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Cleveland Cavaliers' resurgence fuelled by LeBron James's puppet mastery

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Last night, in a 106-99 win over the Washington Wizards, LeBron James posted a triple-double of 20 points, 15 assists and 12 rebounds. Casually, too. Such is his wont of an evening.

From an efficiency point of view, it was not his prettiest, taking 23 shots to score those 21 points and turning it over six times along the way. Included within was one particular possession in which he got away with one egregious travel before being called for another equally ugly one two seconds later, a rare brain fart from a man normally immune to them. But in general, as ever, it was a game winning performance, yet another easy-looking slither of brilliance in a career full of it. It was LeBron’s fourth triple double in his last five games, his fifth of the season, and the sixtieth of his career.

Indeed, it is a particularly dominant stretch for LeBron of late. In nine December games, he is averaging 27.4 points, 11.3 assists and 9.4 rebounds, recording a .629% true shooting percentage and a +14 net rating despite a usage rate of 32.5%. For all the improvements and dominance of James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo et al, James is still out here doing what no one else can do.

LeBron is essentially doing this as a point guard. Regardless of whatever myriad other talents and physical abilities he has, it has always been his passing skill and his cerebral view of the game that has separated him from the other elites – the few others who can see the court like he does are not the dominant physical specimens that he is. With the vision, unselfishness and IQ of an elite point guard in the body of a power forward flanked with the athleticism of a high school phenom wing, LeBron is truly as multi-positional of a player as there has ever been, and perhaps could ever hope to be.

It is this transcendent versatility that has allowed Cleveland to paper over the cracks of their own making.

2017 NBA Finals - Game Four

Cleveland started the season 3-5, then split the next four games to limp along to a 5-7 record. Since then, however, they have ridden winning streaks of 13 games and their current five-gamer to win 18 of their last 19 games, propelling them to a 23-8 record and second place in the Eastern Conference behind only the Boston Celtics. They are, give or take, back to the level they always have been at.

The Cavaliers fell into this early-season hole because they could not defend. And they still cannot. They give up the 22nd most points in the league on the sixth worst defensive rating of 110.0, on the 20th worst opponent’s true shooting percentage. They rarely foul, which helps, but they only rarely foul due to a team-wide poor level of ball pressure, thereby forcing only the seventh-worst turnover rate in the league. They neither prevent shots nor defend them particularly well, a potent combination for the opposition.

This was not a surprise. The roster was not built to defend, especially around key areas of efficiency for the opposing offence. The Cavaliers rank 25th out of 30 teams in blocked shots; while it has not helped that the closest thing they have to a traditional big man, Tristan Thompson, has missed 20 games due to injury, Thompson is not a particularly good interior defender or shot blocker, merely all right, and his status as such on the team is a very relative one. The sole backup “big” man in the rotation, Channing Frye, is by this point a very one-dimensional outside shooter who provides no physicality or threatening help defence on the interior, and the team’s main big man, Kevin Love, can barely dunk any longer. (Naturally, it is James who leads the team in blocked shots at 1.1 per game. Up to a point, he is playing the point guard and centre spots at the same time.)

However, the defensive inefficiencies are not limited to defence around the basket. The Cavaliers give up the most three-pointers of any team on the league on the eighth worst three-point percentage and seventh-worst three-point rate (a measure of what percentage of a team’s total field goal attempts are from three), and also only clear the defensive glass at a 76.1% rate, itself the sixth-worst rate in the league.

Be it through poor switches or rotations, opponent shooters get open far too easily against the Cavaliers purely by swinging the ball around the perimeter, or driving and kicking. There is no one area of defence the Cavaliers can point to and say “hey, at least we’re good at that”, and while they still lack key guards Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert due to injury, only Shumpert is an average to above-average defender amongst them.

To say the team is not built to defend is a reason for these struggles, but not an excuse. The Cavaliers will need to be able to defend better than this, and need look only to themselves in the recent past for proof of such – even though their title-winning team of 2015/16 was no defensive juggernaut, it defended well enough, with a tenth-best defensive rating of 104.9 that was 0.9 better than the league average.

The personnel that make up the core of the current Cavaliers is not all that different to now – Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova were not that important defensively, and Kyrie Irving certainly wasn’t – yet individual defensive declines (LeBron included) are evident, compounded by external personnel decisions.

Aside from Jae Crowder, who has struggled all season long to find the fit he enjoyed so well in Boston, no plus defenders have been brought in. Notwithstanding the fact that no one ever said the Cavaliers entered the season committed to the current roster as a blueprint for championship success – new General Manager Koby Altman is still re-shaping the team in his image – these defensive cracks were evident in the design of the team, and are still there 31 games in. With this line-up, they were always going to be.

The papering, then, comes offensively. Cleveland have turned their season around not by turning their defence around, but by being too good offensively for the defensive limitations to now be terminal.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Washington Wizards

In losing Irving, Cleveland lost one of the best shot-makers in the world. Kyrie’s ability to hit shots with insane degrees of difficulty cannot be recaptured in any trade, even if a healthy Thomas comes close. Nevertheless, despite Irving’s departure, Cleveland replaced him with shooters and scorers at every position, and plenty of athleticism.

Minimum salary signee Jeff Green is perhaps in the best stretch of his variable career. He is having some success spotting out from outside, but is more providing a valuable option in the post and the mid-range areas, a very efficient finisher of post-catches, dump-off passes and semi-transition opportunities. Old man Dwayne Wade is providing the ability to create off the dribble that needed to be found somewhere else, and can still leak out to run the court, while Kyle Korver can still make it rain as well as ever, particularly in the fourth quarter.

The hub of all of that is James. Jose Calderon may be called upon to do the bulk of the point guard defence, but James is doing the offence. It is he who begins in the high pick-and-roll, attacking the defence right down the middle off of a simple screen. When giving a running start and a defence on his heels, LeBron has his pick of the options; getting to the hole himself, hitting the screener for a jump-shot, kicking out to the wing for a jumper or closeout-drive, or, if he drives away from the middle, throwing a pinpoint skip pass to the opposite corner for a good look to a good shooter. He does not always make the play – no one does – but very rare is the play in which he makes the wrong decision.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Charlotte Hornets

When surrounded by unselfish shooters to whom he can be the puppet master, LeBron is still unrivalled, and makes it all look all so phenomenally easy. Even when slightly off his game last night, he won the thing for his team. This is Harden-esque, except with an explosion and ability to cover the middle that Harden does not have, and with a hardiness that rivals Stockton and Malone, and pretty much only Stockton and Malone.

Into the final third of his career, LeBron has retained perhaps 95% of the physical prowess of his youth, added even more strength, gotten ever smarter, grown his skills (particularly in his outside shooting), nuanced his game (particularly in abandoning the mid-range game), and developed his understanding of when to change gear and win the games, just as he did last night.

Aged 33, with more than 14 seasons, 1,300 NBA games and 50,000 NBA minutes under his belt already, and yet still playing 37.4 minutes per game in an era of heightened awareness about the importance of rest and minute limits, LeBron James should not be any empirical measure still be this good or this important. But he is.

The Cavaliers are back to competitiveness, and every single part of their rejuvenation has run through LeBron. Long may it continue.

Topics:
NBA
LeBron James
Cleveland Cavaliers
Central Division
Eastern Conference
Dwyane Wade
Miami Heat
Southeast Division
Kyrie Irving

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