NBA Basketball is a constantly changing game. Coaches and teams are constantly looking for different ways to find new levels of effectiveness on both offense and defense. Because of this, what worked fifteen years ago for Jordan’s Bulls may not work today for LeBron’s Heat. In today’s NBA, there is a huge emphasis on spacing in most teams’ offenses. As a result one of the most in demand role players in the league is the “3-and-D” wing, a player who can effectively guard both shooting guards and small forwards while shooting at least a solid percentage on three-point shots. These players are able to have a positive impact on their team’s defense while providing spacing by demanding that other teams guard them out at the three point line. While these “New Age Shane Battiers” (shout out to Zach Lowe), are role players who typically do not command a large salary, there are very few players who truly fit this profile in the league today. Given the talents of guards Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Jarrett Jack, as well as those of big men Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao, and Tristan Thompson, this type of player would be the perfect fit for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ starting lineup. This is especially true considering the Cavaliers shot 34.6 percent on three pointers last season (just below league average), while allowing their opponents to shoot 37.2 percent from beyond the arc (significantly above league average). Today we will study the Cavaliers’ candidates for the role of “3-and-D” man at small forward by looking at the individual strengths and weaknesses of each player in order to determine the best fit for the Cavaliers this season (all statistics are from basketball-reference.com, 82games.com, and sports-reference.com).
Signed this summer to play small forward after spending most of his career at the power forward spot, Clark seems to have some potential for fitting this role. In admittedly limited time at small forward, Clark held opposing threes to a 12.3 PER last season. He also contributed 1.5 defensive win shares and shot 33.7 percent from three last season on 2.7 attempts per 36 minutes after rarely taking shots from deep during the previous three years of his career. Clark has the size and physicality to guard large wings such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Durant. On the downside Clark still shot roughly 1.3 percent below league average from deep and the Lakers’ offense and defense were both better with him on the bench last season. Some of this can be attributed to the Lakers’ up-and-down season as well as Clark’s constantly changing role. It is also unknown if Clark has the speed to effectively guard many of the league’s shooting guards. Hopefully Clark has spent this offseason working on his outside shooting as a three percent improvement in this area could be huge for the Cavaliers.
The incumbent starter at small forward, Gee will certainly play a role with the Cavaliers’ this season, albeit at reduced minutes and possibly off the bench. A solid, if somewhat overrated defender, Gee averaged 1.3 steals per game and like Clark added 1.5 defensive win shares to the Cavaliers’ total. Gee also moves well without the ball as both a cutter and to get himself open as a shooter. Unfortunately, opposing small forwards had a 17.5 PER against Gee last season and shooting guards were even rougher, posting a PER of 18.1. Some of this can be attributed to Gee typically guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player, but it still looks like his defensive reputation is probably a bit exaggerated. Gee is also shooting 32.9 percent from three for his career (31.5% last season), despite shooting 78 percent from the free throw line. While one has to admire Gee’s hard work and dedication in going from an undrafted D-Leaguer to an NBA rotation player who started 82 games last year, he will probably have a significantly smaller role with the team as the Cavaliers move towards contention.
Somewhat of a forgotten man this offseason, Miles can actually make a pretty solid case for being the Cavaliers’ 3-and-D wing. Always a solid (and foul prone) defender, Miles held opposing small forwards to a PER of 14.1 last year, slightly below league average. He much better against shooting guards, who had a miniscule PER of 5.6 when guarded by Miles. He also shot a very solid 38.4 percent from three on five shots per game last season. There are several concerns however. While a solid defender, Miles obviously has more trouble with small forwards and simply isn’t long or strong enough to guard some of the larger wings in the league. Miles success from three last season may also be a bit of a mirage for two reasons. First, he is a chucker, hoisting 9.4 shots in 21 minutes a game last season while providing fairly low assist totals, which is not what you want from a player whose purpose is to provide spacing and outside shooting. Second, his three point shooting last season was quite a bit above his career average of 34.3 percent and way above the 30.7 percent e shot from deep during the 2011-2012 season. Still, Miles offers some intrigue when considered for this role.
The nineteenth pick in last June’s draft, Karasev intrigues both fans and NBA insiders alike. While it was known the Cavaliers coveted the Russian, it was still a bit of a surprise that they were able to draft him without a trade to move up to a higher pick. Only 19 years old, the young swingman has already been an Olympian as a member of Russia’s bronze medal-winning squad in 2012. His success continued this past season as he averaged more than 16 points per game. in the Russian league and Eurocup, and was clearly the best player on the Russian squad that won the World University Games in July. Karasev is already an elite shooter whose skills in this area should translate to the NBA game right away. He is also an excellent passer and slasher with a high basketball I.Q., and according to Chad Ford, Karasev held his opposing shooters to a field goal percentage of 28.6 percent on spot-ups, which ranked him in the 95th percentile of all European competition. Still, just looking at Karasev, it is hard to imagine him having any success defending physical wings like Kawhi Leonard and Luol Deng, let alone machines such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, who might be able to simply bulldoze Karasev on their way to the rim. Same goes for quick and shifty shooting guards such as James Harden and Monta Ellis.
The undoubted dark horse in this “competition” Felix was a surprise pick at number 33 overall by the Cavaliers in June. At the time, Felix was projected to be a low second round pick if he was drafted at all. That being said, the role of a 3-and-D wing was essentially the role Felix played at Arizona State last year. An athletic wing with a high motor, Felix is a solid defender who 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks per game last season. These numbers along with an impressive 8.1 rebounds per game (as a 6’6” wing!) allowed Felix to finish with 2.1 defensive win shares last season. Felix was a solid offensive player as well, using his athleticism to get out in transition, and shooting a very solid 37.4% from three with solid mechanics. Working against Felix are the facts that he is already 23 years old, somewhat limiting his upside, and his lack of success as a three-point shooter prior to this year, as well as poor free throw shooting makes it look like last season’s numbers may be a fluke. But if Felix is going to succeed in the NBA it will be in a role such as this.
The Cavaliers would never admit this, but it would not surprise me if their dream scenario is for Karasev to show enough on defense to take the starting small forward job and run with it. His age fits with the rest of the team’s core, and he has the size, instincts, and talent level to fill the hole at the three for many years to come. That being said, European players often struggle during their first year in the league, let alone 19 year old Europeans, and Karasev probably needs a year on an NBA strength program to be an effective defender. Fellow rookie Carrick Felix might be a late bloomer who could eventually fill this role, but it’s unlikely that Mike Brown will entrust this role to a rookie considering Dan Gilbert’s desire to contend for the playoffs this season. At this point Alonzo Gee’s poor shooting as well as C.J. Miles’ gunning and inconsistent play have been part of their games for so long it is hard to see either player changing much. The most likely scenario is that Earl Clark is named the starting small forward with the hope that he can make three or four more three-pointers for every hundred and defend shooting guards as well as small forwards. If that happens, the Cavaliers will have all of the “3’s” and “D” they need.