Questions About Cleveland: What Happens When the Cavs Go Small?
Posted by Zach Lowe on Apr 29, 2010
Cavs fans have been clamoring all season for Mike Brown to play LeBron James at the power forward spot and unleash holy hell on the league in the form of a small line-up with LeBron at the four.
Brown played this sort of line-up sparingly in the regular season, but when he did the results were very, very strong. Only five line-ups featuring LeBron at the four spot logged more than 20 minutes of floor time together during the regular season, according to Basketball Value; none played more than 32 minutes total for the season.
But four of those five line-ups had excellent plus/minus ratings:
1) West, Williams, Parker, LeBron, Varejao: + 34 in 32 minutes
2) Gibson, Williams, Parker, LeBron, Varejao: +18 in 27 minutes
3) Williams, West, J. Williams, LeBron, Varejao: +1 in 26 minutes
4) Williams, West, Moon, LeBron, Varejao: +13 in 26 minutes
5) Gibson, Parker, Moon, LeBro, Varejao: +5 in 20 minutes
Pretty solid numbers. But will Brown have the guts to break this line-up out in the playoffs?
So far, the answer is an emphatic yes. Unit #4 in the above list was actually the Cavs’ 5th-most commonly used unit in the team’s five-game victory over Chicago, according to Basketball Value’s playoff numbers. Compare that to the regular season, in which the most frequently-used line-up with LBJ as the power forward ranked just 21st among all Cleveland five-man combinations with those 32 minutes logged.
And how’d that small unit do against the Bulls? Plus 10 in just over 12 minutes of playing time together. Of course, 12 minutes is nothing—most of that +10 can be explained by a 6:41 stretch at the end of Game 2 in which Moon went crazy and hit three three-pointers to help the Cavs ice the game.
But LeBron has also logged smaller amounts of post-season minutes as the power forward in combinations with Shaq, Antawn Jamison and Zydrunas Ilgauskas playing center, according to Basketball Value.
Mike Brown is going to use this line-up, and the Celtics will have to be ready for it.
The natural counter to any Cavs small line-up with Varejao or Jamison at center would seem to be: Rondo-Ray-TA-Pierce-KG/Glen Davis.
Defensively, I’m fine with that line-up matching up against the Cavs’ small groups outlined above.
Offensively, though, I worry that the team can go through cold stretches when Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen share the court. We saw this against the Heat, when Erik Spoelstra went to a zone immediately when he saw the TA/Rondo back court and stuck with it until Doc replaced either Rondo or TA with a shooter.
Cleveland won’t play a zone, but they’ll certainly defend a Rondo/TA line-up like any team would: by daring one of those two to beat them with jump shots. The little evidence we have from this season suggests line-ups with a TA/Rondo combination are susceptible to an offensive slump.
Overall, the team scored about 3.7 fewer points per 100 possessions this season with TA on the floor versus with him on the bench, according to 82games.com.
And of the 5 line-ups featuring both TA and Rondo that logged at least 20 minutes together this season, four scored fewer points per possession than the C’s overall average, according to Basketball Value. Three of those line-ups scored signficantly below the C’s average points per possession rate.
On the flip side, the two of those line-ups that logged by far the most minutes together were brutally tough on defense, holding opponents to New Jersey-like scoring rates of fewer than a point per possession.
The sample sizes are small, but I’d bet that those trends would maintain themselves through larger samples: Line-ups with TA/Rondo together would be elite defensively and average offensively. That’s the trade-off.
And that’s generally a trade-off I’m OK with, particularly in small doses, and the Cavs aren’t going to be rolling a small line-up out for more than a few minutes per game.
But a few minutes in the 3rd quarter can swing a playoff game, and a single playoff game can swing an entire season. The C’s must be able to counter Cleveland’s small line-up defensively without suffering through a dry spell that leads to an 8-0 or 10-0 run.
This is the sort of problem for which Eddie House was an ideal solution. Remember when the Bulls went small in the playoffs last season? The Celtics offense stalled out when Doc inserted TA as the fourth small in the C’s counter line-up; he choose defense over offense, and it hurt the Celtics. Watch the end of regulation in Game 6 of the Chicago series again if want to see what small line-up offensive stagnation looks like.
Then Doc went with Eddie House in Game 7, and he shot the Bulls out of the playoffs.
Eddie House is gone. Nate Robinson is here. If Doc really believes Nate Robinson has a pivotal five- or 10-minutes of post-season hoops in him, those minutes could come in this scenario. Michael Finley is also here, and he could play in TA’s spot (or Rondo’s) to add some shooting.
Either way, it’s something to watch or in the Brown/Doc chess match.