There are a lot of lessons to be absorbed from Golden State’s dominance in the playoffs, but there’s one that should be at the top of the list.
Golden State configured a roster that’s chock-full of 2-way players.
By contrast, Cleveland configured a roster that’s full of one-way players: they’re either great defenders, or they’re great offensive threats, but not often both.
When push came to shove, GSW was superior at holding down Cleveland’s offensive efficiency by just enough, while Cleveland could not return the favor.
By no means was that Cleveland’s only woe. Another was poor minutes management, leaving their stars exhausted and unable to produce in late minutes. Another was over-reliance on iso play — against a team whose switching defense is particularly well-suited to limit it. Irving’s and LeBron’s greatness resulted in good scoring through iso anyway, but they were suppressed enough to matter. And all of that hyper-athletic iso contributed to fatigue that sapped their ability in final moments of games.
Cleveland’s roster is configured incorrectly. Vast talent on the roster makes up for a lot of the deficiency. But it’s still a deficiency. Defense matters; minutes management matters; and too much iso matters. Cleveland needs 2-way players, not one-way players.
LeBron is a 2-way player, but there aren’t may others with him. And he often disappeared on defense — perhaps because of too much iso fatiguing him and poor minutes management. Drop him to 30 minutes a game and cut back on athletic iso moves, he would have more energy to apply to defense, which would be a good thing to do. Alas, as currently configured, Cleveland can’t do it. They need every single point from LeBron that he can give them, because with a Swiss cheese defense, it’s the only way to hope to keep up with Golden State. And that just makes their defense that much worse and exacerbates the fatigue problem.
Irving is not a 2-way player. He’s an offensive god who doesn’t play great defense at all. He’s only 25; perhaps under a good coach, he could round out his game. But going into a trade this summer, he’s a defensive liability. That won’t help his trade value.
Love’s trade value is also depressed. He just didn’t contribute at the level that was expected of him based on his contract at Cleveland. It’s not going to be easy to unload that contract, either.
I don’t think Cleveland will net the assets they need from trading either Love or Irving to make them better next season. Probably, they’ll be worse after such a trade.
So the logical thing for them to do, or so I think, is to hang onto both players and instead focus on intensive defensive drilling. Too often, in the last season, particularly in transitions, Cleveland’s players looked like they had no idea what they were supposed to do. Even LeBron’s defensive performance will benefit from intensive drilling, because a competent switching defense is a team effort; every piece has to do the right thing without hesitation. It’s not a matter of individual effort alone. The whole has to mesh. You don’t get there through roster changes alone; you have to drill.
What about trading LeBron?
Well, LeBron’s value is *greater* than his contract, even though he only has another year to run on it. Franchises will be interested, you bet, and they’ll be willing to deal for him. Dealing LeBron would enable the Cavs to unload Love and Irving both, at a time when the league doesn’t really value them as highly as those players think they should be valued.
But now we’re talking about gutting Cleveland and rebuilding. Does that really make sense?
Probably not. Cleveland is still the favorite in the Eastern Conference next season. They’ll have to go into rebuilding mode soon, but they do have another shot at the finals before it will be necessary. Why not take the shot?
A better approach might be to shed some of the bench shooting talent that the Cavs brought in, like Kyle Korver (not limited to him, though), in exchange for some 2-way players better able to hold up their end on the defensive side of things. Otherwise, whenever LeBron sits, it’ll be open season for their opponents.
And drill, baby, drill. Whatever the Cavs did by way of training and drilling last yer, it didn’t work against the Warriors. They need to take the roster they do have and train it to perform better on defense. They have plenty of talent. They just need to use it smarter. Drilling is how you do that.
My final recommendation to the Cavs is, don’t coast through the regular season again. Habits formed during the regular season are, by and large, the habits you’ll have in the playoffs. I’m not saying ‘never rest anybody’ or ‘never use iso.’ I am saying, take every game seriously and try to win, manage minutes wisely, require LeBron to sit at least 16 minutes a game, require other players to take up the slack, and require the team to perform the same way you’ll expect them to perform when it matters. Every regular season game is an opportunity to improve. Use it. Along with drills, it’s an opportunity to excel all the way to the finals.
A top coach would know all of that. Young Coach Lue may yet turn out to be a top coach, but he didn’t prove it last year. LeBron wanted to take it easy, then go full throttle in the playoffs; Coach Lue let it happen. Not a good sign. Let’s hope Coach Lue gets a grip.