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When Cleveland has the ball

Part I of a comprehensive first-round series breakdown.

Without even looking at the numbers, there's just something nonthreatening about the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Even with a superstar like LeBron James, they just don't seem as scary as Chicago, Detroit, Miami, or even Toronto.  

Looking at Cleveland's offense, it's easy to see why I feel this way.  All stats are from Knickerblogger, by the way.

[NOTE: Playoff refers to rank among playoff teams.  Offensive efficiency is points scored per 100 possessions.  eFG is effective field goal percentage, which weighs threes more heavily and does not include free throws.  Turnovers are per 100 possessions, and FT/FG refers to the number of free throws attempted compared to field goals, times 100.]

The numbers pretty much confirmed what we already knew.  Cleveland's probably the worst jump-shooting team in the playoffs, and as Guru mentioned yesterday, the combination of Larry Hughes and LeBron James means you have two slashers that aren't great shooters on the wings.  The only shooter to really worry about is Sasha Pavlovic, who's shooting over 40 percent from three and has the second-highest true shooting percentage of Cleveland's rotation players.  

Ordinarily, the lack of jump shooting isn't a huge problem, but as the numbers show, Cleveland's not really a team that gets to the line much.  This is particularly surprising with LeBron on the squad, and it indicates that Cleveland can be baited into shooting too many jumpers.  In last year's series, the Cavs made a concerted effort to get to the rim, and it resulted in arguably their most effective six-game offensive stretch.  They'll have to do that again in this series.

The truth is that Cleveland's best offense is often off missed shots.  Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao are phenomenal offensive rebounds, and since LeBron commands so much attention, it opens even more opportunities on the glass.  

Now, let's look at the Wizards defensive rankings.

Now, there's no question those are bad.  In fact, they're not just bad; they're awful.  The Wizards defense somehow is even worse than it was last year.

But it's important to note that the only category the Wizards defense is really, really, really bad is in the eFG%, which mostly tracks how you defend perimeter jumpers.  The Wizards are the worst in the league at defending the three, and against strong perimeter-shooting teams like Detroit, Chicago, or Toronto, that's a major, major problem.  But against Cleveland, it's not that big of a deal.  Cleveland, like any team, will shoot better when they keep getting open jumpers, but they aren't really a good jump-shooting team to begin with.  If the Wizards can cut under ball screens, pack it in, and force anyone other than Sasha Pavlovic to beat them from the outside, the scores will be low, and the Wizards will have a chance.

However, there still is one major problem area.  The Wizards are also pretty bad at preventing second-chance points.  As we discussed earlier, Cleveland's best offensive attribute is their ability to get offensive rebounds.  This is where it's going to get interesting at the center spot.  Etan Thomas is a much better rebounder than Brendan Haywood, but Haywood might be needed to slow down Zydrunas Ilgauskas, as Spence mentioned.

I don't know if Etan Thomas can handle the job against gigantic Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Thomas gives up almost half a foot in height to Big Z and that's a problem. Z has never been known for giving extra effort on the boards, but he does like to shoot and score and Cavs coach Mike Jones likes to feed him early. If Etan can't handle the load on defense, Eddie Jordan should not be shy about going to Brendan Haywood, who has usually played Big Z well -- and sometimes flat-out outplayed him. Haywood has the size to rumble with Big Z and also seems to get up for the challenge.

This will pose a major dilemma for Eddie Jordan.  Do you play Thomas 35 minutes a game, knowing that he's playing well now and will do a better job of cutting off one of Cleveland's major strengths, or do you give Haywood a lot of time, knowing that he is better at neutralizing Cleveland's best inside threat?  It's a trade-off either way, and it's not an easy decision to make.

I do think that the rebounding problem will also be neutralized if the Wizards can make Cleveland shoot jumpers.  In last year's series, the Cavs did a good job of resisting the temptation, and it made their entire offense better.  If they don't do the same in this series, it will help alleviate the rebounding problem.

Ultimately, lots of this comes down to Thomas and Haywood.  If they can be forces in the paint, it will make it that much easier for the wing defenders to contest perimeter shots.  If they can't, then it won't matter how much Antonio Daniels, DeShawn Stevenson, and Jarvis Hayes cut under perimeter screens.