The Cavaliers are losing on Strategy, not Hustle.
After the 2nd game of the 2016 NBA finals ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith cited a lack of hustle as the MAIN reason the Cleveland Cavaliers are down 0–2 in the 2016 NBA finals. Really? A lack of hustle? “they just gave up” he said. Well, yes, they gave up when they were down 20 points in the 3rd quarter to the Golden State Warriors, because at that point, the game is effectively over. But why do they continue to lose? Is it really because of a lack of hustle?
Where could we find hustle in a boxscore? My first guess would be two statistics: rebounds and turnovers. (you could argue steals, but that would count against the other team in turnovers, so it should be effectively captured here). And guess what? It’s kind of close between the two teams in these two categories. The Warriors are slightly outrebounding the Cavs 87–81 in the first two games. And the Warriors have slightly fewer turnovers of 29–32 in the first two games. Would an additional 9 possessions account for the point spreads we are seeing over two games? Absolutely not (statistically speaking, would net out to about 10 points over two games, using OEFF). In other words, these large deficits are probably not due to a “lack of hustle”. Nice try, Stephen A. Smith.
So, what’s going on? The biggest discrepancies we see are in two categories. Assists and field goal percentage. The Cavaliers have combined for a combined 32 assists, and the Warriors have combined for 55. That is an insane discrepancy. We also see an insane discrepancy in field goal percentage. The Cavaliers are shooting 37% in the series (60/163) and the Warriors 52% (87/168). The consistency of these numbers between the two games is also astounding. Going back to my earlier point about “hustle”, The Warriors have taken only an additional 5 shots more than the Cavs.
Three things could be contributing, therefore, to the difference in the series. The Cavs poor shooting, the Warriors defense, and the Warriors passing. There is no stat for “passes” in a boxscore, so this is hard to measure (or, # of passes per possession, ideally). But it does seem like the Warriors consistently make “the extra pass”. This could intuitively lead to a higher field goal percentage for the Warriors. So let’s say they tend to make the extra pass more often. In addition, it seems that CLE’s low FG % could be due to good defense by the Warriors. Closely contested shots could be a reason the Cavs are shooting poorly. Or maybe the Cavs are simply shooting poorly? I doubt it is this last point. Even if it is, if you are a head coach trying to decide strategy for the next game, you don’t just sit there and say “I hope we shoot better”.
So, where do we go from here? What should the Cavaliers do? They could do two things: play the Warriors game (spread the floor, swing the ball, and make the extra pass) or do the exact opposite. Go big, slow down the ball, and slow down the game. It seems like the Cavs are doing more of the former than the latter in the first two games. They have been going with a small lineup, and try to mimic the Warriors in style and pace of play. This will not work. They need to go big. This is what worked for the Thunder, and the only way to beat the Warriors.
Going big should in a few key ways. First, it will neutralize Draymond Green’s shooting, and offensive rebounds, both of which need to be slowed. Second, it will create a rebound score more favorable to the Cavs, creating more possessions, which they critically need at this point. Third, it will allow for a more effective pick-and-roll for Kyrie Irving and Lebron James, especially with Kevin Love out (he never fit in this system, anyways). This should free up better shots for the two, and drive up field goal percentage. This will also decrease the number of “clean-up, putback” offensive boards the Warriors constantly make. Finally, going big will allow for better defense on the Warriors “pick-and-roll”.
While I am not sure this will work, I know two things at this point. One, Stephen A. Smith was wrong. And two, the Cavs have to change it up.