How The Cleveland Cavaliers Can Turn Their Stuttering Offense Around

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I tried my best to slag off Tyronn Lue in Sunday's article, mercilessly critiquing his defensive philosophy, rotation choices and thoughts about the pace of the series.

As promised in that very article, in this one, instead of destroying Ty Lue's coaching credibility, I'm actually going to be helpful this time and suggest some things to him. As you can probably guess by the title, this piece is all to do with the offensive side of things. While not being as horrific as the defensive end, the offense still has a heap of work to do. So far, Cleveland have looked lazy and stagnant thru games one and two on offense and it has resulted in just 166 combined points scored and an offensive rating of just 85, a mark that would've ranked them 11 points per 100 possessions worse than the last placed 76ers.

So in other words, the Cavs' offense stinks.

However, you cannot blame solely the Cavs for this. Cleveland are still running the same offense that caused them to fourth in the league in offensive efficiency and the same sets on that side of the floor that blew Detroit, Atlanta and Toronto out of the water. The difference between then and now, quite clearly has been the Warriors' ingenious defense. 

For those that have not realized it so far, the Dubs have employed two main defensive strategies. The first of which is that they have made the decision to switch seamlessly when necessary. When there is even the slightest chance that someone will get a sliver of space, the Dubs will switch without any hesitation. This isn't a new concept in the NBA by any means. The Thunder used the same strategy at an even higher frequency against the Warriors and the Cavs are doing it to some degree in this series as well, although it has been terribly ineffective. 

Switching basically everything is used all around the NBA, so the Cavs are bound to have seen it played against them before, but never before would they have seen a team do it this well, with everyone on a string, nor a team that is able to switch and still have a more than capable player to defend the Cavs' main offensive threats. There is so much length and athleticism everywhere, that whenever the Cavs think they have a mismatch they can exploit, there is just another perfectly suited defender waiting.

Cleveland have also had to face off against a sound, simple defensive strategy against their best player, which has almost nullified his effectiveness offensively in this series. LeBron has seen his defenders go under screens, sagging off him and basically just doing anything within their power in order to force him shoot a jump shot. Of course, if you've been living on planet Earth for the past season, you will know that LeBron has been struggling from distance this season, shooting just 31% from deep in 2015-16. Obviously, having LeBron make less than one of three threes per game is a far better scenario for the Warriors, than going over a screen and having LeBron -- all 6'8'' and 250 lbs of him -- relentlessly attacking the rim where he has shot at more than 70% this season.

These strategies -- mainly the switching technique -- force a lot of isolations and take the Cavs out of their natural flow offense. When a switch is created, the Cavs have made the foolish mistake of attempting to attack it without any movement whatsoever. This generally means that instead of having some nice motion off-ball, evolving into open shots, we instead receive one guy attempting to breakdown a mismatch and the other four standing idly enough for their defender to be able to help on the drive. 

The switching has also stunted the Cavs' three-point barrage that killed teams thru the first three rounds. Not only do the Warriors switch on-ball, but they switch incredibly well off the ball too, not allowing anyone to get remotely open on any off-ball screen. This has meant that any sets the Cavs used to unleash their barrage on the Eastern Conference have been rendered ineffective, due to no one being able to get any space to get open and launch a three. Instead, players like J.R. Smith have had defenders draped over them at all times, as to never allow an open three. This applies to Channing Frye too, who many have requested Ty Lue gives more game time too, but due to the constant switching hasn't gotten his typical open shots, even with all of the star power on the court which typically draws enough attention to create open looks.

Going under LeBron screens, has meant that instead of LeBron getting easy middle penetration, his defender is able to stay at home in the paint, not allowing him any chance to get a full head of steam up attacking the rim. What this means as well is that very little help defense is needed, as his defender never gets beaten due to him going under the screen. Generally what happens in the Cavs offense is LeBron beats his defender with relative ease and forces help defense, allowing easy kick-outs for open threes. By going under the screen and meeting James at the rim, there is no need for help defense and the drive-and-kick style of play that has been so successful for this Cavs team has been stunted.

The result of iso-ball, lack of space due to switches and no option to drive-and-kick, has resulted in a bunch of terrible offensive possessions, of which even the greatness of LeBron James cannot overturn.

Luckily for all of you Cavs fans, I believe that there are some areas in which the Cavs can turn around their stuttering offense. I think that in order to do this, we first need to look back at the third quarter of game 1. Up until Kyrie Irving got subbed out with about 4 minutes to go, for the 8 minutes prior to that, the Cavs offense was absolutely rolling. This was pretty much the only time in the series that their offense looked remotely alive.

What you need to pay attention to in this stretch was that the ball was in the heavily criticized Kyrie Irving's hands. In that stretch, Irving was at his best, making drive after drive, getting deep middle penetration and getting the rest of his team involved. In this stretch, the Cavs went from 9 points down to getting within one in that stretch, mainly thru the excellent playmaking of Irving.

People have critiqued Irving to death in this series, in fact, a not so silent majority has said that Matthew Dellavedova should be starting in place of him. People have said that his defense is too bad and that his offense hasn't made up for it, especially since he hasn't been shooting very well in this series. But I don't think Irving should be criticized too much for this, largely due to the exceptional Warriors defense and the fact that Tyronn Lue and the Cavs have failed to utilize his abilities.

Many have said that Irving has had the ball in his hands for far too long and has been hogging it to some extent. But this isn't necessarily the case. While in game one, his usage rate was exceptionally high at around 35%, well over his season average of 29%, this was when the offense was at least competent. When the offense crumbled in game two, Irving's usage rate was a mere 23%. The Cavs failed to utilize his ability in this game so much, that Kyrie just looked lost off-ball and instead of criticizing him for doing this, we should have the Cavs on for not realizing that it's better if Kyrie has the ball.

This gets me to the main point of how to unlock the Cavs offense. Kyrie needs to have the ball. Yep, I get the criticism of his play and that in game one he did turn into a ball hog, but the offense flows so much better when he has the ball. When Irving has the ball, especially in pick and roll situations, the Warriors cannot by any means go under the pick and roll. Otherwise, Irving will kill you with his smooth jumper. This will open up what the Cavs have been needing this whole series: middle penetration. Once middle penetration is unlocked, all of those drive-and-kick sequences will be available and those three-point shots will be plentiful again.

With Irving handling more of the ball, they should go to what I think could be their most deadly play. In my opinion, this play is the Kyrie Irving/Tristan Thompson pick and roll. A pick and roll that will get Andrew Bogut involved in defending the pick and roll. In these situations, Bogut almost always stays back to defend the rim as he isn't mobile enough to come up and show, hedge or switch. In game two against Portland, the Warriors were murdered by the Portland Trail Blazers attacking Bogut in this very way. What ended up happening was that Bogut didn't want to come out and defend Damian Lillard, who drained every jump shot in sight. I certainly think that Irving with his stroke could have the same sort of effect. In an ideal world, you would have LeBron James running this play, but with his lack of a jump shot, Andrew Bogut would happily stay near the rim.

Since I mentioned LeBron, I may as well mention why it's better to have him off-ball instead of Irving. Seeing as LeBron is their best ball-handler, passer and one of their worst shooters, it seems silly to have him off-ball. But seeing as Irving is a better pick and roll threat with his jump shot who is able to unlock drive-and-kicks due to no defender being able to go under a screen, along with the idea that Irving is a terrible off-ball player with little to no clue of how to backcut, get open or make any contribution without the ball, it makes complete sense.

Plus, with his high basketball IQ, LeBron would be great as an off-ball player. With his massive scoring threat, there is no way you can help off of him to stop a drive and if you do, even with his terrible shooting, he will be able to take advantage of it, through intelligent cuts and attacking immediately off an open catch. The gravity that LeBron will create within an offense in which he doesn't have the ball will be insane. Since no player in their right mind would leave LeBron open, he will detract defenders away from just being on the same court as the ball-handler, creating space that he just doesn't get when he handles the ball.

Now that I've covered that in great detail, let's get back to how the Cavs attack switches. As I mentioned, at this point in time, all the Cavs are doing is attacking switches one-on-one without any ball movement, which has become detrimental to their ball movement. Instead of doing this, every time they get a mismatch, like getting Kyrie, LeBron or even J.R. Smith guarded by a big guy, they should run that guy through the gauntlet, getting running through off-ball screens and alike before getting this guy the ball. They should try and make their mismatch work, instead of doing exactly what they want of just going to straight iso-ball.

I'll leave you with one last point about switches and that is an excellent video by Coach Nick of BBALLBREAKDOWN, who examined the Curry/LeBron mismatch.

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