Cleveland Cavaliers early season struggles: A look at Five-Man units

Writing about the Cleveland Cavaliers early season struggles is pretty popular right now among the Cleveland blogosphere. I could drone on and just be part of the endless noise by ranting about how Mike Brown still doesn’t know how to coach offense, and how Kyrie Irving is playing terrible and acting like a diva, and how Anthony Bennett is a bust, blah, blah, blah.

All that is just noise right now. While the Cavs have already had what I consider to be four bad losses (Char, Mil, Philly, Minn, all on the road) the reality is that we’re only 9 games into an 82 game season. That’s only about 11% of the season played. To use a Dan Gilbert analogy, if this were football we wouldn’t even be finished with two full games yet. So let’s not go crazy yet.

Also, have you looked at the standings? The Cavs are only one game out of the 8 spot and it’s hard to imagine teams like the Sixers, Bobcats, and Celtics keeping up their winning paces. Coming into the season most pundits figured we’d be competing with Atlanta (4-4), Toronto (4-5), Milwaukee (2-5), Detroit (2-5), and Washington (2-5) for those final three playoffs spots and as you can see, none of them are lighting the world on fire either. Additionally, most had the Nets competing for the East and they’re only 2-5. So again, let’s no go crazy yet.

When you consider the turnover that this team has had at the head coach position and in personnel, you’d have to think that there were going to be some pumps in the road early. Brown needs time for his coaching style and defensive principles to really gain hold on the team and have a transforming affect. While I don’t know if his offense will ever be “good” per se, they are trying to work in a lot of new pieces so that takes time.

I’m a naturally positive person when it comes to my sports teams. I chose to take a glass half full mentality because I don’t enjoy being gloomy and depressed when I watch sports. I don’t expect everyone to take that outlook but it’s generally what I do.

So in that vein, I tried to find out what is working for the Cavs thus far in the season.

Now, mind you that this early on these are all incredibly small sample sizes and bound to change and fluctuate with time. 82games.com does some really cool things with 5-man floor units and showing what affect they have on the floor together. It’s kind of a natural outgrowth of the simple plus/minus individual stat that doesn’t take into account the other guys that you’re playing with. I should note right off the bat that it does not appear that their stats are up to date as far as I can tell since they don’t have a floor unit of Irving-Waiters-Gee-Thompson-Bynum, which was the starting five on Monday against the Bulls and is likely what we’ll see a lot of going forward.[1] However, examining what we do have is still quite telling.

In an effort to try and use a representative sample size I decided to look specifically at the Cavs top seven used floor units since they all had at least ten minutes played together. Of that group the Cavs have only two five-man units with positive numbers: Irving-Jack-Waiters-Thompson-Varejao and Irving-Waiters-Miles-Thompson-Varejao. It isn’t surprising to find that the best unit the Cavs have employed thus far is the three-guard lineup which Mike Brown has started to use to close out games. Having those three ball-handlers on the court provides some very obvious advantages for the Cavs on offense. However, a lineup that small probably isn’t something that is sustainable for long stretches in games which is why it’s such a good closing group. In just under 35 minutes together on the court that group is +22. That number likely won’t stay that high for the rest of the season but it should stay in the positive and lends credence to using that group to finish out close games in the future.

Cavs 002

The second most productive unit has CJ Miles in for Jarrett Jack to give it more of a natural lineup. That group, though only with 15 minutes together, is +17. Fifteen minutes is hardly a big enough sample as it could have just included one of those Miles 3-point barrages that skews the numbers a bit. But still, keep this lineup in mind as we go forward.

Most people would agree that the “core” of this Cavs team is Kyrie, Waiters, Thompson, and Varejao. Some might quibble with having Andy in that group because they think he’s trade bait but for now, that’s the main four guys that the team is rolling with. As Bynum gets healthier and his minutes increase then he’ll probably take that spot from Varejao. Even if that is the case and Bynum does have a healthy and productive season, there’s still one position missing from that core group as you need five guys on the court. This is where the problems lie with the Cavs and it’s really not a surprise to anyone who follows this team on any regular basis at all: it’s the small forward position.

Of those top seven five-man units, none of the ones that includes either Alonzo Gee or Earl Clark has seen positive production. And it’s really across the board bad for both of those guys by any statistical measure. Looking at the floor time stats, of the guys with significant minutes, Gee is far and away the worst with a -17.8 in net48 +/-. Clark isn’t quite that bad but his -4.2 isn’t exactly good either. The SF spot as a whole is just not good when looking at the positional breakdown. That position is giving up an astounding .567 effective field goal percentage…and those guys are on the team for their defense. For further proof that they’re terrible, the SF spot has a net -4.4 PER. About the only statistical positive for the small forward position is that they turn over the ball 1.6 fewer times per 48 minutes than opposing small forwards. So at least they have that going for them!

Three of the five positions actually have a positive PER differentials but the negative production from the SF and PF spots is what is really damaging the team as a whole. The power forward position is actually worse than SF with a -5.5 net PER but a lot of that appears to fall on Anthony Bennett (-7.5 net48, 0.3 PER) and Tyler Zeller (-22.8 net48, 7.9 PER) rather than Tristan Thompson (+0.7 net48, 13.7 PER). Because the play from the forward positions has been so bad it clouds the positives that the rest of the team is doing.

CJ Miles and Dion Waiters have probably been the Cavs most encouraging players this young season. Miles leads the team with a 21.9 PER. Waiters has a PER of 13.4 which isn’t especially great, but his simple rating of +9.4 is the best on the team.[2] He also has the best floor time stats including a team-high +3.8 net48 differential, meaning that there’s a solid 21.4 point differential per 48 minutes between Waiters and Gee which is almost impossible to comprehend. Waiters and Miles are the two players who have logged the most minutes at SG so it’s no surprise why that position has the highest PER differential on the team at +1.7.

Now, what does all this mean, you ask? First, it just cements what our eyeballs are telling us, which is always encouraging. It reaffirms that the SGs are playing well and the SFs are not. It also cements just how bad the PFs playing behind Tristan have been. It also tells us that changes likely need to be made.

Something needs to happen with the small forward position. I don’t know if it’s as simple as just starting CJ Miles there and then just using a three-man guard rotation of Irving, Waiters, and Jack and then having Gee backup Miles. That wouldn’t be a bad place to start as it gets your best players on the court for increased minutes. However, Miles is so good coming off the bench and coaches can be so hesitant to change roles for guys when they’re playing well; so I don’t know if Brown will be willing to make that switch. Regardless of whether he starts or not, I want Miles playing more SF minutes and I really don’t care if I never see Earl Clark again.

Brown 001

Another more bold change would be to put Anthony Bennett as the starting small forward. The Cavs brass is on record as saying that they view Bennett as a 4 and not a 3 but the guy is struggling so much and has been utterly worthless to the point that he’s actually hurting the team that you really have to think about making a change. Maybe a change to playing with the one’s and getting the ball in his hands more and allow him to create will help his progression and production. Like I said, that’d be a pretty bold move to start a guy who’s been playing so poorly.[3] But all things considered, he can’t be much worse than Gee’s -17.6 net48 +/-. And who knows? Maybe Bennett is just playing out of position? I really want to see Bennett play and grow into an NBA player but it’s just not working right now and I feel like we’re dangerously close to Brown just going with a three-man bigs rotation.

All things considered with the rotation as a whole, come playoff time you really only want to use an eight-man rotation anyways. In theory the Cavs best eight players are Irving, Waiters, Jack, Miles, Bennett, Thompson, Varejao, and Bynum. Obviously Bennett hasn’t played like he belongs in that group but the Cavs certainly believe that he has the talent to get there otherwise they wouldn’t have selected him No. 1 this past summer. If those are the eight guys that you plan on going to battle with in the playoffs then maybe you need to start using them now so that, you know, you actually make it to the playoffs.

Like I said, it’s still incredibly early and this team has a lot of growing and gelling to do together over the course of the season. But if these trends continue then they will not make the playoffs as currently constituted. I won’t get into trade speculations yet but that could also be an avenue to explore.

Oh yeah, and it would also help a lot if Kyrie started to play the superstar that many of us (myself loudly included) believe he can be. You don’t need basic or advanced stats to tell you that Kyrie hasn’t been his usual self so far this season. If he doesn’t play like a superstar then the Cavs will not make the playoffs. It’s as simple as that. So until that starts happening, all this other talk is just window dressing. In my season preview column I focused on two keys for the Cavs’ success this season. One was Mike Brown making this team into a great defense. Apart from that utter stinker against the T-Wolves on Wednesday we’ve seen drastic improvements from individual players and the team across the board on that end and I expect it to only get better. The second key was Kyrie becoming a superstar. That has not happened yet. And if it doesn’t, nothing else really matters.

I think he’ll be fine. But again, I’m an eternal optimist.


[1] It appears that these stats are just through the first seven games which would take us up through the double-overtime win at home against the Sixers last Saturday.

[2] Besides Sims, but I’m not counting him.

[3] If you’re feeling depressed about Anthony Bennett, go watch some YouTube highlights. It’ll cheer you up a little to think about the possibilities.

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One thought on “Cleveland Cavaliers early season struggles: A look at Five-Man units

  1. Pingback: Cleveland’s Crappy Sports Weekend: The Simple (but Not Easy) Solution to All Our Problems | Cleveland the GOAT

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