Looking back fondly at the Miami Heat team that employed LeBron James you see a ferocious defensive
unit. Hyper athletes who can switch anything, centered around James’ DPOY candidacy, and Chris Bosh’s
superb help side defense. From 2011-2014, the Heat defense got a little bit worse. Blame it on the
decline of Dwyane Wade, a shift towards more 3-point shooters as opposed to defenders, or a general
malaise that accompanies James-led teams. Shane Battier – who is now employed by the Heat as
director of basketball development and analytics – had an interesting comment on the 2013-14
rendition of the Heat that lost to the Spurs in the finals (greatest point differential ever):
“I mean, a team has never won the championship when having a defensive efficiency outside the top-10.
So I thought that this year would probably be hard, it’s tough to win in close games when you don’t possess an elite defense.”
It’s worth noting that the only year that James had led the Cavaliers to the ‘chip since his return was in
2015-16 when they had the league’s 10th ranked defense. They battled against the NBA’s most prolific
offense (to that point, they’ve gotten better since) and won on the back of a grind-it- out playstyle. In the
other years (14-15, 16-17) the Cavaliers had a lower rating than they maybe deserved (there’s that
malaise again) because of their propensity to coast during the regular season, but they haven’t
replicated that type of lockdown defense since. This year’s rendition of the Cavaliers is a far-cry from
anything that remotely resembles a capable defense.
Isaiah Thomas is not the only reason that the Cavaliers defense has been more erratic than Kramer
busting into Jerry’s apartment, but he certainly plays his part, and in no way helps. The number one
problem with Thomas is that he lacks the size to switch reliably onto anyone that plays opposite of him.
The Cavaliers defense has tried (and failed) to replicate some of the switch-heavy schemes that had
been so successful in Miami. Two of the crucial components of a defense that can be successful in that
scheme, is energy, and length. The Cavaliers currently possess neither of those, in house they’re playing
guys like Thomas, Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, JR Smith, and one of the worst defensive players in the
league this year per advanced metrics, James. They’re effectively trying to ram a square peg, in a circular
Incredibly, we have Thomas repeatedly going to the media to absolve himself of any blame. He’s
repeatedly conflated the Boston Celtics defense of last year with his own, and acted as if he were an
asset to the defense, instead of it’s achilles. Thomas’ comment to the media after the Cavaliers 120-88
loss to the Houston Rockets:
“Another embarrasing loss, something gotta change. It was bad from the jump, I don’t wanna comment
too much on it, I need to watch film to see what really went down, but it wasn’t a good one for us.”
“We’re not together on both ends, I mean it’s alotta one-on- one on the offensive end. Maybe because
we don’t trust eachother, and then on the defensive end, it’s the same thing. Guys are put on islands,
and there’s no trust, so I mean if you don’t trust something, it has a lot to do with trust on both ends.
Our offense has to be way better, we have to learn to execute, get the ball moving side to side, but it
starts on the defensive end. It’s all everybody for themselves on that end (defensive) and that’s not how a good defensive team is supposed to be.
“Trust is from being out there in the battle together, and knowing ‘okay if I get beat, the next guy got
me’ and then the next guy’s helpin up, somebody else got him on the backside, like we don’t have that
at all on that end of the floor. It is an effort thing, teams are out-hustling us, and that can fall into the
toughness category as well. I don’t know the last time we got on the floor for a loose-ball. The teams I’ve
always been on defense is determined by deflections, steals, loose-balls, who’s the hardest working team on that end, we don’t have that right now.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s poignant to note that Thomas continually contrasts the Cavaliers
struggles with success he’s found defensively elsewhere. Openly describing what he thinks is a good
defense (basically a defense that will recover for him when he gets beat, and it’s often). Some of what
he says is true, unequivocally. It really seems hollow coming from one of the team’s worst defenders.
As it currently stands, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for the Cavaliers. They’re one
of the league’s very worst defenses, and don’t have any of the personnel to affect change. They’ve fallen
so far that their offense can’t save them, evidence of this is that they don’t even have a positive point
differential anymore (-0.4).
If you liked this feel free to follow me on twitter @samfolkk, and if you feel so inclined give the podcast I
co-host a listen, it’s called “Deep Thoughts with Mascots” and while you’re there, rate it 5-stars.
Have a blessed day y’all.