NBA Position Battles: Impactful Shifts at Center
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards came into the season with high expectations. For the Cavs, their expectations were to be the top team in the Eastern Conference and make a fourth straight Finals appearance. As for the Wizards, their expectations were to take yet another step in their development and to become a real contender in the East.
Prior to the year, Vegas had the Cavs pegged as the conference's top seed with an over/under of 54.5 wins. The Wizards' 48.5-win total had them fourth in the East behind the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors. No surprises there.
However, neither the Cavaliers nor Wizards have been playing like the team they were supposed to be. The Cavs (47 games) and Wizards (48 games) have 28 and 26 wins, respectively, while standing just third and fifth in the East.
Both teams are staggering out of the gates in the new year. For the month of January, they've combined for a 9-13 record, with the Cavaliers (-8.3) ranked 29th and the Wizards (-3.4) 23rd in net rating, according to NBA.com.
It goes without saying that both teams would like to get back on track, and that's evident by their willingness to try out old and new frontcourt combinations in recent weeks. Are their lineups working, or should they be going in a different direction at the center spot?
The Cavaliers have been dealing with a ton of issues -- both external and internal -- of late. Not only are they looking to add defensive versatility via trade, but they're experiencing turmoil among current players, with a sick Kevin Love as the scapegoat, per reports.
It's safe to say that Love sitting out a practice and the majority of a game is the least of the Cavs' problems -- and it would appear coach Tyronn Lue agrees. In his first attempt at reshaping the team's starting lineup, he decided to keep Love in the starting five at power forward, while replacing Jae Crowder with Tristan Thompson at center. If history is any indicator, he should find success with the Love-Thompson combination.
A year ago -- when Cleveland went 51-31 and fell to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals -- Thompson started 78 of 82 games with 56 of those starts coming alongside Love. With the two beside one another for a total of 1,364 minutes, they were a +8.0 per 100 possessions. That translated to team success in the form of a 39-17 record in those 56 contests.
But with changes in the offseason, Lue decided to try something new. For the first three games, he rolled out Love at the five with Crowder at the four. It provided Cleveland with tons of offensive firepower and some defensive versatility. Then injuries in the backcourt forced Thompson into the lineup for a five-game stretch, but that was before Thompson suffered a strained calf and missed the next 19 games, causing the Cavs to use Love at center again.
Cleveland proceeded to go 21-4 with a net rating of +7.0 -- good enough for fourth in the NBA over that month-and-a-half stretch. At the tail end of those 25 games, Thompson returned, but it wasn't long before the Cavaliers' struggles really started.
From Christmas to January 23rd, the Cavs went 3-10 with the NBA's worst defense (113.6 rating) and worst net rating (-9.8). Their core four (not accounting for Isaiah Thomas being in and out of the lineup) of Love, Crowder, LeBron James and J.R. Smith was a net -8.5 during that stretch, with Love and Crowder at -8.2 themselves. Changes were definitely warranted.
Thrown into Friday's starting lineup, Thompson produced 10 points and 10 rebounds in a touch more than 31 minutes. Of the five Cavs to play at least 29 minutes, his net rating of +19.9 was second to only Smith's. Meanwhile, his defensive rating of 89.9 led the entire team. The Love/Thompson lineup finished with a margin of 14.5 points per 100 possessions while posting a defensive rating of 91.2 and grabbing 56.1% of available rebounds.
On the year, Love and Thompson have cost the Cavs 7.7 points per 100 possessions, but maybe it's just a matter of Thompson getting back into a groove as an everyday starter. Yes, it was just one game, but it sure looks like Cleveland is better with Thompson at center and Crowder coming off the bench. Until they're forced to go small -- whether that's early in the playoffs or in a potential Finals matchup -- the Cavs should stick with what got them to the ultimate destination a season ago.
In a similar fashion, the Wizards have been dealing with guys going in and out of their starting lineup all year. Of their usual frontcourt players -- Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre -- Porter and Morris have missed a combined 12 games. This has caused the Wizards to roll out several different lineups, with only one lineup appearing in more than eight straight games together.
|Lineup||Most Consecutive Starts|
This inconsistency has translated to the Wizards' play. Their longest win streak of the year sits at four, and they've lost six of their last nine on the heels of a run which saw them win six of seven. Naturally, that's left coach Scott Brooks in search of answers.
On the year, Washington has been limited to playing Oubre, Porter and Morris just 104 minutes (in 23 games) together. Of those, 81 minutes (in 15 games) have come alongside their All-Star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Only lately has that lineup played extended minutes on a consistent basis.
In the last four games, that lineup has gone from playing an average of 4.8 minutes together to 7.3 minutes together per game. But while the offense has picked up absent the lane-clogging Gortat, the defense has been atrocious -- posting a 129.2 defensive rating against the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder. Of those four, the Thunder are the only team currently in the playoff race, and they demolished this lineup to the tune of a +28.5 net rating and 167.1 offensive rating.
It's understandable if Brooks wants to stick with this lineup to see how it fares over a larger sample-size. If it doesn't improve and improve fast, though, he'll have to pull the plug.