As I sat and watched the first game of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2009-10 season, I felt an ominous sense of foreboding–like the first quarter was not what we should expect from Cleveland. In fact, I tweeted about the premonition and how I hoped that the start against the Celtics would not be a sign of the Cavaliers reverting to their old ways. Of course, the game ended up being just that: Cleveland looked unstoppable early, then their offense ground to a halt and it became all about what LeBron James could do to create. Sound familiar? If he can put them on his back, they score; if not, look out. This was exactly what the Cavaliers did not want when they made the move to get Shaquille O’Neal, and it is not a recipe for a championship.
In the last three games, the Cavaliers have shown some signs of pulling things together after their lackluster opening two losses. For them to be successful throughout this season and live up to the advance billing as a top-three team in the Eastern Conference, they still have work to do. In an excellent article on Hoopsworld.com last week, Coach Mike Moreau detailed some of his thoughts about their half-court execution, particularly focusing on the smaller details. Beyond what Coach Moreau said, though, I think there are some “meta-issues” that need to be addressed in order for the Cavaliers to reach their full potential. Specifically, Cleveland must:
- Find ways to take advantage of both their versatile players and their specialists.
- Address their lack of transition opportunities.
- Introduce weak-side actions to keep defenses occupied.
- Develop a sense of interdependence and faith in one another.
These four items are a true necessity if the Cavaliers are to challenge Boston and Orlando for the top spot in the East.
Versatility and Specialty
Cleveland’s roster is, in many ways, an odd mismatch of talent. Perhaps more than any of the teams we expect to contend for a title, the Cavaliers’ depth chart features some very versatile pieces (James, Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anthony Parker, J.J. Hickson, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas), who are expected to mesh with some very single-dimensional specialists (O’Neal, Daniel Gibson, Anderson Varejao, and Jamario Moon). Creating a system that caters to this kind of lineup is not easy, and it takes a considerable amount of time for a group as eclectic and diverse as this to come together.
The major issue is finding ways for these players to truly complement one another without cannibalizing each other’s opportunities. Integrating O’Neal to this mix has only made this harder, as his unique size and agility (even at his current age and weight) force the Cavaliers to use him in specific ways. One way to take advantage of the varied talents on Cleveland’s roster is to create squads based on specific game situations and team needs. This would allow Mike Brown to plan entire rotations in based on the game situation. Do you want low post scoring? Make sure O'Neal is in the game. Are they clogging the paint with their big, preventing dribble-drive action? Use a lineup that features Ilgauskas. Is the other team getting into the paint too easily while we are on defense? Get your long athletes and strap up and guard someone. These kinds of squad changes are common in high school basketball, where rosters are more piecemeal, and they may make sense for Cleveland.
While some analysts have focused on specific issues getting O'Neal and James on the same page in the half court, the real headscratcher looking at this Cavaliers team is why they are not better in transition. The best way for a good rebounding/defensive team to score is in transition. They can advance the ball quickly when the defense is at its softest and hopefully steal baskets before the opponent has a chance to set up. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers are entirely too content to walk the ball up the floor, and make the game harder with each slow trip down the floor.
Under Brown, the Cavaliers have consistently been one of the league's slowest teams. That has been the case this year, and the team's average of 88.6 possessions per 48 minutes ranks 26th in the league. This style does not translate well when Cleveland gets to the playoffs, and their pace decelerates further. The Cavaliers would undoubtedly do better to find more transition opportunities.
The first way Cleveland can look for more fast-break chances is to turn to O’Neal and ask him to outlet the ball a little more rapidly after the rebound. O'Neal has never been quick to advance the ball, and this year is no exception. However, if they can steal 3-4 baskets a game because of a quick O'Neal rebound and outlet, the Cavaliers become a much more dangerous team in the blink of an eye. After all, James is most dangerous when in transition, as he is almost unguardable with a full head of steam. Second, Cleveland needs to develop some kind of consistent pushing action. Borrowing from the college ranks might be worthwhile, as the Cavaliers can use their bigs to set high ball screens after trailing the play. Getting out on the break simply gives Cleveland more options.
As Coach Moreau mentioned in his article, when Cleveland gets into the half court, their lack of spacing and precision movements undermines everything they are trying to accomplish. More than anything, their lack of action on the weak side allows defenses to key on the ball, then cheat to help and recover more readily. Because of this, offensive actions often become one-on-one affairs where someone (usually James) has to be superhuman to finish a play.
It does not have to be this way, and for the Cavs to really flourish, it needs to change. The best way to prevent this is to create rules for weak-side players, no matter who they are or where they are on the floor. On any strong-side catch, there should be automatic down screens and/or flare screens on the weak side, with spacing out to and beyond the three-point line. For examples of this kind of action, see the Los Angeles Lakers' triangle offense. As the ball is reversed, typically to Kobe Bryant, the players on the other side of the floor are down screening or flare screening as a way to keep defenses honest.
Another tactic that can be coupled with this weak-side action is running misdirection plays that bring Cleveland’s best players away from the ball as screeners, then flash them into areas where they can be most effective. With his size, quickness, strength and passing ability, James would be an absolute terror flashing into the high post area after setting a down screen for Gibson. At the same time, O'Neal can seal down low and you have high-low action between two fantastic players. In addition, any kind of action where James is involved in a handoff (as the passer or receiver) is very difficult to guard. These kind of plays must be incorporated more regularly: right now, Cleveland’s go-to play is either a mid-level post up or a perimeter catch and attack. These are too easily stopped by the elite teams, especially in the playoffs.
Arguably the biggest issue with the Cavaliers is what appears, at least on the outside, to be a lack of trust or faith in each other, the system, or both. Players have to trust what they do and how they are being utilized (remember, they are mismatched parts, so it can be harder to delineate roles). Coach Brown has to have faith in the roster that he has and the ways he can get the most from his players. And, perhaps most of all, James has to have faith that they can be successful “without” him.
One of the reasons Boston was so successful two years ago (and to some extent the Lakers this past year) was that both teams had developed a sense of interdependence. The players on those rosters understood that their strength came from each other, not just from each of them individually. Again, the best way to develop this mentality is to create squads with specific functions, and allow those units to play to their strengths with specific goals in mind. When your defensive unit is in, you are looking to prevent paint touches and get at least one deflection on every possession. When your low-post scoring unit is in, set up statistics that measure how well you attack a specific area of the floor, not necessarily whether or not you score. This forces the players to rely on each other to get the process right, and not to focus on the result. Results-oriented basketball teams tend to be very individualistic, and lack the cohesion and interdependence that championship-level teams have.
In Cleveland’s case, their overreliance on James (granted, he’s an easy guy to rely upon) is inhibiting the team's ability to become interdependent. Instead, when they need a result, they give it to one of the best players in the world and let him figure it out. This stunts their growth and fails to maximize how good the Cavaliers can be. It took Bryant and the Lakers a few years to learn this lesson—how long will it be before James and the Cavaliers take the next step?
All of the issues mentioned above are correctible, particularly early in the season. In fact, in Cleveland’s most recent win over the Washington Wizards, the commitment to tightening the defensive screws and turning that defense into transition offense was apparent. The Cavaliers also did a better job of providing both O'Neal and James with weak-side actions to prevent Washington’s defense from loading the ball side. These are good signs and things to look for in the weeks to come.
Ultimately, though, a commitment to resolve these issues is needed now. Championship teams don’t wait for stuff to “figure itself out.” They actively seek out and move to fix problems before they start. In this year’s playoffs, there can be little doubt that home-court advantage will be a critical factor in deciding the winners and losers, so there is no time to waste. Cleveland has some work to do to get to the promised land. If the Cavaliers are going to get there, the process needs to start today.
Follow Anthony on Twitter at @CoachMacri
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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