The Cleveland Cavaliers are a very bad team, there is no real question about that. When trying to figure out why they are so bad, you have to look at the defensive end, where they have a Defensive Rating of 108.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. More specifically, you have to look at their ability to defend the three point line. So far this season, the Cavaliers have allowed opponents to shoot 42.2 percent from the three-point line, ranking them dead last in three-point defense. In fact, according to SI.com's Zach Lowe, that would be the worst mark in NBA history.
There is no real individual at fault here. Instead, this is all due to bad team defense. Where Cleveland seems to get beat the most for threes is in spot-up situations, as opponents have have made 207 threes (the Cavs have given up 348 three-pointers so far this season) out of this situation. Another indication of the Cavaliers' poor help defense is their opponent assist numbers. 61.9 percent of opponents' baskets are assisted (third-worst in the NBA).
When you watch Cleveland defend spot-up situations (opponents shot 42 percent from three in these situations) you really start to get a sense of how bad the Cavaliers' team defense is. Whether it is poor double teams or poor help defense, there is just no trust on the defensive end.
The above clip is a real good example of the problem Cleveland has with its team defense in terms of when defenders help on drives. The initial help always seems to be there, but the second part of it (the recovery) is where the Cavaliers seem to fail. Let's take a closer look at the above clip:
On this particular possession, Monta Ellis' man gets screened, and this allows him to get into the paint. Cleveland does a good job of helping initially, as three different defenders step up to stop the ball and keep Ellis from getting to the rim.
The problem with help defense is that you leave people open. In this case, that is Vladimir Radmanovic. After the initial help, there needs to be a recovery to Radmanovic. There needs to be a second defender to rotate to him.
However, that rotation never takes place and Radmanovic is able to knock down the wide open three pointer.
In this clip, J.J Barea gets a screen and uses it to get into the middle of the paint. Again, there is really good initial help (this time coming from the man defending DeShawn Stevenson), but the recovery is lacking. Anthony Parker is the man who should be challenging Stevenson's three, but in this case he gets spun around and isn't able to get a meaningful contest on the shot.
In addition to poor help and recover defense, Cleveland also seems to get in trouble when doubling down to the post:
The Cavaliers like to double the post, and often times they try to front the man posting up and show a double even before the pass is made. That is exactly what happens here as Anderson Varejao sinks to the middle of the paint to prevent the lob to Carlos Boozer (who is being defended by Antawn Jamison). Because of Varejao's sink, Parker is forced to step up and pick up Joakim Noah, who ends up setting a ball screen.
Yet again, the initial defense is perfect from Cleveland. Varejao's sink prevents an easy lob to Boozer in the post, and Parker picking up Noah allows for the Cavaliers to defend the resulting pick-and-roll well. The problem is with the defense on the back end. Once it becomes obvious that Boozer isn't getting the basketball in the post, Varejao needs to leave his help position and find the open man to pick up. That never happens, and Parker is forced to step up, help on the pick-and-roll, and then try to get back to his man. That is never going to work and Luol Deng knocks down the three-pointer.
Here, we see Cleveland defending a play where the opponent is already working in the post. Hedo Turkoglu is backing down Daniel Gibson, forcing help to come. Help comes from Ramon Sessions, who leaves his man to double Turkoglu. Sessions leaves his man, assuming that there is going to be a teammate helping. However, as Turkoglu kicks the ball out to Sessions' man (Gilbert Arenas), the help comes from Varejao late (not to mention he doesn't get his hands up) and Arenas is able to knock down the three-pointer.
Now, poor rotations or late recoveries are going to happen over the course of the season. If it is just a few plays it is nothing to really worry about, but when it happens over and over (as it does in the case of the Cavaliers) teammates lose trust in each other. When that happens, it becomes an even bigger problem because teammates will stop helping each other thinking, "if I go help, nobody will have my back." Then the defense gets even worse.
We are starting to get to that point with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and with all of the injuries the Cavaliers are facing (thus having to play new guys unfamiliar with each other), I don't expect it to get better any time soon.
Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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