NBA Position Battles: Who Should Start for the New-Look Cleveland Cavaliers?
Deals on deals on deals. In case you've been living under a rock, that's what you missed at this week's NBA trade deadline.
In almost a complete overhaul of their roster, the Cleveland Cavaliers were, by far, the most active team on Thursday. By the end of the day, they had traded away six players -- Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder and Channing Frye -- and brought on four new ones in George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr..
On Friday, our Russell Peddle covered the fantasy implications of those (as well as other) deadline-day trades, and our Dale Redman evaluated the impact of the Cavs' moves and whether they made them a better team going forward. But, today, we're talking position battles, starting lineups and rotations.
Coach Ty Lue will have some serious decisions to make. Initially, he'll probably throw out multiple combinations and lineups to see how they work, but eventually he'll have some chemistry and numbers to evaluate. For now, though, which players should start, based on the numbers?
Last night, ESPN reporter Dave McMenamin laid out the expectations for Cleveland's lineup. When they get all their new pieces in place, he said that Hill would be the team's starting point guard. As for the rest of the starting lineup, he acknowledged that J.R. Smith, LeBron James and Tristan Thompson would stick in three of the other four spots.
Until Kevin Love returns from a broken hand, the fifth starter will be determined by the other team's size at the three- and four-spots. If it's a bigger lineup (i.e., Detroit), Lue is likely to deploy Nance at power forward and James at small forward. On the other hand, if it's a smaller team (i.e., Brooklyn), look for James to slide to the power forward spot with Hood playing small forward and Nance coming off the bench.
Cavs starting lineup for the Celtics game per Ty Lue: George Hill, JR Smith, Cedi Osman, LeBron James, Tristan Thompson
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) February 10, 2018
The roster shakeup will mainly alter the starters at the point guard, small forward and power forward positions. Despite all the players going in and out, the Cavs will have at least three guys holding down the fort in the starting lineup. It will be a while before we have to revisit the frontcourt combinations -- Love will remain out until late March or early April, based on his eight-week timetable.
Ty Lue is a smart coach, and the idea of inserting the only new addition with more than three years of experience (Hill has nine) into the starting lineup is basically a no-brainer. But do the numbers agree with his decision to start Hill? Is starting Nance or Hood the right move? And is Clarkson best kept to the bench?
Let's see what the numbers say.
To first understand what is best for the Cavs, we need to acknowledge their biggest problem areas. It doesn't take long to figure out what those are.
Cleveland's major problems all started back on Christmas Day. Since then, they are 8-13 with the NBA's second-worst defensive rating (112 points allowed per 100 possessions) and 17th-best offensive rating.
While the Cavs have operated at a top-five pace, they've been in the top half of the league offensively in effective field goal percentage (52%), true shooting percentage (56%) and turnover rate (14.1%). For some perspective, those numbers are all better than the Boston Celtics, who are 13-8 over that same time-frame. But the majority of their issues are on defense.
On D, Cleveland's kept teams off the free-throw line at the second-best rate, but they've allowed the second-highest effective field goal percentage and have failed to turn teams over. They're also allowing the seventh-most opponent fastbreak points and second-most points in the paint per game. According to NBA.com's tracking data, a lot of that could be attributed to a lack of defensive activity.
Since December 25th, not only are the Cavs tied for the sixth-fewest deflections per game (12.5), they're also in the bottom-3 in contested two-point shots against per game. So an uptick in some key hustle areas could go a long way in reducing the ability of their opponents to get cheap points on the break and down low.
In looking at the incoming players compared to those they're looking to replace, there are some noticeable improvements in the way of effort stats.
While Hill has contested the same amount of two-point shots in the same amount of minutes as Thomas did, he has produced 1.6 deflections per game -- second on the Cavs current team behind LeBron and 0.3 more per game than Thomas. It's unlikely that he's had the same opportunities as a guy like Thomas, too, so it's worth noting the length and six-inch size difference Hill presents at the point guard spot.
In Hood and Nance, they could make for a nice combination in replacing Crowder. Despite playing more minutes on a per-game basis, Hood comes up short against Crowder in both deflections and contested two-point shots per game. That could be a byproduct of Crowder playing more minutes at power forward around the basket, but he doesn't have that same advantage over Nance. In just 22 minutes a game, Nance has produced 2.2 deflections to Crowder's 1.5 while also contesting 4.3 two-pointers per game -- 0.3 more than Crowder and 0.04 more per minute.
Defensively, the three early candidates stand out for obvious reasons. But it helps that they're also capable offensive contributors. On a per-36 minute basis, here are their numbers.
Hill doesn't excite too much in any one area, but he ranks second in the Association in three-point percentage (45.3%) and is knocking down catch-and-shoot threes at a rate of 47.1%. He should get many chances to convert while sharing the floor with a passer as gifted as LeBron.
Hood brings some immediate scoring boost to the lineup. His 21.8 points per-36 are third to James and Love on the Cavs, and his 3.4 threes are tied for 10th in the league among players to play at least 300 minutes this season. Crowder was averaging just 12.1 points and 1.7 threes per-36 while with the Cavs.
In Los Angeles, Nance didn't always get his chance to shine in a crowded frontcourt, but he's shown the ability to produce on the scoreboard and on the glass. His jumping and finishing talents make him a great alley-oop partner for LeBron and company.
As for Clarkson, it's very natural for him to come off the bench as a sixth man. The sample size is small, but compared to his two starts, Clarkson has been a much better player in a reserve role this season. In 23.2 minutes per game as a sub (14.4 fewer than in his starts), he's contributed 14.4 points, 3.2 assists and 2.9 rebounds. But his shooting has been the bright spot. On 12.3 field goal attempts and 3.9 three-point shots, he's posted a true shooting of 53.7% -- nine percentage points higher than his rate as a starter -- and he's done that with a 27.7% usage rate. Clarkson's ability to carry that size of a load is something Lue will likely lean on when James sits down for a breather.