There was one burning question about the Cavaliers on everyone’s minds going into the playoffs: could they flip the switch? Could LeBron’s sheer force of will elevate the defense which was stuck in what can only kindly be described as a rut since the All-Star break (and before the break, if we’re being honest with ourselves)?
After the first two playoff games, they haven’t exactly done much to allay those concerns. Let’s get the obvious news out of the way — this Cleveland defense is Alexander’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day embodied as a basketball team.
The table below looks at the defensive ratings for different combinations of Cavaliers players.
There hasn’t really been any combination of the Cavaliers’ core rotation players that has proven to be effective this season. Don’t be fooled by the patches of green. Their defense has been so leaky that defensive ratings like 105 and 106 show up as good relative to the rest of the team. In fact, their only ray of light had been DeAndre Liggins, but the offense was not sustainable with Liggins playing extended stretches, which is a critical impediment to a team that will need to put up points in bunches to win. Also, they released him before the playoffs started.
It’s one thing to assume that LeBron can flip a switch on defense. It’s another thing entirely to assume that the Cavs as a whole can flip a switch, especially when none of the other players have given us any reason to believe as such. Of the Cavaliers’ top 11 players in minutes played this season, Liggins led the team in Defensive Box Plus-Minus at 2.0, followed by James at 1.6 and Tristan Thompson at 1.4. The other 8 players are either negative or at zero, which is absurd for a team with title aspirations.
To compound matters, there’s no recent macro-level evidence that teams are able to flip a switch and improve the team defense as a whole in the postseason. I put together a list of all the conference finalist teams this decade (a range which happens to nicely coincide with LeBron’s NBA Finals streak) and compared their defensive rating across the regular season and playoffs.
Over the last six seasons, there has only been one team that displayed significant improvement on defense come playoff time, the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers (which turned out to not matter, because Warriors). No other team on the list improved their defensive rating by more than a point, and the majority of teams actually showed a decline in that category. In fact, after the first two LeBron-era Heat teams, none of James’ other squads have ranked in the top-5 in regular season defensive rating, with only one of them showing meaningful improvement on defense in the postseason.
While this is certainly curious given the notion that defense typically improves in the playoffs, opponent quality certainly has a lot to do with it in all likelihood. Since the quality of the teams is elevated, defense in the postseason becomes more about the micro-in game events rather than a generalized overarching rating. Take the Trail Blazers — Warriors game from the past weekend for example. While Portland certainly scored in bunches, small stretches of lock-down defense at key junctures and some Defensive Player of the Year-worthy sequences from Draymond Green helped the Warriors pull away.
In any event, outside of LeBron James making a few LeBron James plays per game, there’s no concrete support for the notion that the Cavs as a whole are going to be able to suddenly turn their defense around. There may be no switch for them to flip. But of course, as a streaking Andre Iguodala found out in Game 7 of the Finals last year, sometimes, LeBron James making a few LeBron James plays is all that it takes.
*Team defensive ratings are courtesy of Basketball Reference