The Cleveland Cavaliers may have another clear path to the NBA Finals, but the complete and utter disregard of defense will haunt them.
The only way the current incarnation of the Cleveland Cavaliers will defeat the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 NBA Finals is if one of the Big 4 is unavailable. That may be a premature proclamation in July, but Cleveland is doubling down on a formula that clearly doesn’t work.
The attempt to sign Derrick Rose may tailor to the need to outmuscle Golden State, but it’s yet another sign that the Cavaliers have completely disregarded the value of defense.
Cleveland finished the 2016-17 NBA regular season at No. 20 in the NBA in points allowed per game and No. 22 in points allowed per 100 possessions. It was a stunning decline by a team that ranked No. 10 in defensive efficiency as recently as 2015-16.
Just one year removed from playing Top 10 defense and winning the first championship in franchise history, the Cavaliers decided to stop playing defense.
In fairness to the front office, Kevin Durant joining a team that went 140-24, won a title, and reached two NBA Finals without him was the ultimate curveball. In response, however, Cleveland’s decision-makers panicked and let ego triumph over basketball sense.
Despite, perhaps, the three best shooters in the world all being on the Warriors, the Cavaliers built a roster that attempted to out-shoot Golden State.
Ignoring the fact that what worked for Cleveland was its physicality, the approach wasn’t inherently flawed. The need to hit the 3-ball is present in the modern NBA, and that’s no more true than when a team plays the Warriors.
The problem is that the 3-point shooters whom the Cavaliers set out to acquire provided below-average contributions on defense.
Cleveland wasn’t going to hold Golden State to many low scoring totals during the 2017 NBA Finals, but it dug itself a hole it couldn’t escape. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry scored at will, and Tyronn Lue had no one to hide on the ice cold Draymond Green or the inconsistent Klay Thompson.
In turn, the Warriors averaged an insane 121.6 points per game during the NBA Finals. Only one team allowed Golden State to average more points per game during the 2017 NBA playoffs: the San Antonio Spurs.
San Antnio, of course, lost its best perimeter defender during Game 1 of that series: two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard.
Cleveland had no shot from the start.
The Cavaliers’ front office played right into Golden State’s hands by attempting to build an offensive juggernaut. While Cleveland went all-in on offense and disregarded defense, Golden State ranked in the Top 2 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
That transferred to the postseason, as the Cavaliers needed a 139-point eruption in Game 4 to simply avoid being swept in the NBA Finals.
During the 2017 offseason, the Cavaliers have done nothing whatsoever to address the desperate need to improve on defense. Despite the fact that defense played into Cleveland winning the 2016 NBA championship, and a lack of it led to a gentleman’s sweep in 2017, it’s still all-in on offense.
Between Jose Calderon, Jeff Green, Kyle Korver, and the pursuit of Rose, the Cavaliers have proven that they value the show more than the results.
Until the Cleveland Cavaliers recommit to defending at a high level, a second championship will be elusive.