There’s one overriding fact that we can glean from the first eight games, which is that defense is hard. The difference between the best defensive teams in the NBA and the worst is between four and five made field goals per game, and for the most part those makes come from getting beaten in transition or having a breakdown in the halfcourt. You can watch teams like the Spurs or Bulls or the Celtics when Garnett was there for a week and never see them give up a backdoor basket. That takes more than talent; it takes the ability to pay attention every moment you are on the floor, and to understand what each of the 10 players on the floor might do next and what the appropriate response is to any potential move by anyone.
So it’s not incredibly surprising that the Cavs have hit some rough spots as Mike Brown attempts to turn them into an elite defensive team. It’s also not surprising that a lot of those rough spots involved Kyrie Irving. Not only was Irving the worst defensive player on the team, if not the entire league, last year, but as the team leader he has been asked to set the example for his teammates and be focused on defense at all times. This is a huge burden for a player as young as Irving, but it is a necessary step in his evolution toward being a true superstar who is capable of leading a team to a championship.
Be that as it may, there are a few things Mike Brown can do to make this easier on his guys. The most obvious is to manage their minutes. It is tempting to want to have Kyrie and Andy and, to some extent, Tristan Thompson, in the game all the time, but the Cavs have built enough depth this year that nobody should be playing more than 35 minutes per night. In order to expect 100 percent effort on defense on every possession, which is what will be required if the Cavs are to be an elite defensive team, players have to know that they will not be left on the floor past the point where they are effective. My philosophy would be to have eight or nine players (three guards, two wings and three or four bigs) share minutes more or less evenly through three quarters, then go with the hot hand in the fourth quarter. The only place the Cavs are lacking the depth to do this is the frontcourt. Eventually either Andrew Bynum, Tyler Zeller or a combination of the two will be able to handle 30 minutes a night so that Varejao and Thompson can get off the floor when they need to. Another possibility would be to move Earl Clark back to power forward, since C.J. Miles is playing so well at small forward.
It does seem like the extra effort on defense has led to some standing around on offense. That has manifested itself in too many possessions where four guys stand around and watch Kyrie dribble. Part of that is due to Mike Brown’s lack of a halfcourt offense, but there are enough athletes and shooters on this team that if guys are moving, there will be open looks. This will be especially true if Bynum gets more time with the starters, because the two-man games he and Kyrie can play should tilt the entire defense toward them, leaving everyone else on the floor open if they move to the right spot.
Monday night was a perfect example of too many minutes. Kyrie played 41 minutes and Tristan Thompson played 39. In the four or so minutes where the lead went from three to 14, Irving missed a 15-footer, had a shot blocked, had a 24-second violation, missed a three and threw the ball away. Would those things have happened if Irving had fresh legs? We can’t say, but the end of the game sure looked like one team had more gas in the tank than the other. Just as a side note, only Luol Deng played more than 34 minutes for the Bulls, and he played 37.