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  • The Cavaliers' second unit operates in LeBron's shadow. But they've used that cover to develop the perfect balance in Cleveland.
By Rob Mahoney
December 07, 2017

Long before LeBron James iced the Kings with a ruthless step-back three—the finishing touch on a 32-point, 11-rebound, nine-assist masterpiece—his fellow Cavaliers plugged away in relative quiet. Sacramento had led for almost the entire game, and by as many as 14 in the second half. Cleveland's reserves chipped away: a 5–0 spurt here, a 9–1 run there. All involved know that to play with LeBron is to play in his shadow. It's a credit to the Cavs' second unit that they're now using that cover to do some of their most important work—all of it crucial to Cleveland's 13-game winning streak.

For the first time ever, a LeBron James team is performing slightly better with him off the floor. This is an astounding reversal—not because the Cavs are actually better without LeBron, but because they've closed what has been a devastating margin. Over the years, LeBron-led teams have largely cratered in his absence. Hard-earned leads withered. Deficits swelled. That this iteration is holding strong makes everything that James does all the more overwhelming. At long last, the best player in the game isn't working from an inherent handicap.

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It would be one thing if the bench were sustaining by staggering Kevin Love into second units or leaning on Isaiah Thomas (who has yet to appear in a game for the Cavs) to carry them. Neither is the case. This is essentially a self-contained platoon: Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, and Jeff Green are joined by rotating guests to wallop backups around the league. That grouping is Cleveland's second-most-played foursome this season. In their nearly 200 minutes together, they've blown out opponents by 14.5 points per 100 possessions.

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This is a collection of players who can get worked over in the wrong matchup but make a killing in going against more limited reserves. Whatever liabilities they have are limited; Wade may not have the lateral quickness at this point to defend the league's top point guards, but he can manage the likes of Jameer Nelson and Isaiah Taylor.

The nature of those matchups exaggerates what each already does best. A smart, well-prepared defense can track Korver as he moves around the floor and largely neutralize him. Put second- and third-string defenders to the task, however, and he'll spring all sorts of leaks in the coverage. Even more important: this group, already fully in tune with one another, will actually wait for those options to develop:

Wade runs the show like a situational superstar. When working in these lineups, he puts up 25 points and eight assists per 36 minutes, creating the equivalent of 44 points. His usage in that context hovers around 32%—similar to that of Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving. It's crazy to think that the Cavs once tried to jam Wade into an awkward role starting between James and Derrick Rose. The best of intentions—the team's deference to Wade and his career—backfired by making the offensive dynamic more awkward than it needed to be. This, instead, is Wade in his element: running high pick-and-rolls, bullying smaller guards, and operating with a full view of the floor. 

The rhythms of a Wade-Frye pick-and-roll (well-spaced by Korver and Green) make the 35-year-old Wade play five years younger. Around one of Frye's screens is space for days; opponents are understandably wary of leaving a 6'11" center who shoots 39% on threes for his career unattended. Wade toys with his timing and approach to get the most out of each setup.

In some cases, Wade almost telegraphs the screen's position to his defender. Once they start to tilt toward the screen to deny him, Wade will cross back over into a quick drive—as he does here to Rookie of the Year lock Ben Simmons:

Frye, for his part, transforms. Since joining the Cavs in 2016, Frye has been an accessory to James—a big whose shooting could clear the lane for potent, physical drives. His entire game was boiled down to specialty. Frye is still a shooter when he plays with the reserves, but it's not a coincidence that essentially all of his two-point field goals this season came as a part of that lineup. Frye will actually roll to the rim after screening for Wade, forcing defenses to account for their two different cadences: 

If given the chance, Frye will even floor the ball from the perimeter all the way to the rim—something you'd never see were he playing with the starters:

Some 22% of Frye's shots this season have come within three feet of the rim, the highest rate since his rookie year. This bench configuration is the central reason why. The players involved have such naturally complementary games that to arrange them together barely took any work at all. Even some pairings one might not expect—like Frye and Korver—turned out to have an easy chemistry:

Korver actually assists Frye in equal measure to James and Wade, in part because of how immediately Frye can punish defenders who leave him. Tune in to a Cavs game and you're likely to see this basic setup: Korver curls around a Frye screen toward the top of the key, where he receives a pass from Wade. Both defenders (especially when backup bigs are involved) tend to follow Korver, leaving open a quick hook pass back to Frye. Rarely is the defender anywhere near fry at the moment he catches the ball:

Second units aren't conditioned to defend against this kind of continuity. Most teams rely on fairly straightforward offense where their bench is involved, often hammering possessions through one or two key creators. Cleveland plays with that expectation, setting up the obvious option only to jump the defense from a different angle:

The results have been incredible. LeBron's passing has a profound effect on his teammates' shooting percentages, but Wade and Green—the two members of the bench unit who aren't standout shooters—have actually been at their most efficient in these lineups. The ingredients are balanced in a way that brings out their best. Wade puts his savvy to work against overmatched defenders, flanked by Korver and Frye. Green roams free, cutting and slashing without the specific needs and higher stakes in playing against starters. All involved come as they are, do what they do, and find that each element fits just so. 

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