A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Kevin Love and the Cavaliers defense

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Any question about the Cavaliers coming into this season began with their defense. Offensively they looked near perfect, with superstar inside and outside skills from the Lebron James and Kevin Love combination, a 3rd option in Kyrie Irving, shooters like Mike Miller and one of the best offensive rebounding cores in the league with Love, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, Shawn Marion.

But Love and Irving were not known for their defense last year as do young players like Thompson and Dion Waiters typically struggle on that end. The Cavaliers do not have a signature shot-blocker or a big with the pick and roll defensive mobility Chris Bosh had. Even Lebron James started to show the signs of age on the defensive end in 2013-2014, compared to defensive player of the year caliber seasons in the past.

So perhaps they’d be headed for a season with the 1st ranked offense in the league, but only average defense?

This may still happen, but I could see them succeeding more on the defensive end than expected. I’ve pushed the theme for years that offensive talent affects how a team builds its defense. To help understand this, consider the following:

In regular season games, the majority of players do not commit 100% of their possible energy and intensity level on each play. My evidence for this is how in the postseason the energy and intensity goes up to a higher notch than in the regular season, showing in regular season games they were holding back to an extent.

If this is true, then it would make sense that players can distribute their energy level to the offensive and defensive ends. Say Player A, Player B, Player C save the same energy in regular season games compared to a playoff series, as each other. Player A plays exactly as hard on offense and on defense, “saving” himself equally on each end. Player B on the other hand plays as hard on offense as he would in a playoff series, but saves twice as much energy on defense as Player A does. Player C is the inverse of Player B, he plays as hard on defense as Player A does in a playoff series, but saves twice as much energy as him on offense. Why Player A, Player B and Player C would choose such an unequal energy distribution may not be statistical selfishness in Player B’s case, but team needs or what the coach asks of them. Say Player B plays on a team where faced with little to no offensive talent, he has to carry the team on that end. To put up incredible offensive statistics he has to take the defensive end of the floor off along with avoid fouls. Player C however plays on a team with far more offensively talented players than him, or he plays for a coach who is obsessed with the defensive end of the floor. Since the team is asking for his defensive contribution, that’s where he places an abnormally high amount of energy and perhaps his offensive statistics suffer.

Chris Bosh is one of the best examples I’ve seen of what energy distribution does to defense. In Toronto he was an average to subaverage defensive player. But in Miami once it became apparent his offensive role would be more limited, he turned himself into one of the best pick and roll defenders in the league and the heart of Miami’s defense. I also believe the Heat have another potential example of the effect of energy and defense in Norris Cole, who’s offensive numbers were horrendous his first 3 years in the league but the Heat continued to give him the backup PG spot for his defense. I suspect Cole’s offensive production was diminished by how much energy he was burning on the defensive end.

And that takes us to Kevin Love, a player who’s a lot like Chris Bosh before he came to Miami. Love put up elite offensive stats on a team who needed him to carry them on that end, but made a non-impact on defense. For both players adjusted plus minus statistics called them underrated on defense before the move, with Love rating as a solid +1.0 in 2013-2014 in DRAPM compared to +1.9 Bosh in 2009-2010. As a comparison the Cavaliers other derided star teammate on defense in Kyrie Irving, rated as a -2.6 in DRAPM in 2013-2014. In fact Love had a higher DRAPM in 2013-2014 than Lebron who rated as a -0.6. Lebron rated +2.6 his last year in Cleveland, 2009-2010.

But the objection to this may start at “Love doesn’t have Bosh’s physical tools defensively”. It is true that Toronto Bosh had the tools to be better at defense than he was. His near Kevin Garnett-like mobility on the perimeter made him an untapped goldmine as a pick and roll defender. With the athleticism of Miami’s other stars, this allowed the Heat to rotate into the paint beautifully cutting off perimeter drives. In the slash and kick game Bosh’s defense was as valuable as a shot-blocker’s.

Love on the other hand, isn’t as quick on his feet as Bosh. Nor is he as long, measuring with a 6’11.25 wingspan and 8’10 standing reach to Bosh’s 7’3.5 wingspan and 9’1 standing reach, eventually allowing him to move to center. However, in length and mobility Love also isn’t below average in either category which helps.

However, there are other ways to have tools on the defensive end. First of all, Love is one of the physically strongest players at the power forward position and in the NBA, a far cry from Chris Bosh’s skinny form. While strength doesn’t get the most press of defensive tools, it still matters. It’s one of the major reasons why Love could be twice the defensive rebounder Bosh was in Miami and it will allow him to defend bulkier players in the post.

Secondly, for a power forward or center Love has some of the best hands in the league. The quality of his hands is one of the major reasons it’s so hard to pry a rebound from him. Sometimes defenders like Jason Kidd and Kawhi Leonard really stand out in how well they use their hands on defense. Love will never be a shot-blocker, but does he have untapped potential stealing or deflecting passes?

But perhaps Love’s most important defensive tool is his head. He’s one of the smartest players in the league and if he commits himself to that end, he could find himself in the right spot positionally repeatedly, or again find himself in the way of other team’s opposing passes.

Finally, one last crucial part of defense is motor and toughness and Love clearly prides himself at both of those.

While one game isn’t proof of anything, in the Cavaliers win over Chicago this was all on display. He used his strength and toughness to grab 16 rebounds and he used his instincts and his hands to disrupt the Bulls passing, ending up with 4 steals on the night. At the same time he played so hard defensively and on the glass that it may have taken him out of his usual Minnesota rhythm on the offensive end. One game isn’t enough to say Love will be the heart of the Cavaliers defense like Bosh was in Miami, but it’s a positive sign.

As for the rest of the Cavaliers, a shift to a defensive mentality may occur for others players as well. I’m looking at Dion Waiters as a good candidate for this considering his penetrating offensive skill set is otherwise unneeded in the starting lineup. If he really wants to make himself valuable long term to the Cavaliers, he may want to consider rebranding his game as an energetic defensive stopper and ball thief. Overall, the toughness the Cavaliers played with in the Bulls game showed to me they may take on the personality of a defensively orientated team, which could be the first big key to playing championship caliber defense.

Written by jr.

November 2, 2014 at 11:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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