- The Cleveland Cavaliers are on an eight-game winning streak.
- They have excelled recently by surrounding LeBron James with more shooters and defenders – a strategy that has worked in the past and is said to worry other teams.
- The Cavs will have to adjust as injured players return to the team.
After a rough start to the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have won eight straight games – and nine of their last 10 – to improve to 13-7.
With center Tristan Thompson and point guard Derrick Rose both out with injuries, and presumed starting point guard Isaiah Thomas still recovering from a hip injury that’s kept him out all season, head coach Tyronn Lue has had to tweak his rotation and lineups. And by the looks of it, Lue has made some adjustments that have worked for the Cavaliers.
Among those has been his deployment of LeBron James, who is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career. During the Cavs’ eight-game winning streak, Lue has put James in some highly effective lineups that lean toward a method of playing that teams in the NBA are said to fear.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported in 2016 that teams including the Golden State Warriors feared the Cavaliers most when they benched Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and surrounded James with shooters, defenders, and role players.
“There is a strong plurality around the league, including within the Warriors, that thinks Cleveland is more dangerous with defense-first role players around LeBron instead of Love and Irving,” Lowe wrote.
While these lineups lacked the talent punch of the Cavs’ “big three,” they also let James dictate all the action on offense, surrounding him with players who can spread the floor and do the dirty work on defense. When Irving and Love were hurt in the 2015 NBA Finals, the Cavs did this, and James carried them to two wins in a competitive six-game series.
Over the past eight games, the Cavs’ most-used lineup – James, Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, and Love – has resembled that idea. While that lineup still features a fellow All-Star in Love, it’s clear that James is the ringleader of the group, with the other four players capable of spacing the floor and Crowder and Smith acting as wing-stoppers on defense.
Over the past eight games, that lineup has outscored opponents by 13 points in 174 minutes, and by nine points per 100 possessions.
By putting James on the ball and spacing the floor, the Cavs can run actions with their shooters to confuse opponents, then let James pick apart the defense.
And when James has a physical mismatch – which is almost all the time – they can put him in the post, wait for defenses to swarm to help, then let James find his shooters like a quarterback hitting receivers from the pocket.
A benefit of Love being forced to play center (ditto for reserve big man Channing Frye) is the spacing it gives James to bulldoze his way to the rim. Here’s Joel Embiid getting caught between leaving Love open for three or letting James get to the basket:
Another Cavs lineup that has had great success over the win streak also relies on the same sort of makeup: James, Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, and Frye. James acts as the point guard here, and though Wade and Green are not great three-point shooters, they can spread the floor in doses and cut off the ball while opponents stick to Korver and Frye.
This lineup has outscored opponents by 26 points per 100 possessions over the win streak.
None of this is unique or inventive, but without a natural point guard on the roster, the Cavs have let James take over. His touches per game are up slightly this season, according to NBA.com’s tracking stats, as is his time of possession per touch.
And while the Cavs were bound to wake up from their early-season slumber at some point, it’s most likely not a coincidence that they’ve taken off by putting more shooters and fewer ball-dominant players (namely Rose) around James.
It will be worth monitoring how the Cavs adjust when Rose and Thomas return. James surely will enjoy ceding some playmaking duties, especially to Thomas, but the Cavs’ current rotations have been working.
The Cavs can’t make those rotations their identity if Thomas and Thompson return to full health, but Lue at least knows there are some variations of this hodgepodge roster that can work.