Apr 5, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson (25) shoots the ball in front of Cleveland Cavaliers center Spencer Hawes (32) and forward Tristan Thompson (13) in the third quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

X's and O's: What the Cleveland Cavaliers can learn from its opponents

The Cleveland Cavaliers were a below-average team on both ends of the floor this year, which contributed to their disappointing 33-49 record. The Cavs held the league’s 22nd-rated offensive efficiency, and 19th-rated defensive efficiency. They were outscored by 3.5 points every 100 possessions. There are many factors that contributed to this, of course. The Andrew Bynum era threw a lot of the Cavs’ season-wide numbers into disarray. Kyrie Irving really struggled throughout the year to be a consistent scorer given the lack of spacing. The top four players on the team (Irving, Waiters, Anderson Varejao and Luol Deng ) all missed time and/or had their play negatively affected by nagging injuries. However, this team just really didn’t have a strategic advantage on either end, as well. Offensively, the Cavs struggled to free up their stars for drives to the rim or open shots, and they lacked consistent outside shooting. Defensively, the Cavs looked lost at times on rotations, their pick-and-roll defense was inefficient, and the team lacked the havoc-creation that can bail out a young defense, ranking 24th and 29th in steals and blocks, respectively. On both ends, Cleveland failed to get the most out of their weapons because of misguided scheming, to an extent, and there are many ways the Cavs could look to maximize the current talent on hand simply by tweaking the way they attempt to beat teams.


The Cavs attempted to set up a quick-hitting offense this year, one that relied on a lot of pick-and-roll and dribble-handoffs to get shots early in the shot clock. The Cavs most frequently ran plays that ended in a pick and and roll ball-handler scoring, turning the ball over, or drawing a foul, which was good; after all, Irving’s a great pick and roll point, and Jarrett Jack has a history of scoring well in this set. However, if the initial drawn-up play didn’t work, there was never a really good backup plan. For example, on this play against the Rockets, Terrence Jones hedges the screen early on a Dion Waiters/Spencer Hawes PNR, effectively killing the play before it starts.

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Now Waiters is isolated with a lanky power forward on him, and Hawes is no longer an option, because James Harden is a fairly obvious threat to pick off a pass back on the three-point line.

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At this point, the play has broken down, but there is still a lot that the Cavs could do with the play, theoreticaly. Tristan Thompson could come attempt to pin down Jones on the perimeter and let Dion attack Omer Asik. Hawes could attempt another PNR. They could give the ball to Jack, pull it back out with 16 seconds on the shot clock, and run something else. However, the Cavs take (The appropriately named) option D:

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So with 16 seconds left in the shot clock, the Cavs offense basically decided, “We could run something else, but NOPE DION ATTACK THE POWER FORWARD IN ISOLATION YOU GOT IT BUDDY!” The play predictably resulted in a turnover.

This play mainly happened because there was no designed backup plan for the pick-and-roll. The PNR was THE play here, and no one else on the floor had any contingency plan for if it didn’t free up Waiters. I should also note that Alonzo Gee’s wide-openness in the corner isn’t really a good contingency plan, because Alonzo Gee. Let’s watch a good offense run a well-defended PNR and turn it into something else. Starting with a Chris Paul/Blake Griffin PNR:

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Pay particular attention to Reggie Bullock, currently under the basket, and DeAndre Jordan, on the perimeter. Anderson Varejao actually does a good job of staying in front of Paul, and Luol Deng slides over to help. So far, PNR contained.

Bulluck screen off PNR 2.jpg

However, the big problem here is that the Clippers now have two options brewing for Paul to hit out of the PNR. Matt Barnes sees the Deng help defense, and immediately streaks towards the basket. Meanwhile, Bullock is preparing to run off the Jordan screen, and because Hawes and Waiters are so nervous about getting #LobCity’d, no one defends the Bullock loop.

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On this play, a shut down PNR resulted in an open Bullock deep two, because the Clippers had multiple options available if Paul couldn’t get into the lane. There was even a third option after Bullock and Barnes available had Griffin rolled to the hoop. It’s this type of shoot-off from the original play that makes PNR-centric offenses, such as the ones used by the Clippers, Minnesota  Timberwolves, and Houston Rockets so successful.

As noted earlier, the Cavs don’t really move off the ball much, especially on the perimeter. While the focus of the play is occurring, as shown in the above PNR breakdown, other players really don’t rotate with the ball or cut to give the ball handler more options. Alonzo Gee and Matthew Dellavedova are particularly egregious in this. If the other perimeter players had better sense of moving into open space, the guy attacking the rim off a PNR would be able to better see them and convert it into a spot-up opportunity. For example, watch Gerald Henderson’s simple rotation to get an open three from an Al Jefferson post-up:

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It’s simple stuff like that that we never saw from the Cavs’ offense, and that’s the Bobcats, one of the league’s most inefficient offenses, making simple plays that the Cavs never would. That’s what it all comes down to for the Cavs. If they can get guys off the ball to create their own looks better off the ball, and have drawn up secondary and tertiary options added to their offense, the Cavs’ offense will probably look far less atrocious.

Another big bolster to the Cavs’ offensive system would be pushing the pace. Cleveland ran at the 19th-highest pace in the league in 2013-14, and when you’re running an offense based almost entirely around quick-hitters, that’s just not going to work. Quick-hitters are called quick-hitters for a reason; you want to have them initiated before the defense can be fully set up. Well, at the pace the Cavs ran at, the defense was often easily able to sniff out what the Cavs were doing. This was particularly bad for Kyrie Irving, who played at the slowest pace of his career, and was visibly affected by it. If the Cavaliers played quicker, they’d be able to add an extra advantage to their offensive plays, and Irving and Waiters would most likely benefit greatly, due to being able to drive on defenses that aren’t completely ready to defend it. Pace and backup plans. I wish it were more complicated than this.


The Cavs struggled less on the defensive end than they did the offensive end, that’s to be expected when Mike Brown is coaching. The Cavs tried to limit looks in the paint as much as they could, and did a decent job at that. However, it resulted in some really poor perimeter play, as the Cavs gave up the most three-point attempts in the league. Cleveland really didn’t have a good perimeter defender outside of Deng, and got blown up on spot-up opportunities a lot of the time. This was mainly because the Cavs rotated very poorly to cover open shooters. Here’s a particularly yackety-sax possession against the Hawks as an example.

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A little bit of everything here: Thompson covering basically the entire paint seconds late of every pass, guys still rotating to Paul Millsap even as Kyle Korver is shooting, and the Hawks passing up three different looks to get Korver a wide open one. The Hawks basically let the Cavs defense kill themselves with this possession, and that was a common theme this year when the Cavs played teams with good ball movement. Now, a lot of that is on the individuals on the floor than the coaching. The Cavs did get better at this incrementally as the season went on, and a lot of the key guys here, particularly Tristan and Luol Deng, are compensating for guys like Kyrie and Spencer Hawes not giving good effort. However, the big issue on this play is something that’s fixable. Jeff Teague was allowed to penetrate into the lane with ease, setting off the huge catastrophe of rotations that followed. This is a result of the way the pick was defended.

I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out the flaws in the Cavs’ PNR defense throughout this season (On Kyrie here, and the team’s defense as a whole here). Kyrie Irving goes under seemingly every screen he gets attacked with, and the Cavs overcompensate on help defense in order to not get killed by the roll man, because the bigs often have to blitz the ball-handler to compensate for Kyrie. However, a simple change to blitzing the PNR and trapping the ball-handler could correct this. Let’s watch the Heat blow up a Cavs PNR with this strategy:

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Udonis Haslem ignores Tristan Thompson, staying in front of Waiters while Mario Chalmers hounds him after going under the screen. They slowly close the gap on Waiters, who really doesn’t have an outlet here.

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Because of his length, and where Tristan Thompson rolls to, Chris Bosh basically gets to play free safety in the middle. Since Dion really doesn’t have a play here, he attempts to force the ball back to Thompson. Bosh picks it off.

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This defensive strategy is contingent on a lot of other factors outside of the actually defense of the screen, of course. This play doesn’t work if Bosh isn’t able to get across, and if LeBron isn’t lurking on the backside. However, with a player in the middle that could prowl around and force steals, this PNR defensive system might actually work for the Cavs personnel. The Heat let their guards go under screens often, and the guard acts like a pit bull chasing a rabbit in order to pressure the ball-handler, while the big simply just has to be big enough to stay in front of the guard. If the Cavs adopted this strategy, which is really just a more aggressive version of their current one, it could pay dividends. A player like Tristan Thompson has the length and foot speed to play the Haslem role here, Kyrie could turn his negative of going under screens into a positive, and if the Cavs could get another quick, athletic big in the middle to stop the roll man, I could easily see this helping the team’s defense.

The Cavs have a lot of questions to address this offseason in regards to their personnel, both in management and on the court. However, perhaps the biggest move in a positive direction could come from simple schematic changes in the way the Cavs play. Building options off plays, rotating with the ball-handler off the ball, and adjusting pace are all fairly simple fixes that could really help the offense be less of a quagmire, even with the Kyrie/Dion/Jack combination in the backcourt. Defensively, there are probably more personnel decisions to be made in order to guarantee improvement, but a change in pick-and-roll defense to a more aggressive scheme, would help turn one of this year’s big weaknesses into one of next year’s strengths. And it’s not like anything revolutionary is needed here. Borrowing these things from successful opponents is certainly a simple strategy, and these things should not be a huge challenge to implement, especially when you consider that this team can really only improve on what it did this year.

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Tags: Alonzo Gee Anderson Varejao Cleveland Cavaliers Dion Waiters Jarrett Jack Kyrie Irving Matthew Dellavedova Mike Brown Spencer Hawes Tristan Thompson

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