Newsflash: The Cleveland Cavaliers are playing defense, and they’re doing it for the first time all season. They’ve also ripped off 11 straight wins, making them the hottest team in the NBA right now.
Coincidence? The numbers provide an explanation.
In their first 39 games, the Cavaliers were allowing 100.1 points per game, placing them in the bottom half of the league in terms of overall defensive rating (19th out of 30 teams, to be exact). Instead of playing like the “super squad” most experts and fans predicted them to be, they more or less resembled a “doughnut” team, meaning their defense had a gaping hole in the middle. Opposing players had no problem driving past the Cavaliers’ perimeter defenders. Once they made it through, they often faced zero opposition at the rim, allowing them an easy layup or dunk. This happened over and over and over again; matador-like defensive efforts on the outside and zero rim protection on the inside. This was the storyline for the Cavaliers in its first 39 games.
Deeper statistics show the results of those lackluster efforts. As of Jan. 14, the Cavs ranked 29th in opponent field goal percentage at 47.1 percent. They were also out-rebounded by opponents on the defensive end 30.6 to 30.2 on average per game.
In comparison, when examining the defense numbers over the 11-game winning streak, it’s no mystery as to why the Cavs have found their recent success.
During the win streak, the Cavs have cut that 47.1 opponent field goal percentage all the way down to 41.8 percent, good for fifth in the NBA. They’ve controlled the glass, winning the rebounding battle 33.9 to 28.9 on average on a nightly basis. They’ve also leaped from 19th to 9th in the NBA in opposing ppg average, reducing the 100.1 mark they had been giving up in the first 39 games down to just 95.5 since then.
Case in point, the Cavaliers’ refreshed approach and focus on the defensive side of the ball has been translating to wins. Through masterful trades by General Manager David Griffin, they’ve filled that “doughnut-hole” in the middle of their paint with the 7-foot-1, 250-pound bruising center Timofey Mozgov. They’ve also added guys that have thus far brought heightened effort defensively on the outside-in J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
For those who would scoff at the notion that J.R. Smith has actually been playing defense since his arrival in Cleveland, the Cavs have allowed 2.1 fewer points per game per 100 possessions with J.R. on the court. It may not seem like a lot, but 2.1 points could determine the outcome of the game.
On the other hand, no one has ever questioned Iman Shumpert’s defensive prowess on the perimeter. Throughout his young career, he has been known as a lockdown defender on the wing, and for good reason. In the small sample size since joining the Cavaliers, Shumpert’s opponents have shot 16.8 percent worse from behind the three-point line than their season average, as they’ve shot a paltry 17.4 percent with Shumpert blanketing them, via NBA.com.
While his minutes were initially very limited due to his recovering shoulder from injury, Shumpert has seen a steady increase in playing time since making his Cavaliers debut. This is very good news for Cleveland, since the Cavs have allowed 8.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Shumpert on the court as opposed to when he is on the bench.
Center Timofey Mozgov has also done his job. Before his arrival in Cleveland, the Cavs were allowing opponents to shoot 62.7 percent inside the paint. Once-center Anderson Varejão went down with a season-ending injury, that number was only bound to get worse. Mozgov has since done his part to change that, as his height, size and affinity for shot-blocking has caused that percentage to plummet all the way down to 56.2 percent, according to NBA.com.
While the season progresses, there is absolutely no reason to believe these defense ratings will drop. The team should only develop stronger chemistry as they gradually become more comfortable with one another’s play style. As the team gels, its defense could become scary good. The offense will always be there, given the team’s supreme talent on that end of the ball.
As the saying goes, Defense wins Championships, and the Cavaliers have one goal. If they hang their hats on the their defensive effort, something special just might happen here in Cleveland.