The Cavaliers have obviously had some better results of late and we are all happy to see that finally occur. The frequent refrain of the Cavs “big three” is that we need to use defense to generate our up tempo offense. The greatest news from all of these declarations is that they are actually starting to back up them up!
I have been closely observing the Cavalier defensive rotations and now see noticeable improvements that are beginning to pay dividends. The key to the overall defensive scheme is that the individual players are taking pride in defensing their opponents one on one. The defensive stances have been lower and the lateral movement of the feet better. Best example of this is the play of Kyrie Irving. Bringing all that he learned from USA basketball to the Cavs, he is fiercely defending his man, anticipating and flying over the top of picks, and following to defend when he does get beat. He is taking every defensive challenge seriously now and even has won some tough battles with bigs on switches that planned to post him up.
I happen to know that there is some skepticism out there based on Kyrie’s somewhat selfish approach to play over his first three seasons. But I am convinced that those who still cling to that ancient belief have not been watching or only watching when he has his brief reversions to past practices. (Pounding the ball, not defending, and failing to play within the flow of the offense)
The second most important principle that is beginning to take hold is to “recapture” your man after a switched pick whenever possible as long as it doesn’t break down the defense. Over the past 3 years and early this year, the Cavalier’s have been caught in very poor mismatches by blindly switching picks and not even trying to recapture. The defensive difficulties caused when caught in multiple mismatches is obvious but what is not obvious is that this is caused by not trusting that your teammates know how to rotate behind you. Now the Cavs are looking actively to recapture their men and allow a “switch back” which can often require multiple rotations behind to allow that to happen without a breakdown. I have seen some breakdowns or near breakdowns from this still but It is becoming less over the past three games.
That brings us to the third defensive improvement, which is actually related to the other two. The Cavs are much improved in their rotations down low when all the chaos occurs in front of them caused by picks and switch backs. It is clear from my direct observations that the bigs are looking to rotate and cover when a breakdown occurs on top. In that past, they simply looked clueless and never rotated or rotated late. Again, there are still breakdowns in this area and every game has them, but they are far fewer than earlier this year and for the three years prior.
The key to all of this is EFFORT !!!! It takes effort to do all these switches and recaptures and rotations and contesting shots. The second key is actually knowing what is expected. That seems to be coming along slowly. The third key is communication. That seems to be better also but still not where it needs to be. The fourth key is anticipation. I now see rotations beginning before they are actually needed and players are starting to look where they need to go. The final key, of course, is trust. The trust factor in the Cavs defense is building and, as they have more success, I think it will become natural to trust their teammates.
These are huge steps and override any factors such as “rim protectors” and lack of production from the bench. That is because the bench is part of this transformation. If they don’t buy in and become a part of the defensive transformation, the team’s efforts will fail. My observations suggest that the starters and bench have both improved defensively. Continuing this going forward will be essential for the Cavs to become a dominant team instead of a streaky one.