Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and in my family, enjoy some latkes. Whatever you celebrate, if you are an NBA fan like me, December 25th means one thing: basketball. We start the day off with an Eastern Conference showdown between Boston and New York, two teams playing very well. Our dinner time game is Chicago vs. San Antonio, pitting Kawhi Leonard and Dwyane Wade against each other like it is 2013, and we end the night with Minnesota vs. Oklahoma City followed by the Clippers vs. the Lakers; two games that put young, soon-to-be-great teams against more established groups.
That is definitely a great slate of games. Although, it does feel like we are missing something. Where is the sexy game between two elite teams? It just feels like that is missing.
Hmmm.
Oh, yeah! In a rematch of the greatest NBA Finals ever – the entire series was decided by four points – the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers will play against the Golden State Warriors. This matchup puts the two best teams in the NBA in Cleveland for a sure-to-be snowy, physical matchup. So let’s briefly discuss what is different in this matchup since the last the two mega-teams played each other.
First, as excited as the fans are, this game really is meaningless. The Warriors beat the Cavs during both of their regular season meetings in the 2015-16 season by a combined forty points. More than anything meaningful, this provides a good barometer for both teams to test their collective progress this season.
Secondly, Golden State has added a pretty good, high potential player in this Kevin Durant guy. I’ve heard he has won an MVP before. He’s arguably the best shooter in the NBA playing in an offense designed to make shooters a deadly weapon. This addition came at the loss of former rotation players like Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Mo Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, and Brandon Rush. They’ve replaced these players with newcomers such as, amongst others, ZaZa Pachulia, David West, and Patrick McCaw.
Thirdly, the Cleveland Cavaliers, on the other hand, do not have any high profile additions. With that said, Kevin Love has been playing like a better version of the all-star we saw in Minnesota, Kyrie Irving has ten or more assists in three of his last four games, LeBron James is LeBron James, and Iman Shumpert is shooting three-point shots at a 42.2% career high. All of these are welcome additions that have resulted in the Cavs rivaling the Warriors at nearly every turn this season, and make the defending champions an even better team than what we saw last season.
Yet, the Cavs have made one small talent acquisition that is important in wake of news that broke earlier this week. Following the announcement that JR Smith will miss 12-14 weeks with a broken thumb and tendon injury, it was assumed that DeAndre Liggins – a 28 year old NBA/D-League journeyman who has recently found minutes with the defending champions – would replace the three-point marksmen in the starting lineup.
Liggins, a defensive wizard, has had a checkered past and limited offensive game result in an inability to stick on any NBA roster for too long. Put simply, at a younger age, Liggins had quite the unsightly character. In September 2013, just as the former Kentucky swingman was finding a home with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Liggins was arrested and charged with multiple counts of domestic violence for beating up his then girlfriend in front of their two year old daughter.
Unlike what occurs in the NFL, this personal issue made it impossible for any NBA team to take a chance on Liggins for multiple seasons. Following the arrest, the Oklahoma City Thunder waived DeAndre, and he has not made one NBA roster for four seasons. In an interview with ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, Liggins noted that: “I learned a lot from [the domestic violence situation].” He furthered that, “domestic violence is a big thing [that’s talked about in society] now. I learned from it. I became a better person, a better parent. I’m still taking counseling for it. My child’s mom is, too. So, we’re both in a good place right now. I know that’s a big issue right now in today’s world.”
On a personal level, I have struggled accepting this apology as enough to forgive Liggins. I despise what occurs in the NFL, whereby, as fans, we employ a type of cognitive dissonance as a tool to ignore domestic violence and root for our team’s players. As a general rule, the NBA does not deal with as many of these incidents as the NFL or NHL, and thus I have been able to avoid a contradiction of this sort in my career as a basketball fan. Nonetheless, a few things are important to remember:
Whether or not his apology is true is up for debate, but not by people who do not know Liggins on a personal level, such as myself. Domestic violence is an unacceptable behavior that, as fans, we find ways to dismiss for the sake of rooting for our city’s sports teams. Excusing the former Kentucky swingman because we “believe” – based on little evidence sans a few interviews – that he has served his punishment and recovered is problematic. Just as is, on the other hand, saying Liggins is the same man who beat up his girlfriend in front of his two year-old daughter. Neither claims are substantiated by available evidence, and we should never forget the mistake the player made as a twenty-four year old, while also accepting it is possible he has moved on from it. What is clear, however, is he is making the most of his opportunity as a player in Cleveland.
I learned a lot from it. Domestic violence is a big thing [that’s talked about in society] now. I learned from it. I became a better person, a better parent. I’m still taking counseling for it. My child’s mom is, too. So, we’re both in a good place right now. I know that’s a big issue right now in today’s world.

DeAndre Liggins

NBA Player For The Cleveland Cavaliers
As a player who states he models himself after Tony Allen, Liggins has done a marvelous job. Per NBAwowy, when both Liggins and LeBron are on the court, the Cavaliers are averaging 1.259 points per possession (extended over an entire season, this would be the best mark in the NBA), hold opponents to .925 points per possession (extended over an entire season, this would also be the best mark in the NBA), and have a point differential adjusted for pace of 33.4.
This play stands with the Cavs’ other stars, too. The Liggins-Love two-man combo has a point differential adjusted for pace of 38.4, and the Irving-Liggins two-man combo has a point differential adjusted for pace of 25.9. Per NBA.com’s stats page, these two-man numbers are greater than any other combination of starters in the NBA. Finally, as a five-man lineup, the Kyrie-Liggins-LeBron-Love-Thompson group is the best statistical unit in the NBA.
So why does Liggins seem like he was the missing piece for the Cavaliers? The answer is that his stellar defense and ability to knock-down the open three-point shot covers many weaknesses the Cavs have dealt with for the past two seasons. Over the past two seasons, when LeBron James is paired with JR Smith as the two-guard, the Cavs give up 1.052 points per possession, per NBA Wowy. This is a league average number, and while not bad, is also equally unspectacular. Yet, when the two-guard spot is occupied by Liggins instead of JR Smith, the Cavs are allowing only .953 points per possession, an elite number. Let’s examine some reasons why Liggins defense is so incredible, first by watching him defend Paul George.
This video shows a few bits of excellent defending by the former Kentucky swingman. First, he plays superb ball denial against one of the best spot-up shooters in the NBA. Paul George can only get the ball while completely covered on the three-point line. Against a player like George, this is important for two reasons: first, at any time, swingmen like the Pacers star can spot-up for a quick shot. This can be seen below.
Thus, Liggins’ ball denial makes it impossible for Paul George to use his open millisecond to nail an easy jumper. Secondly, though, this type of ball denial prevents Paul George from cutting forward to the basket. This is one of the Pacers’ star’s favorite moves, and for good reason:
Consequently, the Cavs’ swingman’s defense not only prevents Paul George from spotting-up for the open shot, but it also denies the Pacers’ star an opportunity to make one of his favorite cuts to the basket.
Referring back to the first video, when George finally does receive the ball, he attempts to use his speed and strength to drive past Liggins. Liggins does not allow that to occur and uses his quick hands to steal the ball. A trimmed-down version of just that part appears below:
This is truly great defense, because outside of his ability to nail open spot-ups and make great off-ball cuts, Paul George is also known for his combination of speed and strength while dribbling. Below are two recent clips of George doing just this against the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks.
In this November game, Liggins showed the ability to neutralize one of the greatest offensive players in the game on multiple levels. Yet, this is not just a one-shot, as he has continued to do just this the entire season. Below is a compilation of three videos showing Liggins easily going under screens, performing superb man defense, and getting steals against Kemba Walker, Marc Gasol, and Matthew Dellavedova.
In the first video, Liggins goes under the initial screen and easily recovers to stay in front of Kemba Walker in a play that results in a beautiful block. In the second, the former Kentucky swingman waits until Marc Gasol’s head is turned and can no longer see Liggins’ man, then quickly runs and steals the ball preventing a deadly Gasol post-up. And in the third clip, guarding the former Cleveland cult hero, DeAndre plays superb man defense and steals the ball from Dellavedova. These three videos are all evidence of Liggins’ versatility as a defensive player, and moreover, why he is so valuable to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Overall, DeAndre Liggins is using his defensive acumen to earn warranted playing time for the defending champions. His shaky past is, indeed, shaky. Nonetheless, in the present, the former Kentucky swingman has merited everything he has received this season. His role has little glamour, but because he has had no incidents since 2013, has seen therapists since his arrest, and has played hard, Liggins may finally be close to achieving his NBA dream.
So what can we expect from DeAndre in the matchup against the Warriors? Odds are he will spend most of his time guarding the Warriors shooting guard, Klay Thompson, perhaps with some minutes defending Steph Curry and Kevin Durant too. Furthermore, it seems likely the Warriors will give Liggins the “Tony Allen treatment” and, essentially, leave him wide-open in order to send another man to defend Irving, James, and/or Love. While Liggins won the NBA D-League Defensive Player Of The Year award twice, he has consistently bee a mediocre shooter, although that also seems improved this season. Regardless, expect the Warriors to test this as well. If Liggins cannot make three-point shots, he becomes an offensive liability when playing against Golden State.
This should be a good test for the twenty-eight year old, and if he answers positively, we should expect a Cavs win. Liggins’s defense combined with solid shooting make it so Golden State cannot attack the Cavaliers on screens as easily, thus covering one huge advantage the Warriors hold in this matchup. Nevertheless, if Liggins cannot make open three-point shots or struggles defensively, then both results are possible, but my money would be on the Warriors. Either way, this should be a good game, and a good time to evaluate Liggins’s improvement as a player.

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