Just How Bad Will the Cleveland Cavaliers Be at Protecting the Rim?

Let's take a look at the projected frontcourt for the Cavs, and a key area where they'll have to find ways to improve.

Now that LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving are all officially together on the Cleveland Cavaliers, it doesn’t require much of an imagination to envision them being a dominant NBA team, particularly on the offensive end. LeBron and Love finished second and third, respectively, in offensive win shares last season (12.3 and 10.6) and all three were in the top 15 in scoring.

As everyone has been quick to point out, however, the Cavs will likely give up a lot on the defensive side of the ball. Outside of LeBron and Shawn Marion, no one else on the roster really has a reputation for being a defensive stopper. Rim protection, in particular, is an area where the Cavs - as currently constructed – seem to downright stink. Because of that fact, they have been linked to trade rumors regarding guys like Timofey Mozgov of the Nuggets and Kosta Koufos of the Grizzlies all summer.

So, just how bad are the Cavaliers in this area and how desperately do they really need to add one of those guys? Let’s take a look.

Here’s how the Cavs’ projected rotation of frontcourt players protected the rim last year (according to SportVU’s player tracking data), sorted by attempts faced there per game. LeBron and Marion both played some power forward in small-ball lineups, so they were included in this exercise as well:

Note: Rim protection is defined as the defender being within five feet of the basket and within five feet of the offensive player attempting the shot.

PlayerMINBLKOpp FGA at RimOpp FG% at Rim
Kevin Love36.
Anderson Varejao27.90.65.354.2%
Tristan Thompson31.
Shawn Marion31.80.53.653.3%
LeBron James38.00.32.851.9%

In case you’re not familiar with what constitutes a good rim protection rate, 50.0% or lower tends to do the job very well. There were 124 players in the NBA that played in at least 50 games last season and faced at least 3.0 shots at the rim per contest, and of those 124, 46 of them held opponents under 50.0% from that range. The league averages roughly 59.0% shooting within five feet, contested or otherwise, so you definitely want someone who holds opponents a fair bit below that when they’re in the way.

Roy Hibbert, for example, held opponents to 41.4% shooting on 9.8 shots at the rim per game. Serge Ibaka kept things tight at 43.9% on 9.5 attempts. Anthony Davis was also very good allowing 48.9% on 6.6 shots. Even a step down from the elite guys, DeMarcus Cousins held opponents to 51.1% on 7.5 shots per contest and a youngster like Jonas Valanciunas was able to keep things in check at 51.1% versus 8.9.

You get the idea.

Now, look at the Cavs projected power forwards and centers. Based on the aforementioned parameters, all three of Love, Anderson Varejao, and Tristan Thompsons were among the worst in the league in terms of percentage allowed at the rim - of the 124 players, Varejao finished 96th, Love 116th, and Thompson 120th. Love and Varejao both led their respective teams in attempts faced per game and, as a result, their teams were in the bottom half of the league in rim protection - the Cavaliers finished 18th, allowing 53.2% within that range, while the Wolves were dead last at 55.6% (a fate that Cleveland seems destined to inherit).

James and Marion fared better than that trio in terms of percentage (albeit in fewer attempts), but that doesn’t offer any kind of solution. Both are natural small forwards and only shift to power forward to exploit mismatches for the offense. Moving smaller players to bigger positions is obviously no way to get better at protecting the rim anyway, even if the numbers suggest they might be better at it (in smaller doses) than their bigger teammates. Really, both guys are great at guarding perimeter players and should be doing so regularly.

In other words, picking up a rim-protecting big man seems like a very good idea, if they can swing it; especially if you consider that Cavs backup center Brendan Haywood didn’t play a minute last season due to a fractured foot and won’t be ready to for a while (if it at all) and Varejao has grown terribly prone to injury himself - prior to last season’s 65 games, Andy went three straight campaigns without topping 31.

With all that in mind, how well do Mozgov and Koufos fit Cleveland’s needs?

PlayerMINBLKOpp FGA at RimOpp FG% at RimLg Rank
Timofey Mozgov21.71.26.446.9%16th
Kosta Koufos17.00.94.746.9%17th

It’s almost as if Cavs GM David Griffin brought up the rim protection stats on, decided 46.9% was what he needed and went to work. All jokes aside, both guys would be a great fit for a team in need of their respective skill sets. Both are starting-caliber bigs (if Varejao got hurt) that can hold things down within five feet. Not a single player currently on the Cavs roster averaged more than 0.6 blocks per game last year and both Mozgov and Koufos would have no trouble getting above at least 1.0 with roughly 20 minutes per game and leading the team in that category.

If there’s any way to get this done, the Cavs will likely jump at the opportunity. Interestingly enough, if they hadn’t dumped Tyler Zeller off to the Celtics to make room to sign LeBron in the first place, they might not have been in this mess at all. Zeller was on a very favorable rookie deal with room to grow and actually fit the rim protecting mold quite nicely.

PlayerMINBLKOpp FGA at RimOpp FG% at RimLg Rank
Tyler Zeller15.10.53.547.3%21st

Hindsight, I guess.

Either way, if the Cavaliers don’t reach the Promised Land this season, they’ll almost certainly make finding rim protection their number one priority next offseason. For now, adding Mozgov or Koufos would go a long way in cementing their contender status. If defense becomes even a little less of a weakness for this squad, it’s scary to think just how good they could be.