After the Cleveland Cavaliers’ latest dispiriting loss — a Tuesday night defeat at the hands of a San Antonio Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili and Rudy Gay — head coach Tyronn Lue decded enough was enough: he needed to change a starting lineup that’s been absolutely steamrolled over the past three weeks. Lue announced his preferred shake-up on Thursday: when the Cavs take the court against the Indiana Pacers on Friday, they’ll do so with Tristan Thompson back in the lineup at center and Kevin Love bumping down to power forward, with Jae Crowder moving to the bench.
“Jae’s been playing good the last few games,” Lue told reporters at Cleveland’s Thursday practice. “It has nothing to do with Jae. He’s been great. All about the right things, all about team.”
Lue’s right. It’s not about Jae; it’s about everything.
After a stumbling start to his first season in wine and gold, Crowder has picked things up a bit of late, averaging 10.5 points per game on 58.5 percent shooting over his last six games. The Cavs as a whole, though, have been absolutely atrocious with Crowder and Love flanking LeBron James up front alongside the backcourt of J.R. Smith and Isaiah Thomas.
That fivesome has been outscored by a staggering 22.8 points per 100 possessions since Thomas’ return to action after spending seven months rehabilitating a torn hip labrum, the worst mark in the NBA among units to play at least 100 shared minutes. Cleveland’s gone 2-5 in the games they’ve started, pairing a season-long inability to sustain effort or produce stops with a newfound offensive punchlessness that has somehow rendered a team featuring LeBron James unable to consistently generate points.
You might look at the way Cleveland’s lagged since Thomas’ entry into the lineup, and at Thomas’ individual struggles to knock down shots or hold up defensively, and wonder why Lue didn’t decide to move the former Boston Celtics All-Star to the bench. Maybe in favor of, say, reserve Jose Calderon, a steady caretaker who started on the ball during one of the season’s only stretches of sustained success. Cleveland went 16-6 in 22 Calderon starts between Nov. 20, 2017, and Jan. 3, 2018, the last game before Thomas’ comeback.
Setting aside the ways in which that might further complicate an already delicate situation — a demotion just eight games removed from significant injury likely wouldn’t sit well with Thomas, a proud vet who’s also staring down the barrel of unrestricted free agency and has been very open about his need for more reps and more time to get back to his All-Star form — there’s also the nettlesome matter of Cleveland’s failings not really being Thomas’ fault. Not all of them, at least. Hardly anyone in the Cavs rotation has held up his end of the bargain of late — including, for what it’s worth, Thompson, who hasn’t often been his typically bruising and energetic self off the bench.
Due to Thomas’ hip injury, and Lue electing to bring Thompson off the bench after his mid-December return from a calf strain that knocked him out of the lineup for five weeks, we haven’t seen a ton of that particular 1-5 pairing — 65 minutes in eight games, with the Cavs getting outscored by a smooth 21 points in that time. Similarly, the new starting five — Thompson-Love-James-Smith-Thomas — has only shared the floor for eight minutes, so it’s going to need some time to work out the kinks and develop some rhythm.
At first blush, you wonder whether putting another big man into the paint will only further cramp the style of a Cleveland offense that’s gotten minus shooting from James, Thomas, Smith and pretty much everyone else of late. This, in part, is why some have suggested ceding at least some of Smith’s minutes to reserve marksman Kyle Korver, whose shooting might help open up the floor in ways that J.R. (who bristled at coming off the pine earlier this year, but has since suggested he’d be receptive to it) just hasn’t been able to this season.
And then there’s a fairly inconvenient truth: the Cavs played their best ball this season when Thompson was injured and unavailable. Between Nov. 3 and Dec. 15, Thompson missed 20 games; the Cavs won 17 of them. (He played fewer than 10 minutes in two more. The Cavs won both.) During that span, James-Love-Smith-Crowder-Calderon was Cleveland’s most frequently used lineup; it bled points, but it annihilated defenses, outscoring opponents by a dominant 10.7 points-per-100. All of Cleveland’s most effective units during that season-best span featured James flanked by a stretch big (Love, Channing Frye), multiple wing shooters, whether real or at-this-point-imagined (Korver, J.R.) and a slasher who can do damage away from the ball (Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green). That has been the recipe for what has worked for Cleveland this year. Thompson-for-Crowder comes from a different cookbook.
Then again, there’s some logic to starting small. (Well, starting big. You know what I mean.) The holdover quarter of James, Love, Thompson and Smith haven’t gotten much run with Isaiah yet, but they’ve got plenty of experience occupying these specific roles — Thompson screening, diving, rebounding and protecting the paint; Love eating up first-quarter post-ups, picking and popping, and spotting up in transition; Smith filling the corners; LeBron doing everything — alongside a volume-shooting point guard. This one’s just shorter, and not at full speed yet.
As Lue sees it, altering the rotation to get back to the bigger Thompson-Love pairing, and those familiar role definitions, should help the two most heavily scrutinized Cavs — and everybody else — find their footing on both ends of the floor. (Playing them both at once also suggests they’ll need another backup center, which could mean a return to bigger minutes for stretch-five Frye … provided, of course, his expiring contract isn’t about to get shipped off in exchange for outside help.)
“Starting Tristan, I think, helps IT in the pick-and-roll,” Lue said. “It helps Kevin, because they’re putting IT and Kevin in a lot of pick-and-rolls. I think with Tristan out there guarding the five, we don’t have to blitz as much. We can do a better job of being in our drops, and play the pick-and-roll two-on-two. I think it helps with IT, as far as setting screens and a guy who could roll, so we can [create more space] for IT to get his shot off more.”
None of that’s going to matter much, of course, if Thomas and the rest of the Cavs can’t start getting more of those shots to fall. We always knew this team would struggle defensively, but we expected them to be able to overcome that problem with an overwhelming offense. Lue’s first-choice adjustment is a reasonable, perhaps even obvious one. Seeing what might come next if this one doesn’t pan out, though, is what ought to be really interesting.
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