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Freelance Friday: The Cleveland Cavaliers — Long on Talent, Short on Spacing

Mar 18, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao (right) shoots against Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) in the fourth quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Freelance Friday is a project that lets us share our platform with the multitude of talented writers and basketball analysts who aren’t part of our regular staff of contributors. As part of that series we’re proud to present this guest post from Josh Riddell, a writer for Draftexpress. You can find Josh on Twitter, @Joshua_Riddell.

David Blatt fell into an incredible opportunity as a rookie NBA head coach, learning that LeBron James would be returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers just weeks after he agreed to take over the team. While the roster is still a work in progress, one of the first items that Blatt is going to have to address is lineup construction around James, specifically regarding the big men on the Cavaliers’ roster.

After three seasons with the Miami Heat, a near perfect roster (in theory, although arguably not in execution) was built around James. The best five-man regular season lineup for the Heat which included James was James, Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Rashard Lewis, which outscored its opponents by 23.1 points per 100 possessions. The lineup includes five players who have to be respected around the three point line, opening tons of space for James to finish at the rim, as we see in the frame below.

Heat 1

Meanwhile, Anderson Varejao has clearly taken steps to become a floor spacer while playing alongside Tristan Thompson or Tyler Zeller last season, but he only has range to about 18 feet, which limits his potential to clear the paint and draw his defender completely away from the rim. As you can see from the shot charts below, which compares Varejao’s performance from James’ last season in Cleveland in 09-10 and Varejao’s 13-14 shooting, he has become a much more competent outside shooter but not to the extent that James has gotten used to in Miami.

From 2009:

From last season:

In 2013-2014, James did not play with two big men who were incapable of spacing the floor at the same time, according to NBA.com’s lineup data. The Heat’s ability to space the floor around James was one of the main factors that allowed him to shoot 79.6% at the rim, the highest of his career. However, even with one big man clogging the paint, we see the effect this had on James’ field goal percentage at the rim.

This should not be a surprising fact but what is crucial is just how much this affects James and his efficiency ceiling. The Heat had two big last season that played substantial minutes who were incapable of shooting beyond the arc in Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem. The chart below, with stats provided by NBA.com, illustrates the field goal percentage of James in the restricted area alongside Andersen or Haslem during the regular season.

Minutes Attempts in restricted area Field Goal Percentage in restricted area
Andersen – Bench 2131 213 77.0%
Andersen – On Court 771 65 70.8%
Haslem – Bench 2453 352 75.3%
Haslem – On Court 448 189 77.2%

James actually saw a slight uptick in his field goal percentage at the rim with Haslem on the court but most of this can be attributed to the fact that Haslem has range on the baseline almost out to the three point, forcing defenders to drift out to defend him. Overall though, with a non-three point shooting big man on the court, James saw a drop in his ability to finish at the rim, caused mainly by the extra defenders that were able to be closer to the rim while guarding Andersen or Haslem.

With the potential to have two such bigs drawing defenders to the rim in Varejao and Thompson, James may have a tougher time coming close to his incredible efficiency at rim finishing from 13-14. In 1,058 minutes with both Varejao and Thompson on the floor at the same time, the Cavaliers as a team shot only 55.3% in the restricted area on 519 attempts. With neither Varejao nor Thompson able to draw defenders to the three point line, the paint is clogged, suffocating driving lanes for the perimeter players.

Here’s a frame that shows what the paint area looked like in 2009-10 when the Cavaliers played James alongside Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a stark contrast to the defense played against the Heat above. The Celtics defense is able to collapse off the big men,who are not providing any floor spacing. This cuts driving lanes off and while James is able to draw a foul on this play, he has to expend a ton of energy to break through multiple defenders on his way to the rim.

Cavs 1

While James will find other ways to score, including continuing to get to the rim in the halfcourt, easy finishes at the rim are the lifeblood of any great basketball player. Having to work harder to get through a shrunken defense or draw more contact to get to the free throw line may slowly suck the energy out of James as the season progresses. The positive for Blatt is that the duo of Varejao and Thompson was not all that successful last season, being outscored by 1.2 points per 100 possessions. Some of this may be due to the struggles of the team as a whole, not just related to the inability of the pair to play together but Blatt shouldn’t feel pressure to play them together for long splits since they were not extremely great together last year, which gives him some roster flexibility.

According to 82games.com, James split his time equally between playing as a small forward and power forward last season and saw similar success on the offensive end at both positions. James is capable at playing multiple positions but has gotten used to a wide open paint thanks to the lineup of shooters built around him. It’s clear that James is more effective around the rim surrounded by players who can space the floor but neither of Cleveland’s best big men, Varejao and Thompson, fit this category. Most likely, these two will not be able to play together often this season and need to see their minutes staggered during the season. Blatt will need to be smart with his lineup construction around James as he gets his feet wet early in the season to see what best works for this Cavalier team.

Of course, a trade for Kevin Love would quickly negate this research and potential problem, as Blatt would then be able to play Love at PF or C alongside James, opening up space and preventing him from having to play Varejao and Thompson together for long stretches. If this trade doesn’t pan out, it will be interesting to see how Blatt staggers the minutes of Varejao and Thompson to best help out his star.

Ian Levy

Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh) writes about basketball from the wilds of Southern Vermont. In addition to his work for Hardwood Paroxysm, he is the man behind the curtain at Hickory-High and a contributor to Indy Cornrows, The Two Man Game and HoopChalk.