Cleveland Cavaliers: Breaking Down Issues on Defense

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Through six games of the 2014-15 NBA season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have split their games right down the middle with three wins, including victories in the last two games. The somewhat slow start has led to concern about why the Cavs haven’t dominated from the opening tap of the first game against the New York Knicks.

One word that should immediately come to mind when attempting to address this issue is defense. Cavaliers Head Coach David Blatt publically expressed his concern about the team’s lack of it during Monday night’s postgame comments, saying the team isn’t going to score 118 points (as they did versus the New Orleans Pelicans) every night.

Blatt explained the problems that took place in that game by stating, “It was not tracing players and forcing them off the line. It was some breakdowns in pick-and-roll defense,” while also using the word “lethargic” to describe the team’s effort.

Looking at the defensive numbers so far, they give an indication that a lack of aggressiveness has been a key part of the problem.

Cleveland's defensive number

For example, the Cavaliers currently have the third worst defense when it comes to stopping both two-point baskets as well as overall field goals. Part of those numbers comes from allowing far too many opponents to either drive right to the basket or feed an open man inside.

However, Cleveland’s defense against the three-pointer has been equally as suspect, with the team currently ranked as the sixth-worst NBA squad in this area.

In Monday’s game against the Pelicans, the Cavs watched New Orleans’ Ryan Anderson toss in eight three-pointers, en route to a 32-point performance. The only time during the game where he was held in check was in the third quarter, when Shawn Marion was shifted to guard him, and applying the necessary in-your-face aggressiveness that was required.

The problem with adapting that to a standard strategy for the entire game is that Marion is 36 years old, so expecting him to perform at that level for 35-40 minutes a contest is not really an option. Especially since there are still 76 regular season games as well as 20-28 potential playoff games remaining.

When it comes to steals, the Cavaliers are currently fourth-worst in the NBA with only 34 on the year, and are just two steals ahead of the second-worst team in this department, the 2-6 Indiana Pacers. Kyrie Irving is averaging less than one swipe per game with just five on the season thus far.

One component that can work in tandem with steals is blocks, and currently the Cavs are narrowly avoiding the bottom spot in that category with 21, one ahead of LeBron James’ former team, the Miami Heat.

Going into this season, one of the main criticisms of new acquisition Kevin Love was his alleged “turnstile” defense that was described as mediocre and displayed a lack of athleticism. Love’s offensive output (currently 18.7 points per game) has the potential to counter any defensive woes he has, but the team can bolster its status with any such improvement in that area by Love.

During the 1992 Eastern Conference finals, the Cavaliers were ridiculed as “marshmallows” by detractors for their lack of aggressiveness against the Chicago Bulls, the team that currently is above them in the Central Division standings. Those Bulls also happened to be their opponent in that 1992 series, defeating the Cavaliers in six games.

It’s still early enough in the campaign to prevent any such déjà vu from taking place again, but the Cavaliers need to lock down at least some of those flaws on the defensive side to truly get back on track and rank among the elite as expected.

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Brad Sullivan is a lead writer for Cavaliers Nation. He has spent much of life in the Cleveland, Ohio area, and has remained a Cavalier fan from their 1970 beginnings through the return of LeBron James. While that fandom was sorely tested during the Reign of Error known simply by one word, Stepien, that overall historical perspective will be part of his writing for Cavaliers Nation in the months ahead.