This season the Cleveland Cavaliers have been underwhelming. It is clear they are not healthy, and the returns of Iman Shumpert and Kyrie Irving could help, however that is not the biggest issue facing the team. Due to the Cavs pace, they need to have an elite defense to be successful this season. Consequently, because of Timofey Mozgov’s defensive struggles so far, the Cavs will struggle to beat the best teams in the East and West.
Following a trip to the finals, returning all the main talent on last year’s roster, and the additions of Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson, many experts predicted the Cavaliers to start strong. Some even predicted a seventy win season. Thus, the main consensus regarding the Cavs struggles has surrounded on the absence of their two starting guards: Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert. This absolutely has credence, however, its explanatory value is minimal.
To support the main consensus, Kyrie Irving is clearly a better offensive guard than Mo Williams; but what about on defense?
Looking at individual defense, per NBA.com’s stats page, Kyrie has averaged 1.93 defensive win shares per season, Mo has averaged 1.3; Kyrie’s DBPM (-1.3) is better than Mo’s (-1.9); Kyrie has average 1.5 steals per 36 minutes to Mo’s 1.1; Kyrie has a DRTG better than Mo (110 to 109); Kyrie’s Defensive Rebounding Percentage is better than Mo’s (9.5% to 9.1%); and their Opponent’s Point Per Possession is even at 1.047. So, both are pretty bad at individual defense, but Kyrie is slightly better.
Looking at team defense provides an interesting picture. Utilizing 82games 2014-15 tracking data, Irving was in the Cavs third best (Irving-Shump-JR-Love-Moz), fourth best (Irving-JR-LBJ-Love-Moz), and fifth best (Irving-James-Marion-Love-Thompson) defensive lineups.
During 2015, utilizing NBA.com’s stats page, Mo Williams is in the Cavs best five-man defensive lineup (evaluated using defensive rating), which includes, Mo Williams, Matthew Dellavedova, Lebron James, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson. He is also in the best three-man defensive lineup (Mo Williams, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao) and the second best four-man defensive lineup (Mo Williams, Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson, and Kevin Love).
Thus, when it comes to team defense, the results are murky at best. Statistically speaking, Kyrie Irving is a slightly better defender. Utilizing Defensive Rating, Kyrie is worth about four more points per 100 possessions on defense. Thus, what Kyrie primarily brings is extra offense.
This is undoubtedly important. Kyrie’s offense, when healthy, is amongst the best in the NBA. Moreover, when healthy, that strength could have helped Cleveland defeat Golden State a few weeks ago, as well as given boosts in games the Cavaliers lost closely, such as the bouts versus New Orleans and Milwaukee. In fact, Kyrie Irving’s ability to score the ball with prime efficiency from anywhere on the floor makes him one of the most difficult opponents to defend in the entire association.
This offensive impacts can be seen in two games recently, where Kyrie’s offense helped the Cavs defeat Phoenix and Toronto. Moreover, although it is early, he is a “net-zero” on defense. I.E., he does not hurt the Cavs with his defensive play, however, he also does not help them.
Problematically, though, Cleveland already is a relatively strong offensive team. Their Offensive eFG% ranks fifth in the NBA. And while I detail their offensive struggles here, which like the defense is not where it needs to be, this is not their sole problem.
The other issue is on the defensive end. The Cavaliers had a Defensive Field Goal Percentage of 42% during the 2014-15 playoffs, that would be good enough for second in the NBA this season; however, this season, the Cavs currently only have the eighth best DFG%. Historically, teams that play with the Cavs pace need to have an elite defense to compete for titles.
Figure 1 Stats via NBA.com/Stats
What this means is that, out of all the team’s that have competed for a title with a pace ranked in the bottom half of the NBA, the 2004-05 Pistons are the only ones whose defensive ratings measure closely with the 2015-16 Cavaliers. Moreover, that Pistons team is the only one mentioned that did not win a title. The rest of the teams that played as slowly as the Cavs this season, however, have won their titles with historically great defenses, which Cleveland does not currently possess.
As noted ad-nauseum, the Cavaliers have a solid defense, but it is certainly not elite. Much of this is the fault of their interior defense. More specifically Timofey Mozgov. Comparing Mozgov’s difference percentage (Opponents general FG% – Player’s Defensive FG%) in the post to other NBA centers whose teams reached the finals the past two years is revealing.
Figure 2 Stats via NBA.com/Stats
What this means is that Timofey Mozgov’s difference percentage at the rim would be the worst of any center whose team has reached the Finals in the past two years. Essentially, he would do less to stop his opponent than any of the other centers studied. The issue is what the difference between Mozgov this season and last season does for the Cavs.
Figure 3 Stats via NBA.com/Stats
Overall, Mozgov is 4.4 points per game worse defending at the rim this season than he was during the 2014-15 playoffs. Essentially, the above two graphs suggest Mozgov was elite at the rim last season. In fact, out of the past three NBA finals, Mozgov had the best defense at the rim compared to any other participating center.
Mozgov’s interior defense is critical because the Cavaliers force the opponent to shoot around 31% of their shots at the rim – both during the playoffs last year and during the regular season this year – mainly due to the strong perimeter defense of Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert. Thus, an elite defensive big like Mozgov was during the 2014-15 playoffs, actually creates significantly more missed opportunities; whereas, this season, those missed opportunities are much less frequent.
All of this is important because the Cavs have only the eleventh best Defensive Field Goal Percentage Difference at the rim, per NBA.com Stats page data. Furthermore, Synergy Sports data suggests that the Cavaliers give up .86 points per Post-up possession. This is behind teams such as Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Charlotte. Moreover, Mozgov’s Defensive Rating against the Warriors on Christmas Day was a whopping 129.3. That means, against Golden State this season, the Cavaliers gave up 28.5 more points per 100 possessions when Timofey was on the floor than when he was off.
Additionally, one other problem is that poor interior defense limits fast-break opportunities. This is because one of the main way fast breaks are generated is through strong interior defense causing missed shots. Per Synergy Sports, the Cavaliers execute fast breaks on 12.7% of possessions, which lags behind Houston, Golden State, Indiana, Oklahoma City, Boston, and Detroit. Essentially, the lack of a strong interior defense slows down the Cavs pace even more, resulting in a need for even stronger defense. This is ironic because Mozgov’s interior defense creates a never-ending viscous circle, where pace slows down, and then better defense is needed.
In order for the Cavaliers to compete with the elite teams in the NBA, they need to improve their defense, especially at the rim. The returns of Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert will help, however, they are not enough. Timofey Mozgov, while still a very good interior defender, needs to regain the form he had during the 2014-15 playoffs if the Cavs hope to compete with the best teams in the league.