5 Changes the Cavs Must Make Before the 2018 NBA Playoffs
There's been plenty of promising signs from the Cleveland Cavaliers post-trade deadline, even if we have no idea how good (or average) this team will be.
All-Star forward Kevin Love has yet to play a game with new additions Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and George Hill. Other rotation players (Tristan Thompson, Cedi Osman and Hood) are all nursing injuries.
Head coach Tyronn Lue has shifted back and forth between a basic pick-and-roll offense and trying to open the playbook, all while shuffling his starting lineup and rotation due to injuries along the way.
While it's tough to get a read on the team with just over a month remaining before the start of the 2018 postseason, there are some clear personnel moves that Lue and his staff can make now to prepare the Cavs for another deep run.
Start Rodney Hood over JR Smith
This is the easiest and most obvious move to make, yet I have little faith that will do it.
Lue has been loyal to Smith, his starting shooting guard on the 2016 championship team. It's likely only because of this loyalty that Lue continues to use Smith as his starter despite having a clearly better option waiting on the bench.
Smith is 32 and shooting under 40 percent for the second straight year. His defensive lapses continue to grow, yet a bloated contract kept him in Cleveland past the trade deadline. His recent one-game suspension for chucking a bowl of soup at assistant coach Damon Jones hasn't helped his case, either.
With Kyrie Irving gone and the Isaiah Thomas trade a bust, Cleveland needs a spark in its backcourt. George Hill is a steady starter, but there's nothing sparky about his game.
Hood is the Cavaliers' best option here. He's 6'8" and can be a spot-up shooter or create for himself. Hood was averaging a career-high 16.8 points points per game for the Utah Jazz prior to the trade and has since slipped to 10.2, mostly as a reserve in Cleveland.
Smith regularly kills the Cavs with his poor shooting nights, and the team is 6.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the bench. Cleveland has been 1.8 points per 100 possessions better with Hood on the floor, a nearly nine-point swing.
The four-man unit of Hood with the other three Cavs starters of LeBron James, Hill and Larry Nance Jr. (Love will make this five) has beaten opponents by 32 points in 83 total minutes together, the best mark of any four-man rotation since the trade deadline.
Hood is 25, an upcoming restricted free agent and Cleveland's possible long-term answer at shooting guard. He needs to start over Smith—now.
Keep Kyle Korver Glued to LeBron
Korver will turn 37 this week and has slipped noticeably as a shooter this season. At least when he's not sharing the court with LeBron James.
As the type of spot-up shooter who has long thrived next to a James, Korver is no longer a starter capable of playing 30-plus minutes a night. He can, however, thrive when put in the right situations.
Herein lies the problem: Only about half of Korver's 21.3 minutes are played alongside James. When the two share the court, the veteran sharpshooter's outside percentage rises to 46.8 percent, a mark that would lead the NBA. With James on the bench, Korver only knocks down 38.5 percent of his threes, or tied for 53rd overall.
Korver needs to share the court with a player who is actively interested in getting other people shots. James is the only Cavalier averaging more than 3.4 assists a game. Jordan Clarkson, who runs point with Korver's second unit, averages just 2.1 assists and is mostly concerned with filling up the basket himself.
James passes the ball to Korver an average of 5.2 times a game, per NBA.com, a healthy number that's resulted in a 45.2 percent accuracy from three. Clarkson has passed the ball just 26 total times to Korver in their first 11 games together (2.4 per game), resulting in only four made baskets on 10 attempts.
It's unlikely Clarkson is going to change his style of play, which means Lue has to adjust his substitution pattern. Since Korver isn't going to join the starting unit, Lue needs to insert him in the game when James enters during the second quarter. The vast majority of Korver's 20-22 minutes need to come alongside James, propelling him from a slightly above-average shooter to the league's best.
Strive for a More 'Analytical' Offense
An analytical offense in today's NBA means one that is rich in paint and three-point shot attempts.
This correlates to an abandonment of the mid-range game, and heaven forbid a team take a shot a step inside the thee-point line.
This is a strategy the Houston Rockets have openly adopted, one that's fueled them to an NBA-best 52-14 record. As Cleveland slips to fourth in the Eastern Conference, why not try implementing a little Rocket-ball?
The Cavaliers are already one of the top three-point shooting teams in the NBA, at least in volume. Their 32.5 attempts per game are fourth in the league, still a ways off from Houston's first-ranked 42.2 a night. Both teams are shooting 36.6 percent from deep.
Of course, the area of the three-pointer taken comes into play as well. Cleveland has connected on just 34.4 percent of its above-the-break threes since the trade deadline, a mark that puts the Cavs 20th in the league. Instead, their shooters thrive in the corners, where they've made 40.8 percent and 46.0 percent from the left and right sides, respectively.
The Cavaliers have also been mid-range heavy, ranking in the top half of the league in attempts per game (17.9). Houston takes just 6.1 mid-rangers a night.
Despite having a locomotive in LeBron James, Cleveland attempts the ninth-fewest shots in the restricted area per game. This is unfortunate, given that the Cavs have been a top-five efficient unit (67.6 percent) when getting there. James (11.5 drives per game), Jordan Clarkson (8.2), Rodney Hood (6.4) and George Hill (5.5) can all get to the basket for easy looks or spray out to shooters waiting in the corners.
Working for smarter shots should help improve the offense and keep things above water until Kevin Love can return.
Utilize George Hill More
Hill has been perfectly average since his trade to Cleveland, which is kind of a problem for a starting point guard making $20 million a year.
His outside shooting has plummeted since leaving Sacramento (45.3 percent to 34.1 percent), and the rest of his stats (10.3 points, 3.3 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 0.6 steals) can go unnoticed throughout the course of a game.
Part of the problem has been his usage with the Cavs, or rather a lack thereof.
Starting point guards typically have some of the highest usage rates, dictated by the number of team plays used by the player while they are on the floor. This is not the case with Hill, who's rate of 17 percent ranks seventh among all current rotation members. While LeBron James rightly takes the top spot (31.1 percent usage), some other players ahead of Hill (Jeff Green, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr.) seem out of place.
While James and the Cavs don't want, nor need, someone dominating the ball as much as Isaiah Thomas did (28.1 percent), they'll require a second playmaker like Hill come playoff time.
Last season with the Utah Jazz, Hill was one of the NBA's top pick-and-roll ball-handlers, ranking in the 91st percentile. He averaged more points than James in these situations (6.7 to 4.8), shot 47.1 percent, and registered a higher point-per-possession total than Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving.
Since coming to Cleveland, the Cavs have only used Hill as the pick-and-roll ball-handler in 37.4 percent of his offensive possessions, down from 42.4 percent in Utah a year ago.
While Hill tries to find his role in the offense, going to him more early and often should increase his overall output and take playmaking pressure off James.
Choose Between Jeff Green and Tristan Thompson
Larry Nance Jr. was handed the starting center job when Tristan Thompson sprained his ankle March 4, a spot Nance should hopefully keep even after Thompson returns.
Nance is averaging 16.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals on 61.7 percent shooting as the team's starting center, numbers that should solidify Thompson's spot as a reserve.
The problem with this is playing both Thompson and Jeff Green together. In a league moving more and more toward pace and space, the pair brings a tremendous amount of lane-clogging when playing together. Thompson is glued to the paint on offense, while Green should never leave it, given he's firing three-pointers at a below-30 percent rate. In his last 21 games, Green is shooting just 18.4 percent from deep.
When Kevin Love returns, the trio of he, Nance and LeBron James gives Cleveland three guys who will take up a lot of minutes at the power forward and center positions. Given that Nance's range doesn't extend to three, that's a lot of non-shooting bigs to be logging time in the postseason if Thompson and Green are getting playing time as well.
Cleveland doesn't benefit by keeping both for defensive purposes, either. Thompson has been the NBA's worst rim protector (3.5 attempts defended or more) this season, allowing opponents to shoot 70.4 percent at the basket. Green hasn't been much better, with opponents scoring 64.4 percent of the time.
As the playoffs draw closer and rotations get smaller, Lue needs to roll with either Thompson or Green, as playing both would be a detriment to Cleveland on both sides of the ball.