Nothing was stressed more than defense when Byron Scott and company opened camp in early October. The Cavaliers had their fair share of issues on offense, as they ranked 27th in the NBA with an offensive efficiency of 98.1. Looking at the team’s pace, however, put them at 12th best in the Association, and we know how dangerous Kyrie Irving can be once his touches increase.
But when Anderson Varejao went down after starting the season with career-high statistics, especially in rebounding, the defense faltered over the last 30+ games. The Cavs finished the season ranked 14th in the NBA in rebounds per game (42.3), but were well over collecting 45 boards. That mark would have put them somewhere around third best in the league.
Through their last five preseason games against NBA teams, the Cavaliers were out rebounded in three of those efforts. The games in which they were out hustled on the boards, they went 1-2. Twice the Cavaliers let the opposition exceed 50 rebounds, and have allowed opponents to average 14.8 offensive boards.
This is nothing like a Byron Scott-run team, as the man in charge of the Cavaliers roster stresses out working the opponent down low and getting physical in the paint to avoid giving the other team second-chance points. The lack of hustle on the defensive side of the ball has kept games close in Cleveland’s two victories; a 114-111 overtime win against the Orlando Magic and a 86-83 victory over the Chicago Bulls, who out rebounded the Cavaliers 53-34. Through the last five preseason games, the Cavs have only collected 41.2 boards, which would have been good for 23rd best in the NBA last season. Currently the Cavaliers are ranked 24th in the Association in preseason rebounding.
Scott said that Varejao’s return has a lot to do with the rebounding effort for the Wine and Gold in decline, but I think the opposite. Varejao, who has averaged 7.4 boards in preseason games against NBA teams, has looked lazy on the court. He seems to be treating each game like a preseason game, showing little effort to go after a high ball at times. Sophomore Tristan Thompson and rookie Tyler Zeller have done most of the damage on the boards, but it still isn’t enough. Thompson has averaged 7.2 boards (averaged 6.5 rebounds last season) and Zeller a paltry 3.8 rebounds. The former North Carolina standout came down with 9.6 boards per game in his senior season, 39.6 percent of those being offensive rebounds.
Although lethargic in the preseason, Varejao said it best regarding his rebounding habits.
“You’ve got to treat every shot as a miss and go after the rebound.”
For every defensive rebound that the team missed in a game, Scott made them do sprints for every time the opposing team came up with an offensive board. Scott will have his team ready for the season, and has stressed defense all training camp long. Young players and newcomers, especially Zeller and C.J. Miles, have a long way to go in defensive development. Fixing the rebounding issue is a step in the right direction.