The Cavaliers’ defense against the Dallas Mavericks Monday night was atrocious. Really, the defense over the past few weeks as a whole has been awful. The Cavs have given up 104.1 points per game in their last 10 games, which only the Lis Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers have given up more than over this season. Per 100 possessions, that number jumps to a 109.4 defensive rating, which would be the worst mark in the league this season by a full three points. The Cavs are bleeding points, and this was put most on display Monday night, in a 124-107 beating from Dallas. The culprits, by now, have mostly thoroughly been identified. I touched on the Cavs’ shaky three-point defense earlier this season (An aspect of D which they have since improved). None of the point guards can defend anything. The team lacks a true rim protector, and the ability to defend any sort of mobile post, both things Tristan Thompson in particular has struggled with. They give up a ton of points in transition. And most poorly of all, their pick-and-roll defense is deplorable. Watch any Cavs game and you’ll see how bad it is. In fact, here’s one of their greatest hits from Mike Prada of SB Nation earlier in the year.
The PNR defense has struggled no matter who is defending it. Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao? Usually not great. Jarrett Jack and Tristan Thompson? Clueless. Anthony Bennett and anyone? Dumpster fire. this is a team-wide problem, and has been for the entire season. However, the effects of this are now not isolated to what’s happening at the top of the key. The other players are now attempting to compensate for the PNR defenders’ shortcomings in a variety of ways. Most typically, this occurs by the Cavs’ wings playing preventative help defense, in order to make sure there’s at least someone in the vicinity of the lane before the PNR defenders get toasted. Against Dallas, as you’ll see, this went, very, very, VERY poorly.
Here’s the first example. The Mavs run a PNR with Jose Calderon and Sam Dalembert. Predictably, neither Jack nor Varejao acknowledge a wide-open Dalembert rolling to the hoop, so Kyrie slides over to at least pretend to take that option away. Only problem is, he was sagging off Monta Ellis a lot already.
Instead of hitting Dalembert, like he’d done multiple times already in the first quarter, Calderon sees this and fires it quickly to Monta in the corner.
Now, Kyrie’s quick, but not that quick. He has about a full second to cover roughly 12 feet in order to even attempt to contest this shot.
Needless to say……he didn’t get there.
Now here’s a particularly egregious example from later in the game. The Mavs go with a Monta/Brandan Wright PNR in transition. Luol Deng sees this and parks in the center of the paint because *surprise* Jack and Bennett ignore Wright heading to the basket.. Deng’s man, Vince Carter, heads to the corner.
Then the Mavs abandon the PNR entirely and swing the ball to Dirk. Now Wright isn’t an option, but Vince is open by a country mile in the corner, and Deng absolutely will not be able to get back in time. Vince bricks this wide-open three, but you can see how ridiculous the Cavs’ help-side defense can get, and how the PNR defense is directly influencing this.
This would be one thing if the Cavs were only leaving their man open to defend against known destructive PNR threats. However, this isn’t the case. Here’s a particularly well-guarded (for the Cavs, at least) side PNR from Jeremy Lin and Terrence Jones.
Lin is a force in the PNR. Jones is decent but nothing spectacular. Kyrie and Tristan actually do a decent job here, keeping the PNR contained without Jones leaking too far out. He’s not really a threat, especially with Dwight there in his way. And even if Lin beats Tristan, Zeller is there to step out and help. Notice Dion guarding Harden.
When Lin predictably beats Tristan to the edge, and Jones idly cuts to the basket, Dion almost instinctively breaks to the middle to pick up Jones and leaves JAMES HARDEN wide open. There’s no reason for this. Jones isn’t really a threat by virtue of the lack of spacing between him and Harden. Zeller is there to step out on either as needed. Deng can also collapse and help. Dion is best served staying put, especially because when Lin meets Zeller, this happens:
Lin curls around and finds Harden before Dion can even fully change direction, and Harden has it in position to shoot before Dion begins a full sprint to close out. Harden buries the three. All because Dion needlessly helped on Jones and left one of the best players in the league wide open.
Herein lies the problem for the Cavs with this. The PNR defense is so terrible that their wings seem to leave their man almost on principle because they’ve seen the PNR defenders fail too many times. And I have to reiterate, when this happens because Anthony Davis rolls unguarded to the hoop and someone leaves Al-Farouq Aminu alone, I get it. But in the above scenarios, the Cavs left Monta Ellis, Vince Carter, and James Harden alone to try to stop Sam Dalembert, Brandan Wright, and Terrence Jones. Is that really a sound defensive strategy? Wouldn’t the better idea be to, I don’t know, do something besides letting every PNR roll man roll without a second thought?
The New York Knicks are also terrible at defending PNR because they needlessly switch screens, but at least in their case, some of the time the roll man is defended by one of the PNR defenders. The Cavs’ PNR defense is broken, and has been all year, and it’s having a severe effect on the quality of the defense as a whole. Couple this with the Cavs’ offensive struggles, and it’s easy to see why the Cavs are imploding like a dying white dwarf.