what it is. We'll be fine. We'll be fine."

Lue is not going to go over 10 players in his regular-season rotation, a number that's likely to drop even more come playoff time.

Right now, Lue uses a starting lineup of Hill, Smith, Osman, James and Tristan Thompson. The return of Love will mean a bump from the starting lineup for Osman and possibly a spot in the rotation altogether. This unit without Love is registering a net rating of minus-2.0 and crawling to a pace of just 95.55, per NBA.com.

The bench unit of Clarkson, Hood, Kyle Korver, Green and Nance has been much better, running to a pace of 100.82 and putting up a net rating of plus-13.8.

Osman will likely be the odd man out in getting the rotation down to 10 when Love returns. Korver and Green are also candidates, but Lue loves Green dating back to their time with the Boston Celtics, and Korver remains an elite three-point shooting threat when taking the floor with James.

While players like Hood and Nance are better than Smith and Thompson, it may not be worth the potential locker room grumbling to replace either of them in the starting lineup. 

Lue and his staff must figure out who works best with whom and get these units as many reps as possible heading into the postseason.

         

5. Become a Top-10 Defensive Team

Cleveland was 10th in the NBA in defensive rating in 2015-16 when it won a championship and 21st last season before getting bounded in the Finals 4-1.

The Cavs have been near or at the bottom of the league rankings all season, flirting with the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns (a combined 36-86 overall) for the last-place prize. Cleveland currently resides at 28th with a rating of 109.3.

No, the Cavaliers aren't going to magically jump 18 spots in six weeks. Rather, we should be focusing on this new group only when judging the team's defensive abilities.

Indeed, if only the time after the trades is considered, this is a top-10 team. Since the deadline, Cleveland is eighth overall in defensive rating with a stingy 102.9 mark. If applied to the overall regular season, the Cavs would be tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for fourth overall.

Larry Nance Jr. and Pau Gasol
Larry Nance Jr. and Pau GasolTony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press

Part of this is due to the subtractions of Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose, two turnstiles on defense who tied for the Cavs' worst defensive rating mark of 116.0.

The other part is more of a reflection of Hill and Nance, two long, athletic guys who have a motor for the defensive end.

"It helps out because those guys are so individually talented defensively," James said, per McMenamin. "Obviously, G-Hill's hands, Larry's length and athleticism allows us to kind of keep everything at bay. Our league is all pick-and-roll. So when you've got a point guard and a center that can play two-on-two and the other three can kind of stay at bay [on their man], it helps out everybody."

Defense hasn't been a priority for this team over the last year-and-a-half. Finally, the Cavs have the personnel to at least be a top-10 unit.

          

Greg Swartz covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report. Stats provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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