BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- When assessing the Cavaliers’ chances of winning a championship this season, defense looms as the main concern. Rim protection, in particular, has been singled out as perhaps their most glaring weakness.
But while plenty of attention has been paid to Cleveland’s ability (or lack thereof) to stop opponents, its play on the other end of the floor has not proceeded as smoothly as anticipated. Sure, the Cavaliers are sporting the league’s fourth-most efficient offense, but they’re scoring 6.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the Mavericks and have endured their share of hiccups, including a blowout loss at Portland last month and a 78-point performance against the Wizards a couple weeks later. There was also Kevin Love’s concern with "finding himself" in Cleveland’s offense, and James' comments about the “fine line” between being “passive” and aggressive.
It would have been unrealistic to expect Cleveland to obliterate every opponent it faced right away, but the rocky start -- the Cavaliers opened the season 1-3 and lost four straight last month -- offers cause to assess what they could do to achieve the offensive potency many expected when Love and James joined Kyrie Irving this summer to form the NBA's marquee Big Three. This joining of forces was always going to be a work in progress, as was the case the last time James and the other two members of a potent trio in Miami got their bearings, but one prominent feature of Cleveland’s offense that appears to have some staying power is the way James and Irving have operated in tandem.
Irving is Cleveland’s nominal point guard, but his performance this season has veered from the norm at that position. While never regarded as one of the league’s premier passers -- his reputation has trended more along the lines of a ball-dominant, score-first guard -- Irving has cut table-setting out of his game to an even more significant degree this season. Entering Monday night's game in Brooklyn, Irving had assisted on 22.1 percent of his teammates’ field goals while he was on the floor, nearly 10 percent below his previous low in that statistic, according to basketballreference.com. The main reason for the shift? Irving is not the best distributor on his own team. James is.
As Irving’s assist percentage has dipped to a career-low, James’ has increased to 37.9 percent, the highest since 2009-10, his final season in Cleveland before joining the Miami Heat. James has also recorded an average of two more assist opportunities -- passes in which the receiving teammate attempts a field goal that, if converted, would register as an assist -- per game than he did last season, per SportVU data compiled on NBA.com. This is compared to a 2.3-per game decrease from Irving. In simple terms, James is facilitating scoring opportunities and Irving is finishing them, and at an efficient clip to boot.
As of Monday, Irving was posting career highs in true shooting percentage, Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares per 48 minutes.
“Well, those guys are playing very well together,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said Monday of James and Irving. “And we can only hope that it continues and a lot of times, that comes from the design or the system, but a lot of times it comes from the desire of the two of them to mesh and to gel and we’re certainly seeing that.”
In the limited minutes (127) he had played without James this season entering Monday, Irving has controlled the ball more often and dished to his teammates at a higher rate. According to the statistical database NBAWowy, Irving’s usage and assist percentage are 18.6 and 6.1 percent higher, respectively, compared to when they share the floor.
Has this interplay between James and Irving worked out for the Cavaliers? The early returns are positive. With James and Irving on the floor together, Cleveland has scored 111 points per 100 possessions, up from the Cavaliers’ season mark of 107.5. These two have been even more productive during Cleveland’s seven-game winning streak, helping the Cavaliers post 113.1 points per 100 possessions. The dynamic between James and Irving was illustrated in the Cavaliers’ win over the New York Knicks. Irving scored 37 points and recorded two assists, while James had 19 and 12.
Consider this play in the second quarter. After a Samuel Dalembert dunk, James brought the ball up the floor and backed down Iman Shumpert. Irving came over and slipped to the corner, where James fed him with a behind-the-back pass for a 21-foot jumper.
“They’re multidimensional players,” small forward James Jones said of James and Irving. “When you’re able to do a lot of things and do them easily, it’s usually a lot easier to transition and morph and go between and navigate the needs of the team. Kyrie is a great facilitator, but in some instances we need him to score. And LeBron is a great scorer, and in some instances we need him to facilitate. And so since they both respect each other’s ability to score and facilitate, I think there’s a natural trust level and trust factor that they have that it usually takes a lot of guys time to develop.”
Jones went into more detail about James’ influence on the offense.
“[James has] always been a guy that played off of feel, and he’s always been a guy that’s been great at reading the game, and so, with a new offense, with new pieces, it’s been necessary for him to exert more leadership, more direction on our offense and defense, and so I think that’s why you see the assist numbers are up. But at the same time, you’re still trying to strike a fine balance between distributing and scoring because he has to be aggressive for us to be successful.”
It’s important to keep in mind that James and Irving, following Monday's 110-88 win over the Nets, have played only 19 games together. Their relationship on the court could be modified over the course of the season, with James shouldering more of the responsibility at times and Irving at others. Late last month, James suggested that assimilating new pieces on offense would be a “feel-out process,” adding that that it could be more challenging for Love than it is for him and Irving because “we get to handle the ball a little bit more,” according to Chris Haynes of The Plain-Dealer in Cleveland.
Those remarks resonated at the time, and James and Irving’s synergy in the context of Cleveland’s attack has backed them up. It must also be encouraging for the Cavaliers that Love’s production has ticked upward during the winning streak; he’s averaging 19 points while posting a 63.8 percent true shooting percentage and helping Cleveland score 116.8 points per 100 possessions during his floor time.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of the Cavaliers making a run at the title will still likely be their defense. If Cleveland can’t do a better job protecting the rim, whether by way of internal improvement or a possible trade, it’s going to have a hard time fending off the league’s top teams in the playoffs. Entering Monday night’s game, Cleveland had allowed opponents to convert 55.1 percent of their field goals at the rim, good for 24th in the league. Simply hoping to outscore opponents is a dicey proposition.
Still, the way Irving and James have buoyed this offense, if not quite propelling it to the league-best marks some anticipated in the preseason, is encouraging for the Cavaliers’ long-term outlook.
“I think it takes a lot of pressure off both of them, that they’re both able to do a lot of similar things, create or score,” power forward Tristan Thompson said. “So I think that’s great for our team, and we’d rather have both of them.”