There is no doubt in my mind that one of the principal problems pestering the Cleveland Cavaliers over their past seven games—in which the Wine & Gold have gone a disappointing 1-6 with multiple opportunities to go 5-2 against top NBA talent—are their efforts on the boards. Head coach Mike Brown and many members of the media have been pointing to an overall lack of energy being put forth on the floor by the Cavs, and it has been as evident as ever during this two-week stretch. Whether it’s a sad excuse for a hustle on opponent’s fast breaks or players not being in position to efficiently collect boards on both the offensive and defensive end, these problems are all stemming from a group of seemingly uninterested basketball players suiting up and taking the court each and every game.
Yes, it looks like Andrew Bynum will no longer be bringing down the morale of those around him—and we’ll be able to tell in the coming days if the absence of heart from the seven-footer was truly destroying the chemistry that this team is trying to create with multiple new pieces—but there are problems with the exertion of the team’s energy stemming from places other than the knees of the decrepit center. His 3.7 MPH court speed is pretty atrocious, though.
Brown has been disgusted with the overall effort from his guys as of late, and because of that he has been fiddling with different lineups to see what players can and want to bring it every second they’re on the floor. That’s why we saw a four-guard lineup of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Jarrett Jack and Matthew Dellavedova paired with Anderson Varejao at times in the most recent contest against the Atlanta Hawks—a double-overtime loss.
But, although effective at times, this lineup is one that is rebounding deficient. The Cleveland guards have not done a great job by any means at rebounding at the perimeter and wing areas, resulting in second-chance opportunity after second-chance opportunity for Wine & Gold opponents. And it all started with the team’s effort against one of the worst rebounding teams in the league: the Miami Heat.
The Heat currently has a rebounding rate (percentage of missed shots that a team rebounds) of 47.5 percent and ranks dead last in rebounds per game (36.5 RPG). Granted, Miami also boasts the top shooting percentage in the league, converting at a 51.1 percent clip, so they don’t have as many rebounding opportunities in a game as other teams like the Cavaliers (who rank 26th with a 42.8 field goal percentage).
Against the Heat, the starting frontcourt of Andrew Bynum and Tristan Thompson combined for 11 boards, while Chris Bosh—who isn’t an NBA center by any means—corralled 12 rebounds by himself. On the other side of things, this is a game when the five Cavalier guards who saw court time actually matched the effort by the four Miami guards who played, corralling 13 rebounds each. However, if Cleveland is letting an undersized “big” like Bosh bully them in the paint, how do you think the pair fared against duos consisting of guys like LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah and Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond? Probably not too good.
If the Cavaliers aren’t winning rebounding matchups down low against teams they have a height and size advantage over, then when the guards can put together a half-decent game on the boards, the bigs need to clean up the rest. So first, let’s take a look at the combined rebounding efforts and some overall statistics in three starting frontcourt matchups specifically over this two-week span:
vs. Portland Trail Blazers – 119-116 loss
Thompson and Bynum: 16 rebounds, 28 points, 56.5 FG%, 61 minutes played
LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez: 21 rebounds, 34 points, 57.7 FG%, 57 minutes played
@ Chicago Bulls – 100-84 loss
Thompson and Bynum: 14 rebounds, 29 points, 51.8 FG%, 51 minutes played
Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah: 27 rebounds, 30 points, 48.0 FG%, 62 minutes played
vs. Detroit Pistons – 115-92 loss
Thompson and Bynum: 13 rebounds, 17 points, 28.6 FG%, 52 minutes played
Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond: 22 rebounds, 25 points, 60.0 FG%, 65 minutes played
Now, before we take a look at the overall rebounding picture, let’s go back to the specific rebounding problem that is really pummeling this team’s chances of winning: the guards. When Mike Brown became head coach of the Cavaliers (for the second time) this summer, he stressed that men on his roster wouldn’t receive playing time without proving their worth on the defensive side of the ball. When multiple players aren’t defense competent or, in Bynum’s case, aren’t showing any sort of hustle at all and distracting teammates from getting better, this method is going to fail, terribly. That has definitely shown over the past seven games.
As of late, Brown has been playing around with his lineups because of the apparent lack of urgency from his players. That’s what caused the Cavaliers to suspend Bynum, which shook the Cavaliers’ (and NBA’s) world on Saturday morning. Bynum or no Bynum, Cleveland’s problems still persist with how athletic and aware guards on opposing teams have slaughtered the Wine & Gold backcourt members all season long. So when Brown is putting four guards out on the court (i.e. Irving/Waiters/Dellavedova/Jack) at crucial times in games, of course they’re going to get destroyed on the boards against their opponents. In fact, I would say that the pesky Dellavedova is the most energetic guard of this group, and that’s why you see his efforts crashing the boards resulting in hard-earned rebounds late in games. But one player—who isn’t anywhere close to the focal point of this team—isn’t enough to change Cleveland’s misfortunes.
So, as we did with the starting bigs, let’s take a microscope to three games over this seven-game struggle and look at how Cleveland’s two most used backcourt members managed against their opponents:
@ Miami Heat – 114-107 loss
Irving and Waiters: three rebounds, two offensive rebounds, 66 minutes played
Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade: nine rebounds, three offensive rebounds, 64 minutes played
vs. Milwaukee Bucks – 114-111 overtime win
Irving and Jack: seven rebounds, one offensive rebound, 80 minutes played
Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo: 21 rebounds, two offensive rebounds, 71 minutes played
@ Boston Celtics – 103-100 loss
Irving and Waiters: five rebounds, zero offensive rebounds, 73 minutes played
Avery Bradley and Jeff Green: 16 rebounds, three offensive rebounds, 73 minutes played
Saturday’s loss best highlights the problem that Cleveland is having corralling rebounds outside of the paint, and it stems from our guards having no clue how to box out on the perimeter. Just take a look at this example of point guard Avery Bradley grabbing an offensive board over two Cavalier guards, Anthony Bennett and Tyler Zeller:
First, it starts with a well-contested Jared Sullinger shot by Zeller
Then, four Cavaliers look up at the missed shot…
Because of this hesitation and “lack of urgency,” Bradley slams the missed shot home, giving the Celtics a 94-83 lead in the midst of a Cleveland comeback run
So, before the Cavaliers can rise from the ashes that has been these last seven games, they need to a.) Watch film on film on film to see how exactly teams are beating them on the boards game after game despite ranking in the top half in rebounds per game and b.) Have rebounding techniques pounded into their heads during practice. I’m sure that Brown is doing this, but obviously something else needs to be done and players need to regain their focus. With Bynum put aside—and for excellent reasons—maybe this team concentrate fully in order to translate talent into wins. But, for that to happen, they need to realize that this has been happening over the past seven games:
Opponent Rebounds Per Game: 47.4 – 0.1 above the league-leading Oklahoma City Thunder and 3.1 more than what Cleveland has allowed overall this season
Opponent Offensive Rebounds Per Game: 13.0 – 0.1 above what the Denver Nuggets average, who rank fifth in the NBA in ORPG, and 2.1 more than what Cleveland has allowed this season
Team Offensive Rebounds in Games Decided by Seven Points or Less: 12.8 – 0.8 more than their season average in five of the seven games (1-4) – ALL OF THE MISSED SECOND-CHANCE OPPORTUNITIES
Rebounding Differential: -33 (-4.7 average over seven games, which is the same differential that 29th ranked Milwaukee “boasts” this season), over -13 more than their season total
Wine & Gold Bigs Rebounding Opportunities (>= 25 GP, >= 7 rebounding chances per game) out of 108 Qualified Players: Tristan Thompson – 56.7 rebound conversion percentage per 17.1 chances (71st) and Anderson Varejao – 53.5 rebound conversion percentage per 16.4 chances (94th)
Despite all of these negative numbers—with Bynum now out of the lineup for what seems for good—I think Cleveland’s fortunes will start to change. We will start to see the dynamic of this team change with Varejao inserted in the starting lineup, as he’s had such a positive impact on the younger players around him since the rebuilding process started. And although many rag on his frame, Zeller moves from one end of the court to another much faster than Bynum ever could at any point in his career, so that will help the overall rebounding efforts of the guards; as they will be in correct position to grab boards outside of the paint instead of having to play help defense 24/7 while Bynum “attempts” to get back on defense on fast breaks and in transition.
However, this team still needs to hit the film room and spend extra time with coaches learning to box out efficiently in order to regain the rebounding advantage that this team had earlier this season. With one big distraction out of the way, this task will run much smoother, but if members of the Wine & Gold community don’t see improvement in this area after 2014 settles in, then it’s time to hit the panic button.
 The Cavaliers did, however, have 48 points in the paint compared to Portland’s 28 (thanks to their barrage of three-pointers and nightmare-causing LA mid-rangers)
 Noah posted a +/- of +20 on Saturday night, while Anderson Varejao (who had six points and six boards off the bench in 24 minutes) had a -22 rating
 This was Bynum’s 0 for 11 night, keep in mind
 Waiters came off the bench in Miami and Boston, Jack subbed in against Milwaukee and Mayo was a reserve for the Bucks