With Cavaliers coach Beilein, Cleveland again has a 'D' in it

Sam Amico

People often refer to John Beilein as an offensive innovator, a coach who stresses ball movement and whose strategy includes big men shooting 3-pointers.

That would be accurate.

But what Beilein has done with the Cavaliers' defense may be even more noteworthy. Entering Tuesday's game at Philadelphia (7 p.m., NBA TV), the Cavs are in the NBA's middle of the defensive pack.

When you consider how bad the Cavs have been, that's really saying something.

Before the season, Beilein smiled as he addressed the team's defense last year. He called it "historically bad," and he was right. He probably smiled because it truly was laughable.

Last year, the Cavs had the three-worst rated defenders in the league -- Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman and believe it or not, Tristan Thompson. Believe it or not because Thompson's defense was so vital to the franchise's 2016 championship run. (To be fair, he was injured much of last season and appeared in just 43 games.)

Overall, the Cavs' defensive rating of 117.6 last season was the worst in history. They also finished last in field-goal percentage allowed, as their opponents shot an embarrassing .495 from the floor.

It was as if the Cavs were just sort of out there to help the other team go through shooting practice.

Beilein's first priority was to change the culture and effort at that end, little by little.

“You have to make changes, but you don’t have to make wholesale changes,” Beilein said. “You just have to make a percentage change, two or three percentages in every category, and you can be a really good team."

Prior to coming to the Cavs, Beilein spent 12 years at Michigan. Last season, the Wolverines were second in the NCAA defensively, allowing just 58.3 points a game. So Beilein seems to find it funny that he is often viewed as a coach who won with good offense first.

Today, the Cavs' rating is 106.9, not much worse than some legitimate contenders -- such as the Boston Celtics (102.4), Milwaukee Bucks (102.9) and Los Angeles Clippers (103.7). Entering Tuesday, the Cavs are tied for 16th in the league's ranking for overall defense.


These improvement are in spite of the fact Beilein starts a second-year player in Sexton, a rookie in Darius Garland and a third-year man in Osman. That's two of the league's three worst-rated defenders last year and a rookie. Oh, Thompson starts, too. So those three remain. And let's just say no one has ever confused Kevin Love with Bill Russell on defense.

Along with all that, rookie Kevin Porter Jr. plays extensive minutes off the bench. This isn't to pick on the first-year guys, but it's a well-known fact it takes rookies longer to adjust to defending in the pros, as they learn the fine line between being physical and committing a foul.

No matter, the Cavs have been better. Their rotations are crisper, their all-out hustle noticeably improved. With Thompson and Love leading the way, they are also crashing the glass for 35.7 defensive rebounds a game, tied for 15th in the league.

Deserving credit in this department are not just the starters, but reserves such as Matthew Dellavedova, Larry Nance Jr. and even Jordan Clarkson. 

“I’ve really been impressed when I’ve seen Delly, just going out and be in the right spot at the right time (defensively)," Beilein said. "Not necessarily as a shutdown guy, but a guy who really makes everybody else better. We’re waiting to see who else will rise so we can answer the question, ‘Who’s our next best defender out there?’"

Overall, Thompson has vastly improved, Osman has made strides and collectively, the Cavs (4-5) are coming around.

Of course, they aren't in the top five, and even in the short-term, that is where Beilein longs for them to be. So he is quick to utter a line spoken by a coach who likes the progress -- but also understands there is still work to be done.

"We still have a long way to go," he concluded.