Anyone who has watched the Cleveland Cavaliers play offense this season could tell you that they’ve been abysmal and heavily reliant is isolation. Jarrett Jack and Dion Waiters have been largely inefficient – just take a took at their shot charts here and here, respectively. Kyrie Irving hasn’t been himself (although his stats indicate that he’s starting to get his groove back). Add in the fact that Andrew Varejao has come back to Earth, Tristan Thompson has cooled off after a hot start and Andrew Bynum’s in useless in the pick & roll, you get a Cavaliers offense that is often hard to watch and dysfunctional.
When you dive deeper into the statistics, one area stands out as ultra-concerning: the Cavaliers assist numbers. Cleveland is 26th in the league assists – dishing out 18.5 per game on 35.4 field goals made per game. And one player – Irving – averages over a third of those assists at 6.4 APG. He is also the only Cavalier averaging more than four assists per game. Jack joins this group when you look at the per 36 statistics (Irving is at 6.1 per 36, Jack is at 5.1), but there’s also this statistically oddity: Carrick Felix – he who has played 11 total minutes in two games – is third on the team at 3.3 assists per 36. That’s a concern, as is the Cavaliers shot selection, with without question, is linked in their reliance on isolation offense. And look where those shots are being taken – largely in mid-range, the most inefficient place on the court to take shots.
And thanks to the NBA’s new player tracking statistics, we can get more information that shows how bad the Cavaliers ball movement (with a focus on six players) has been his season and what it means for the NBA’s fourth least efficient offense.
Touches per game
As of this morning, Irving is 13th in the NBA in touches per game at 82.1 per game in 34.6 minutes per game. To put it in perspective, Washington’s John Wall leads the league in touches per game at 99.7 and other point guards such as Atlanta’s Jeff Teague, Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio and Denver’s Ty Lawson all come in right above Irving. Irving also has more touches per game than Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and San Antonio’s Tony Parker, who receive 78.3 and 76.1 touches respectively. This makes sense, of course, as Irving is the primary handler the majority of the time he is on the floor.
Thompson comes in next at 59.3 touches per game, followed by Jack at 57.2 and Anderson Varejao at 53.9. All five the previously mentioned players come are in the top 100 players in terms of touches per game.
As for Waiters, he comes in next at an even 40 touches per game. Andrew Bynum – who ninth on the Cavaliers in touches per game – receives 24.5 per game.
These numbers became largely important when you break down the assists numbers for this Cavaliers team. Logically, a team that has group of players that demands a high amount of touches – and then has a low number of assists – is inefficient. And as the statistics show, this profile fits the Cavaliers to a T.
Assists per game versus assists opportunities per game
As for the assist numbers, this is where they become concerning. For instance, Irving (who again averages 6.1 assists per game) thus far has averaged 11.4 assist opportunities per game, which means he is converting 53.5 percent of potential assists. Now, that may seem like an okay number, but consider this: Brandon Jennings of the Detroit Pistons – a notoriously shoot-first player – comes in right behind Irving at 53.1 percent of assists opportunities created. And when you compare Irving to the elite class of point guards – a class myself and many others consider Irving to be in – he falls behind. Chris Paul converts 56.6 percent of possible assists. Stephan Curry converts an absurd 61.4 percent of his possible assists. Others (namely Wall) fall below Irving, but the gap between Irving and the top shows that the Cavaliers third-year player still has room to grow in this area.
As for Jack and Waiters, they too are failing to fully capitalize on their assist opportunities. Jack converts 40.7 percent of his opportunities, while Waiters has a good percentage of 53.5 percent, his average (2.3 APG on 4.3 opportunities) is slightly skewed.
Lastly, the Cavaliers three big men stack up as follows: Varejao at 43.1 percent (2.2 APG on 5.1 opportunities), Bynum at 62.5 percent (1 APG on 1.6 opportunities) and Thompson at 26.3 percent (0.5 APG on 1.9 opportunities).
These numbers are mostly concerning looking when you look at th`e Cavaliers post players. They A) aren’t getting a lot of assists opportunities and B) aren’t converting at a 43 high rate when they do. Combined, they combine to capitalize on an even 43 percent of their assist opportunities and that number is skewed by Bynum’s outlier percentage.
Points created by assists – regular and per 48 (include FT assists)
At this point, if you aren’t discouraged already, you’re about to be. Irving – preforming commendably despite room for improvement – is 16th in the league is points created by assists at 14.4 per game. While that’s not horrible, he drops down to 35th when you switch it to points per created per 48 minutes (a more accurate representation of how what he’s actually producing). Per 48 minutes, Irving creates an even 20 points off os his assists. This puts him behind standouts such as Milwaukee’s Brandon Knight, Los Angeles’ Steve Blake and Washington’s Eric Maynor.
Jack comes in next, creating 16.5 points per 48 minutes off assists and an even nine points per game. Then comes Waiters, who creates 5.4 points per game off assists and 9.3 points per 48 minutes. Waiter is followed by Varejao, who also creates 5.4 points per game off assists and 8.3 points per 48. Bynum is next, at 2.1 points created per game and 6.3 points created per 48 minutes. Last up is Thompson (who is falls behind Earl Clark, Tyler Zeller and Alonzo Gee in points created per 48) at 1.4 points generated per game and 1.9 points created per 48.
This, more so than any category, shows how reliant the Cavaliers have been on isolation this season. As a whole, the Cavaliers – a team averaging 93.2 PPG – are only getting 48.5 PPG off assists. That means only 52 percent of their buckets come from assists.
Hockey assists (labeled secondary assists in the official stats) aren’t as important as in, well, hockey. However, they are a good indicator of ball movement, as teams who have high averages of secondary assists will logically be a team less reliant on isolation plays. And you guessed it: the Cavaliers aren’t doing so hot when it comes to secondary assits.
Let’s start with Irving, who is tied for 100th in the league in secondary assists per game, averaging 0.5 per game. Jack is slightly better, at 0.8 per game. Thompson and Waiters also average 0.5 secondary assists per game, and Varejao averages 0.3 per game. Bynum rounds out this group at 0.2 hockey assists per game.
These numbers again show that the Cavaliers struggle with ball movement. Their starting point guard and their sixth man (who, as you know) is also a point guard have secondary assist averages far below the top of the league. This indicates that when the Cavaliers do score off an assist, it’s a one-pass sequence and yet another sign of poor ball movement.
Simply put, the Cavaliers are not the most fluid offense team. All of the statistics indicate that this team is highly reliant on isolation plays, and when you watch them play, you find this to be true. Countless times this season, we’ve seen possession end in a poor shot attempt from Waiters or Jack. And when the Cavaliers have attempted to run functional offensive plays, they usually run through Bynum – a player without enough spring to preform well.
For example, when Cleveland tries to run pick & rolls with Bynum and Irving, Bynum hasn’t been able to roll to the lane – thus leaving Irving to either A) be trapped in the paint, B) have Bynum take a jumper from the elbow or C) Irving pulling the ball back out and taking a shot after operating out of isolation.
This is a problem moving forward. With Waiters, Jack and Irving – the Cavaliers primary ball handlers– taking lots of shots in isolation, ball movement is lacking and thus making the Cavaliers easier to defend as a whole.
As for the bigs, I’d like to see an improvement in their passing numbers – especially when it comes to Bynum. When he gets the ball on the block or slightly above it, he’ll either A) be doubled or B) allowed to operate one-on-one. If the latter happens, Bynum should by all means go to work, as exemplified by his work against Chicago’s Joakim Noah – one the league’s best post players.
But if he is double teamed, the smart play would be for Bynum would be to kick it out to the nearest wing, no matter who it may be. From there, that wing can start the process of swinging the ball around the wing in search of a good look. Even if resulting in someone creating their own shot as the shot clock winds down, it’s better than a Bynum forced shot.
All in all, I think the Cavaliers play calling could be tweaked to help create more ball movement. Irving, by large part, should still be used as the initiator. But when he’s on the floor with Jack and/or Waiters, the Cavaliers could use sets to set up Irving for spot-ups on the wing.
One set I’m very in favor of is the hammer set, particularly if Thompson makes the initial pass from the top of the key and Irving plays the role Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard play in San Antonio. By using this and other sets with staggered screens, the Cavaliers can help create more ball movement and less isolation.
Don’t get me wrong – the Cavaliers still should (and will) use isolation. But by using less of it, they can start taking better shots, and as a result, become a more functional offense.
 Although this should change once Bynum starts to play more minutes.