Sorting Through the Cavs’ Playoff Fever

Cleveland Cavaliers  v Philadelphia 76ers

We are sometimes slow to come to grips with a sad reality, and to realize how little time is left in the NBA season. There still appear to be vague hopes the Timberwolves can make a playoff run, based mostly on their very strong point differential — a positive scoring margin that indicates they should be 33-20, on pace for 51 wins.

But the Wolves in real life are 25-28, five games behind Dallas in the loss column for the final Western Conference playoff spot. If it’s going to take between 45 and 47 wins to make the playoffs, Minnesota has to finish the season at something like 21-8. Looking at that record — 21-8 — is like leaping into an icy pool of water at Mountain Creek/Action Park. It wakes you up. The point differential is nice, but the Wolves are likely toast as a playoff team, barring a collapse near the bottom of the conference playoff race.

In the Poop Conference, there could be all sorts of potential jockeying among teams enveloped in internal drama: Charlotte lusting after a playoff spot, and the trio of disappointments in New York, Cleveland, and Detroit chasing trades that might revive their seasons. But look at the standings. Those four teams may well be fighting for a single playoff spot. Charlotte, the current no. 8 seed, is three games behind Brooklyn, the no. 7 team, in the loss column. Detroit is four games back of Brooklyn, and the Knicks and Cavs are a whopping six games behind no. 7. Six games! With about 30 games to go! And we’re talking about bad teams here!

There’s a larger chance for slippage in the Eastern Conference, and Atlanta especially is an injury-riddled mess right now. But it would be a stretch for any of those four teams to think about no. 7 or no. 6. And you really shouldn’t be giving up future assets, or hanging on to veterans with trade value, if the upside of doing so is something like a 25 percent chance of running into LeBron or Roy Hibbert in the first round.

That’s what makes Cleveland so interesting today. It’s 5-0 since firing Chris Grant, the team’s ex-GM, resuscitating postseason hopes that looked dead two weeks ago. Should that change its calculus as we approach the trade deadline? Should the Cavs keep their useful veterans, including Luol Deng, Anderson Varejao, and Jarrett Jack, instead of dealing them for salary relief or maybe even a future asset? What about Dion Waiters?

Small sample sizes are a dangerous thing, even in the hands of folks who should know better. It’s nice the Cavs are on a five-game winning streak, and they appear to have made some positive and substantive changes in that stretch. But the streak includes just one win over a team above .500, and that team, Memphis, was missing its two-way copilot in Mike Conley. The Cavs needed overtime to beat that Grizz team in Cleveland, and they barely staved off the Wizards in Washington in their previous win — the first of the streak. (That was a nice win, though. Several Cleveland players were battling an illness that spread through the team.)

Beyond that, we’re talking about wins over the dregs — a Sacramento team that is miserable on the road, the bumbling Pistons (points for a road back-to-back win, though), and a Philly team that has transitioned from not trying on an organizational level to actually not trying on the court. (Seriously: Spencer Hawes on Tuesday night against the Cavs was actively avoiding any responsibility to defend shots at the rim. Like, he was jumping out of the way. It was a masterpiece of not giving a fuck.)

The Cavs badly want to make the playoffs. It has been a demoralizing four years since LeBron left, filled with on-court failure, shaky draft picks, and occasional infighting. They told everyone at the lottery last season, after winning it for the second time in four years, that none of those other lottery sad sacks would see the bow-tied Cleveland crew for a long, long time. Playoff games rake in revenue, lift spirits, and give young players valuable experience.

Cleveland has to be very careful overreacting to a cute five-game streak. It is tied for the toughest remaining schedule of any Eastern Conference team, Varejao is banged up, and it doesn’t hold the tiebreaker yet over any of its competitors for the no. 8 spot. It was refreshing to read Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com tweeting late Tuesday that the Cavaliers would be willing to deal Deng, especially if they receive any hint that Deng will not re-sign with them in the offseason. Several playoff contenders with extra picks could use Deng’s two-way production at small forward on an expiring deal, with Charlotte and Phoenix being the most obvious fits. Cleveland has to take the long view.

In the short term, some things have changed. The Cavs have been very good on both sides of the ball over these five games, but they’ve especially soared on offense. The Cavs have scored 107.6 points per 100 possessions during the streak, a mark that would rank at the edge of the top five overall, per NBA.com. That’s heady stuff for what has been a stagnant, bottom-five offense most of the season. They’ve been stingy on D, too, thanks to a philosophical shift that has probably been difficult for Mike Brown given his usual preferences on that end.

The Cavs haven’t made any major structural changes on offense, which is both encouraging and reason for pause. They’re just playing better, and especially sharing the ball more readily. Cleveland has tilted its offense even more heavily toward the pick-and-roll during this stretch, often running two or three on a single possession. It has mostly ditched post-ups, having finished just 2.6 percent of possessions that way, a figure that would be the lowest in the league over the full season by a mile — and a large decline from what the team had been doing before, per Synergy Sports.

Only Dallas has finished a larger share of possessions with a pick-and-roll ball handler shooting or turning the ball over, per Synergy. So not much has changed in that regard of late. Cleveland has redistributed a few more shots to its screen-setters rolling to the hoop or popping out for jumpers, but it’s really just running pick-and-rolls on either side of the floor until something breaks.

Moving Kyrie Irving off the ball has helped a bit, and shifting Jack into the starting lineup has facilitated that change. Irving can rocket around screens as Jack handles the ball up top, sprinting into a catch, and either jacking an open 3-pointer or shifting right into a fast-moving pick-and-roll on the sideline. Jack and Tyler Zeller might run a pick-and-roll on the right side, with Zeller popping out for a jumper as a release valve. If Jack can’t get anywhere, he’ll kick to Zeller up top. And if the jumper isn’t there, Zeller can take one dribble over to the left side and shift into a dribble handoff with Irving — basically a second pick-and-roll. The Cavs can mimic all of this stuff with Waiters and Deng in either of the Jack/Irving roles.

Everyone is clearly sharing the ball more happily, for whatever reason. The Cavs have assisted on 63 percent of their baskets during this stretch, up from about 55 percent for the season. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s equivalent to the gap between a bottom-five assist rate and a top-five figure, per NBA.com.

Irving and Waiters are looking more for each other, both in transition and in the half court. Both are skilled playmakers with score-first tendencies, but they can direct those tendencies toward passing if they focus on it. For example: Both players like to cross over toward the middle of the foul line on pick-and-rolls, often cutting in front of the screener to do so, as Waiters does here in the latter stages of a pick-and-roll with Varejao:

WAITERS

This is a classic score-first play for guards. They get to a nice shooting spot, and they often force a switch in doing so, leaving them free to take a larger defender off the bounce. Waiters takes a ton of midrange jumpers out of this action, many of them cringe-worthy chucks early in the shot clock.

But of late, both he and Irving have realized they can suck in the defense with this kind of dribble attack and kick the ball out to open shooters. On this very play, Waiters dished to Irving up top for an open 3-pointer. The Cavs are shooting 46 percent on non-corner 3s during this stretch, per NBA.com, a sizzling mark.

There are happy little things going on, too. Tristan Thompson has eight assists in five games after averaging about 0.8 per game before, and he has made some smart passes out to shooters on the pick-and-roll. He’s also diving to the rim more often, through cleaner spacing, for layups and his patented awkward right floaters. Zeller looks more and more like a real NBA player, mixing in nifty dives to the rim with a midrange jumper that comes and goes.

Then there’s Anthony Bennett. He’s an unsteady panic catching the ball on the move in the paint, and he’s far too willing to launch midrange jumpers. But he’s made some of those jumpers, and even more encouragingly, he’s finally flashed a 3-point shot on the pick-and-pop. The Cavs have also used him as a spot-up decoy around Thompson pick-and-rolls, sucking a big-man defender away from the hoop and engineering the kind of space the Cavaliers just haven’t had much this season.

Deng hasn’t been the salve the Cavs had hoped, and he has bricked his way to single-digit scoring totals in three of these five wins. But he’s a useful gap-filler who opens up more possibilities. He can set picks for point guards, often early in possessions, causing switches and confusion. Deng can pop for jumpers out of that action, post up smaller point guards in the event of a switch, and generally keep the offense moving.

It’s all working: The Cavs have a healthier shot selection, with more open jumpers and more shots at the basket, per NBA.com.

On defense, the Cavs have started playing a more conservative style, dropping their big men back into the paint against pick-and-rolls:

CAVSDROP

That is a painful admission of failure for Brown, who was brought back to clean up Cleveland’s awful defense under Byron Scott. But the Cavs rank just 20th in points allowed per possession, and they were flirting with bottom-five status for a while. Brown has always been a “hard show” coach, meaning he prefers that his big men hedge out hard on the pick-and-roll:

HEDGE

Thompson is quick enough to do that at power forward, and Varejao executed the scheme nicely for years at both big man positions. Brown has made adjustments for Andrew Bynum in Cleveland and Los Angeles, allowing Bynum to hang back, but the Cavs came into this season showing hard with basically everyone else.

That has changed of late. The shift began with only the team’s centers, but in the last couple of games, Brown has extended the conservatism to his power forwards as well.

Whether any of this really matters is up for debate. The Cavaliers have to look only at the Knicks, right next to them in the standings, for a reminder that overreacting to little four- and five-game blips is folly. New York looked to have found itself during a five-game winning streak against strong competition in January, and then again in a four-gamer later in the month against four very bad teams.

Guess what? The Knicks are still terrible. That recent four-game stretch, which loosely coincided with Pablo Prigioni’s introduction into the starting lineup and the re-rise of small ball, was mostly the product of playing bad teams at home. It was proof of nothing.

So let’s settle down a bit on the Cavs. They’ve made some nice changes, but they’re ultimately playing the same way on offense — tons of pick-and-roll, mostly so-so spacing, and predictable play calling. Time of possession and dribbles-per-game numbers for Irving and Waiters have hardly budged, and the team is throwing almost exactly the same number of passes per game as it did before this streak, according to SportVU tracking data provided to Grantland. Thompson is still a slow, over-cautious passer out of the pick-and-roll, and the Cavs aren’t going to hit 46 percent of their above-the-break triples much longer. The competition is about to get much stiffer.

There is meaningful stuff going on here — good stuff! But the Cavs should not overreact to it as the trade deadline looms.

Filed Under: NBA, Cleveland Cavaliers

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA