A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Breaking down the Cleveland Cavaliers’ last place defense

with 3 comments

The Cleveland Cavaliers just made NBA history by setting the all time losing streak at 26 and counting and now sit 30th in both ORTG and DRTG, giving them a record of 8-45. The last place offense was foreseeable with the lack of talent without Lebron. But the defense dropping from 7th last season to 30th this season is shocking. In their honor, I decided to finally dive into their shockingly bad defense with a wannabe basketball analyst’s best friends, basketball-reference.com, hoopdata.com, and 82games.com

Surprisingly, peripherals indicate a defensive strategy of play. According to basketball-reference.com, the Cavaliers rank 15th in DRB% and 29th in ORB% (when I began writing this the Cavaliers ranked 5th in DRB%, but nevertheless the gap is large enough even as it stands). A large difference between DRB% and ORB% in either direction is the easiest way to tell a team focuses on either side. The Cavaliers’ low ORB% indicates they prefer leaving players back to protect transition buckets instead of going for offensive rebounds, and their DRB% ranking top 5 for most of the season shows preferring defensive rebounding and stopping putback points over letting players leak out in front of the opposing team to score fastbreak points. Yet the Cavaliers are still 30th defensively behind teams like Toronto and Golden State who don’t even try to protect transition buckets or grab defensive rebounds? How do we explain this?

Hoopdata.com’s opponent shot locations gives us an answer. First off, their defense against shots at the rim shows my hypothesis of defending against fastbreak and putback easy scores at the rim is correct. The Cavaliers rank 11th in opponent FGs made at the rim, 11th in attempts, and 17th in FG%, and are 5th best in opponent FT/FGA. For FGs < 10 feet, the Cavaliers rank 18th in opponent FGs made, 18th in attempts, and 20th in FG%. From 10-15 ft they aren’t great, ranking 5th in FGM, 18th in FGA, and 1st in FG% – but with teams averaging only 2.8 makes a game against and the Cavaliers at 3.2, the 10-15 ft shot is the least used in the game and the Cavaliers weakness there should not sink them. Their 16-23 ft defense is once again solid, ranking 17th in opponent FGs made, 18th in attempts, and 13th in FG%. Overall, these stats combined with an average DRB% make the Cavaliers look nothing like a league worst defensive team, rather a very middling one. The difference between this middle defense and the worst in the league comes down to one aspect of defense: The 3pt shot.

According to basketball-reference, the Cavaliers are inarguably the worst 3pt shot defending team of all time with an opponent 3P% of .429. In fact only the 2004 Sacramento Kings have surrendered over 40% 3P shooting at .408. Using hoopdata’s eFG stat (measuring points per shot), the Cavaliers sit at .642 opponent eFG from the 3pt line, with the 2nd worst 3pt defending team, surprisingly the San Antonio Spurs, ranking at .568. The league average is .54. The .074 difference between the Cavaliers and 2nd last Spurs is larger than between the Spurs and the Bulls who rank 28th from the bottom, or 2nd best in the league.  The Cavaliers rank .104 eFG points worse than league average at defending the 3, whereas the difference between the league’s best 3P defending team the Hawks and league average is only .048. These numbers of course show an astronomically bad 3P defending team. No team in history has come close to the beating the Cavaliers take from the outside. If the proof wasn’t in the above stats, the simple logic of all the rest of their defensive stats looking merely average except 3pt defending and the result being the Cavaliers ranking 30th in the league shows the damage of this.

The question is, why such a bad 3pt defense? Surely Scott is implimenting a strategy of helping from the perimeter rather than interior, but the biggest reason is likely an incredibly small lineup. According to 82games.com the Cavaliers most used lineup is Daniel Gibson at PG, Mo Williams at SG, Anthony Parker at SF, Antawn Jamison at PF, and Anderson Varejao at C. That is undersized at every single position, without any of the speed advantages normally associated with a lack of size. Daniel Gibson plays 29.6mpg with his top 15 lineups in minutes played beside Mo Williams or Ramon Sessions. 6 of Anthony Parker’s top 10 lineups playing 28.9mpg are at SF. Jamison plays 32.1mpg at PF where he is just as much an undersized defensive disaster as Williams or Sessions at SG, we’re just used it as much. Since Varejao’s injury JJ Hickson and Ryan Hollins have split time at C, both of whom are inadequate defenders for the position. When a team is this small it’s all too easy for players to shoot over the top of them. You cannot play 2 inches shorter on the court than everyone else and hope to get away with it.

This leads me to the conclusion that the Least Valuable Player of the Cavaliers disaster season is Byron Scott. It’s understandable Scott would feel the roster needs to be stretched to succeed offensively, but the value of the extra 3pt shooting of his small lineups and attempted Princeton offense is far outweighed by the damage of being by far the worst 3pt line defending team of all time. A better way of making up for a lack of offensive talent would be allowing the team to hit the offensive glass and leak out, of which the Cavaliers do neither. Scott’s coaching is a prime example of overplaying one’s hand and the result is a disastrously embarrasing Cavaliers season.

3 Responses

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  1. Julien – I try not to track Cavs games for obvious reasons. But in the little I have seen, defensive breakdowns are a major problem. That can lead to layups, but it can also lead to wide open 3s. Pick your poison.

    I don’t believe there’s any evidence that teams shoot 3s well over shorter perimeter players. It’s that the Cavs (correctly?) would rather surrender open 3s than open layups, so the help/rotations go toward the paint.

    Then again the lineup you cite has a 99 DRtg, which sort of throws a wrench in your analysis, no? I’d give Scott some credit — LeBron is an awesome defender to lose AND he hasn’t had much to work with in the paint with Andy’s injury, no?


    February 11, 2011 at 10:52 am

  2. Well citing the Cavaliers severly undersized lineup was merely a best guess towards why they are the worst 3pt defending team of all time, though you are correct the DRTG of their most used lineup isn’t terrible. Albeit I do recall the Cavaliers still ranking bottom 3-5 defensively with a healthy Varejao, thus it’s hard to pin their faults on his absence rather than the size

    I do believe height is coorelated to 3pt shooting success, albeit undersized players can also struggle with screens and physicality of larger players, leading to the mentioned breakdowns and need for help. In any case, playing guys like Mo Williams and Ramon Sessions at SG, Parker at SF, and Jamison at PF will lead to major defensive trouble

    Dr Mufasa

    February 12, 2011 at 1:43 pm

  3. great analysis Julian. I think the performance of the cavaliers this year provides some vindication for Mike Brown who was generally maligned by a lot of people.


    February 13, 2011 at 8:00 pm

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