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The Cavs Are Built For LeBron

Talent tends to win out in the NBA. But talent also needs to fit a role. Take Draymond Green, for instance. How many players in the league can fulfill the defensive and playmaking role that Green does from night to night? LeBron James and … Chris Paul riding Rudy Gobert’s shoulders? Paul Millsap with a jetpack and a crowbar? Point is, Green is one of the best players in the league, but other, similarly talented players couldn’t begin to fill his shoes, and Green’s Golden State Warriors wouldn’t be nearly the same team without him.

The Cleveland Cavaliers certainly have talent beyond James. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving would each be the best player on many NBA teams. But more important than the number of all-star appearances they could run up is the way their skillsets work in concert — more specifically, the way that each player fits into the model of how best to play on a team with LeBron James.

Cleveland is a team of specialists — each player fits a role that doesn’t maximize his talents so much as the team’s collective ability. That’s a theme among many NBA teams, but what’s unique about Cleveland is that even players as talented as Love and Irving are refashioned into role players.

Star Microwave: Kyrie Irving

This obviously raises some flags. How on earth does Irving qualify as a role player, particularly after his 42-point performance on Tuesday (that’s the most points that any teammate of James’s has had in the postseason)? It was a standout game that reminded us all of what we’ve known for years: Kyrie Irving is ice cold.

But Irving isn’t the first legitimate NBA star to become the de facto second option to LeBron. Dwyane Wade was at the tail end of his prime by the time James arrived in Miami, but he was still undeniably a better all-around player than Irving ever has been. Wade at his best operated as the centerpiece of an offense nearly as well as LeBron does and was one of the top perimeter defenders in the league — claims that can’t be made about Irving.1 He also didn’t fit nearly as well with LeBron as Irving does.

The obvious difference is the shooting. Kyrie is a career 38 percent 3-point shooter, and he shot 40 percent during this past regular season. Wade is 29 percent from three for his career. Irving can keep defenders on him — and thereby away from James — much better than Wade ever could, even with the off-ball motion that the Heat eventually built in to alleviate spacing issues. Irving’s effective field goal percentage on spot-up jumpers was 68.5 this season, second in the league, behind Kemba Walker, among players who took at least two spot-ups per game. He shot 47.9 percent on spot-up 3s.

Like Wade, Irving can be self-sufficient. LeBron may run the rest of the offense, but when he needs a break or when the offense stagnates, as it did in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday, Irving can step in and generate offense all by himself — and often all for himself. Go ahead and count how many of the plays in that highlight reel above include Cavs other than Irving. (Not many.) He has one of the best handles in the league, can get to the rim at will and is a good finisher once he gets there. And if the defense sags off too far to anticipate the drive, Irving can pull up from three.

Another component to Irving’s fit with James is his tendency to operate on the right side of the floor. James operates almost exclusively from the left side of the court and has a history of forcing teammates who prefer that space to find somewhere else to set up shop.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a player who can shoot threes, use a bunch of possessions and pass is rare in the league. As a rough measure, I defined that as a 37-percent 3-point shooter who had at least a usage rate of 25 and an assist percentage of 20 in at least 20 minutes per game. Of the 11 players who fit that description this season, Irving ranked fifth in win shares, behind four guys who are asked to do more for their teams than he is. Irving’s workload isn’t exactly light, but compared with his peers here, having him in the role the Cavs do looks like high luxury.

PLAYER USAGE RATE ASSIST % 3-POINT % WIN SHARES
Stephen Curry 30.1% 31.1% 41.1% +12.6
Isaiah Thomas 34.0 32.6 37.9 +12.6
Damian Lillard 31.5 28.7 37.0 +10.3
Mike Conley 26.3 34.5 40.8 +10.0
Kyrie Irving 30.8 29.7 40.1 +8.9
Kemba Walker 29.2 29.1 39.9 +8.1
Goran Dragic 27.1 29.0 40.5 +7.5
Jeremy Lin 26.6 35.5 37.2 +2.1
Dion Waiters 26.3 23.8 39.5 +1.6
Jordan Crawford 25.5 22.7 38.9 +0.9
Jerryd Bayless 27.7 29.4 40.0 -0.1
Kyrie Irving’s unique profile

For players who played at least 20 minutes per game with at least a usage rate of 25 percent, a 20 percent assist percentage, and a 3-point percentage of at least 37, in the 2016-17 regular season.

Source: basketball-reference.com

Stretch 4/Elite Rebounder: Kevin Love

In Miami, Chris Bosh turned himself into the ideal counterpart to James — an excellent, mobile defender, a reliable spot-up jump shooter to spread the floor, and a very good rebounder. The role minimized Bosh’s other abilities, but it served the Heat’s biggest needs. And more importantly, it allowed the team to fill the other frontcourt spots with more limited players, such as Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen and Joel Anthony. Bosh wasn’t scoring 20-plus a night, but he was providing the kind of anchoring presence that Green now provides to the Warriors.

That’s hard to reproduce, even with a Big 3. In Cleveland, the defensive rebounding and shooting falls to Kevin Love; the defensive anchorage, rim protection and offensive rebounding fall elsewhere. This has worked out well for the Cavs, but only because Love has a set of set of skills no other NBA player shares.

That’s not to say things have come easy. Many of the things Love did best in Minnesota have proven to be extraneous in Cleveland. His elbow touches have all but vanished from 2013-14 — his last season in Minnesota — to this season, and his post-ups have fallen off over the same time and are far less effective than they used to be, falling from 91.7 points per 100 plays to 86.5. And without Ricky Rubio finding him for quick hits off of the pick-and-roll — or even the freedom to slip a screen or run to space — Love has become an afterthought on high screens. In short, Love is a completely different player.

Even now, with Love in the middle of a breakout playoff run, he’s much more of a system player than ever. He’s taking more than half of his shots from three (and making 47.9 percent). More of his threes came from the corner this season than in any other season, and that share has gone up in the playoffs.

Take a look at Love’s shot charts from 2013-14 (the season before he teamed up with James) and 2016-17, via StatMuse:

You can see that Love has had to make drastic adjustments, dropping huge pieces of his game to fit into the Cavs system.

Stripped of that excess, the Cavaliers’ Kevin Love turns out to be … Troy Murphy.

Don’t look at me like that! It says so right here. These are the only players in league history to take 3-pointers on 30 percent of their shots, shoot at least 35 percent from three (league average), and have a defensive rebound rate of at least 25 percent (meaning that they collected 25 percent of available defensive rebounds while on the floor):

SEASON PLAYER TEAM 3-POINT RATE 3-POINT % DEF. RB % WIN SHARES
2013-14 Kevin Love MIN 35.5% 37.6% 29.5% +14.3
2014-15 Kevin Love CLE 41.2 36.7 26.3 +8.7
2015-16 Kevin Love CLE 44.9 36.0 28.4 +8.5
2008-09 Troy Murphy IND 46.7 45.0 32.0 +8.5
2009-10 Troy Murphy IND 41.0 38.4 28.5 +7.8
2016-17 Kevin Love CLE 44.9 37.3 29.3 +6.4
Love and Murphy are long-lost soulmates

Includes all players for whom 3-pointers are at least 30 percent of their shots, who make at least 35 percent of their 3-point attempts and whose defensive rebound rate is at least 25 percent, during any regular season.

Source: basketball-reference.com

OK, so there are obvious differences between Love and Murphy, who was a useful but limited role player for a succession of middling teams. But the takeaway from this list shouldn’t (only) be that Love has been reduced to Troy Murphy comps. The real finding is that it’s hugely unusual for a big man to be able to rebound at an elite level and shoot (and make) a ton of threes. Love isn’t just the best at what he does — he’s the only one who does it.

Defender/Offensive Rebounder: Tristan Thompson

Thompson takes over where Love leaves off. His role is probably the most traditional: He crashes the offensive boards and protects the rim. When he’s pulled further out, he can pick up ballhandlers in pick-and-roll coverage, and doesn’t look totally lost when he has to defend in space. And on offense, he runs the floor, can fill a lane in transition, and can catch and finish at the rim. He’s the image of a modern, live-bodied NBA big.

If we define what Thompson does as offensive rebounding, rim protection and general defensive presence,2 Thompson comes in just behind some of the best big men in the league:

PLAYER TEAM OFF. REBOUND % BLOCKS % DEF. BPM WIN SHARES
Rudy Gobert UTA 13.6% 6.4% +4.5 +14.3
DeAndre Jordan LAC 13.3 4.3 +3.0 +11.8
Nikola Jokic DEN 11.6 2.1 +2.2 +9.7
Hassan Whiteside MIA 12.8 5.0 +1.5 +9.5
Dwight Howard ATL 15.0 3.6 +2.8 +8.3
Tristan Thompson CLE 14.0 2.9 +1.5 +7.3
Marcin Gortat WAS 10.6 2.1 +1.2 +6.8
Andre Drummond DET 15.1 3.1 +2.9 +6.7
Steven Adams OKC 13.0 2.6 +1.2 +6.4
Clint Capela HOU 12.5 4.2 +1.0 +6.0
Tristan Thompson is indispensable

Includes players with a minimum of a 10 percent offensive rebound rate, a block percentage of at least 2 percent, and a defensive box plus/minus of at least 1 for the 2016-17 regular season.

Source: Basketball-reference.com

That’s pretty good company. But the crucial thing to remember is that these players aren’t just valuable — they’re scarce. The vast majority are core contributors on playoff teams. Replacing them, or Thompson, with the kind of player who’s readily available — say, Kyle O’Quinn? — simply wouldn’t work. So while it’s funny to crack jokes about the Cavs dropping a 5-year, $82 million contract on a guy who “only” crashes the boards and defends, the difference between having a guy with those skills and not is the difference between competing for a title and not.

3-and-D: J.R. Smith/Iman Shumpert

There was a time not long ago when Smith and Shumpert were about as likely to occupy the same slot in a taxonomy as a slender-horned gazelle and, say, a Ford F-150. Smith was a remorseless gunner who could also run the offense with surprising proficiency from time to time. Shumpert was known as a defender with a broken jump shot and a more broken handle. But this season, things are all turned around.

Smith is being used as the Cavaliers’ primary defender for opponents’ best perimeter players. So far in the playoffs, this has spurred Smith to new defensive heights. Shumpert, meanwhile, seems to have learned to shoot. He shot 36 percent from three during the regular season, but he has been good for 47.1 percent from distance during the playoffs.

Neither Smith nor Shumpert are among the very best 3-and-D guys in the league, even on their very best days. Patrick Beverley, Andre Iguodala and Danny Green would all come off the board ahead of them. But while the Cavs’ role players are weakest at 3-and-D, there are two major mitigating factors:

First, true 3-and-D players are surprisingly rare, considering the league has been actively seeking them out for more than a decade. So having anyone who can competently fill the role is something of a win. Second, LeBron is one of the best 3-and-D players on the planet.

So these two are playing the part for now, even if it’s imperfect casting. But if things turn south, the Cavs can always turn to LeBron to take on more of the load.

Bench Shooters: Kyle Korver/Channing Frye

Further down the bench, Korver (the hired gun) and Frye (a stretch 4 out of central casting) fill the role of instant shooting off the bench, and they’re both extremely good at it. Korver shot 48.5 percent from three once he was traded to the Cavs, though he’s fallen off to a more mortal 40.8 in the playoffs.

RATING
PLAYER TEAM OFF. DEF. MINUTES PER GAME 3-POINT RATE 3-POINT %
Kyle Korver ATL/CLE 116 111 26.2 69.7% 45.1%
Joe Ingles UTA 112 105 24.0 61.9 44.1
Jason Terry MIL 116 112 18.4 70.4 42.7
C.J. Miles IND 115 111 23.4 63.2 41.3
Patty Mills SAS 114 107 21.9 57.2 41.3
Channing Frye CLE 115 109 18.9 64.4 40.9
Juan Hernangomez DEN 117 112 13.6 50.4 40.7
Kyle Korver and Channing Frye come firing off the bench

For non-starting players who took 3-pointers for more than half their shots, played less than 30 minutes per game and qualified for minutes per game leaderboard, in the 2016-17 regular season.

Source: Basketball-reference.com

Korver is 36 years old and can’t escape the limitations of his age, but on the Cavs, he, Frye, Richard Jefferson and even James Jones can get run that they couldn’t on other teams because so much of the Cleveland offense is based on surrounding LeBron with three or four shooters and letting him go to work.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Wade’s averaging more than a block per game over the first 10 years of his career is one of the more outrageous quirks of recent league history.

  2. Among players with a minimum of a 10 percent offensive rebound rate, a block percentage of 2, and a defensive plus/minus of at least 1.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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