The Rise of the Cavaliers' Defense: We Should Have Seen This Coming
So far this postseason, we've been reveling in how great the Cavaliers' offense is. LeBron James hit a buzzer-beater in a weekend full of them in the second round and then made history the very next game against the Bulls.
We also saw J.R. Smith light it up from downtown in Game 1 on the Eastern Conference Finals and then saw James with an inefficient, yet historic, game in Game 3. We also discussed at length the value of James' supporting cast this postseason.
Yet, as the NBA Finals are showing us, sometimes it all comes down to the old adage of "defense wins championships." In the Cavaliers' case, the adage is coming to life, and we really shouldn't be that surprised that they're giving the Warriors so much trouble. Take a look at the numbers below to see why.
Mid-Season Growing Pains
If we go back all the way to before the All-Star break, January additions Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert had played with the Cavaliers for just 19, 20 and 12 games, respectively. And their defense was attention-grabbing, but for the wrong reasons.
Shumpert had the best Defensive Rating of the three at 102.1. Smith's rating was even worse at 103.2 and Mozgov's rating was right in the middle at 102.6. Each guy was brought it to make a difference for the Cavaliers, but it took some time.
J.R. Smith was the only player who didn't improve upon his Defensive Rating after the All-Star break. But it was a different story for the acquisitions of Mozgov and Shumpert.
Both took a step forward and put up sub-100 Defensive Ratings. Mozgov dropped his rating by 3.1 points (99.5), and Shumpert dropped his by 3.9. As a comparison, Mozgov had the same rating as Tim Duncan after the All-Star break, and Shumpert was on par with Corey Brewer.
The team as a whole at the All-Star break wasn't great either but like Mozgov and Shumpert, the team's Defensive Rating post-All-Star break was better than before. Before the break, the team posted a 105.1 Defensive Rating overall, allowed 99.3 points per game and let their opponents shoot 50.4% in Effective Field Goal percentage (eFG%).
Post All-Star break, the Cavaliers didn't adjust much in terms of roster composition, but there is a noticeable difference. They lowered their eFG% by 0.7% after the break, which helped result in holding opponents to 97.3 points per game. Overall, their Defensive Rating improved, dropping 3 points to 102. But that was just the start of the improving defense the Cavaliers were putting together.
Clamping Down in the Playoffs
How did the Cavaliers sweep two of their three playoff opponents? It certainly helped to have LeBron James, but a big reason was their defensive play from three key players -- let's see who in the table below.
|Defensive Rating||Post-AS||v. Celtics||v. Bulls||v. Hawks||v. Warriors|
It should be no surprise that two of the Cavaliers' mid-season acquisitions are two of the best defensive players in the Finals for the Cavaliers right now. Remember, Iman Shumpert had a 102.1 rating before the All-Star break and a 108.2 rating before he even joined the Cavaliers. Now he has the second best Defensive Rating on the team in the Finals.
Timofey Mozgov is right behind Shumpert as well -- he had a 106.8 Defensive Rating when he was with the Nuggets and proceeded to have a sub-92 Defensive Rating for the first two rounds of the playoffs. In the first round, Mozgov was the sixth best defensive player among all players that averaged at least 23 minutes a game. In the second round, he was the third best defensive player.
But while the biggest surprise behind the Cavaliers' run is Matthew Dellavedova, we should have seen this coming as well. Before the All-Star break, Dellavedova's Defensive Rating was through the roof at 106.8. In the play after the break until the end of the season, Dellavedova posted a 99.7 Defensive Rating, a 7.1 difference.
It got better for him too -- Dellavedova's rating in the first round while averaging 10 minutes a game was just as good as Mozgov's. To prove it was no fluke, Dellavedova's 96.5 Defensive Rating was the 11th-best of players who averaged at least 23 minutes per game, in line with the likes of DeAndre Jordan in round two. Plus, in the Conference Finals against the Hawks, Dellavedova's rating was the second best player rating among all four teams.
Disrupting the Flow
So an undrafted Australian starting in place of the injured Kyrie Irving and cast-offs from the Nuggets and Knicks are making a difference for the Cavaliers defensively?
We can examine the difference of each opponent and how they played in the playoffs against the Cavaliers versus their performance in the regular season. We'll do this by checking each team's eFG% and points per game.
|Reg. Season eFG%||eFG% vs. Cavs||Reg. Season PPG||PPG v. Cavs|
The results of this table are pretty straightforward. In every series of this years' playoffs, the Cavaliers' defense has stepped up in a big way. Against probably their easiest opponent in the Celtics (they were 18th in our power rankings), they had the small difference in dropping their eFG% and points per game from the regular season.
But as we observe this table, we see a clear drop in each team's effectiveness as the Cavs brought down the average by at least 3.6% in each series, with the Warriors having the biggest drop in effectiveness at 6.9%. It's the same for points per game -- the Warriors had the top scoring average in the league at 110 but have scored 12.7 points less per game against the Cavaliers.
The signs were all there. Different players, most notably the mid-season acquisitions, all got better as the season wore on and hit a second gear in the playoffs. That resulted in the Cavaliers limiting each playoff opponent, especially the Warriors. And we should have seen it coming.