All the ways the Cavs may play to try to beat the Warriors

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Thursday, May 31, 2018

Know who I thought about Tuesday for the first time in weeks?

Jae Crowder.

It's not a good sign that anyone contemplated Crowder's untapped relevance for this Finals -- and whether the guy Cleveland got for him, the crumbling Rodney Hood, might win back his role in a series that requires maximum wing players.

There has been a lot of scolding in the media toward those bored by Cavs-Warriors IV. In truth, I'm a little bored. How many times can we watch LeBron call up Stephen Curry's man for a pick-and-roll, force a switch, and calculate his options? Is it still fun seeing the Cavs trap Curry on the other end, and dare Golden State's non-shooters to beat them?

It would be different if this were a matchup of equals. Alas. As Kevin Pelton noted, this is perhaps the biggest mismatch in Finals history. This isn't Celtics-Lakers. This is Celtics-Lakers if you gave Kevin McHale a concussion, and replaced Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson with league-average (or worse) players.

LeBron represents the small possibility of a miracle. That possibility titillates now, but the intrigue will dissipate if the Warriors destroy the Cavs in the first two games at Oracle Arena -- as they have by a combined 89 points in the first four games of the last two Finals. Golden State destroys everyone in Game 1s. Their unconventional offense -- the star power, and relative lack of pick-and-roll -- seems to impose a one-game learning curve. The absence of Andre Iguodala, and the obstacles it creates in Golden State pivoting more to Draymond Green at center, gives Cleveland at least some chance of hanging in one of these first two. (The Warriors in the Finals have generally blitzed Cleveland with Green at center. The series have been close to even otherwise.)

LeBron no longer has the luxury of feel-out games. The Cavs no longer have the luxury of saving their energy for when their backs are against the wall. The Warriors will just throw them through the wall.

LeBron isn't just having a historic postseason. He is having arguably the greatest postseason in basketball history. He is the only player to average more than 30 points, 8.5 assists, and 8.5 rebounds per game over at least 15 playoff games. (LeBron is pouring in 34 per game.)

Only nine players have ever averaged 30 points per game in a playoff run of that length: LeBron (four times); Michael Jordan (eight, LOL); Jerry West (three); Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O'Neal twice each; and Allen Iverson, Rick Barry and Hakeem Olajuwon once apiece. LeBron's field goal percentage (54 percent) ranks sixth among those 24 combined campaigns. His ridiculous 60.1 percent accuracy on 2-pointers ranks second, behind only his own mark, just last season. Ditto for his true shooting percentage.

When LeBron dials it up on defense, we are seeing the best sustained all-around play in the history of the sport. I'm not sure that is debatable.

And that brings us back to Crowder. A year ago, LeBron had to defend Kevin Durant. The Cavs had no other choice in their starting lineup. Richard Jefferson was their relief option. Some suggested the Cavs try Tristan Thompson on Durant, and they've actually done it on a handful of possessions. One thing lightened LeBron's burden: sloughing some ballhandling onto Kyrie Irving. Whoops.

It is hard to imagine LeBron has the stamina to chase Durant and carry Cleveland's offense by himself. The Cavs demanded Crowder in the Irving deal precisely because they needed a bigger wing to absorb some of the Durant assignment. (As long as Andre Iguodala is out, Durant will likely have to guard LeBron almost every minute James plays. The difference: Durant is four years younger, has logged about 700 fewer minutes this season, and has three star teammates to create offense.)

And that has raised the question: Should the Cavs start Jeff Green, and have him guard Durant?

Option No. 1: 2015 Redux (No Love)

George Hill, JR Smith, LeBron, Green, Thompson

In 2015, after Irving joined Kevin Love on the injured list, a few among the Warriors' brain trust speculated the Cavs were a tougher matchup without their secondary stars: surround LeBron with grimy defenders, let him drain the shot clock on offense, slow the game like a smashmouth football team.

Minimizing possessions is probably Cleveland's best shot at a competitive series, and this lineup is one pathway there. If Love misses Game 1, the Cavs will probably start it.

This group can mimic Houston's switch-everything scheme. They would still end up in painful matchups -- Hill on Durant, Green on Curry, Smith on anyone -- but there is value in simplifying the mental demands against Golden State.

Hill is an especially important player -- Cleveland's best defensive point guard since coffee-addled Matthew Dellavedova. They need something like 18 points per game out of Hill on 40 percent 3-point shooting.

On defense, Hill is big enough -- 6-3, with a 6-8 wingspan -- to switch across more positions than typical point guards. That is handy against the dread Curry-Durant pick-and-roll, a tool the Warriors (frustratingly) save for only the highest-stakes moments. In last season's Game 5 clincher, Golden State ran 20 such plays, the highest single-game total since Durant joined them, per Second Spectrum tracking data. They set 59 total ball screens for Curry -- also their post-Durant high.

The Steph-Durant dance presented the Cavs with a fatal choice: switch Irving onto Durant, or trap Curry, let Durant roll free, and initiate scramble mode.

They can at least try switching with Hill onto Durant. That is still a mismatch; Hill gives up nine inches. But if he wriggles under Durant's base, he can at least force some long 2s. Durant holding the ball and surveying the scene saps Golden State's rhythm. If Durant drives, Cleveland should have help ready off of Golden State's poor shooters.

The Rockets wobbled Golden State by luring them into this style. The Warriors should be on high alert against falling into the same trap. Keep moving, and Cleveland's switching scheme will break down.

(Notice Smith on Durant there. Yeah, they've tried that too.)

The Warriors know how to move when opponents ignore their least threatening shooters. Stray from one, and that guy pivots into an off-ball screen for Curry or Thompson. Andrew Bogut was a ninja at this, and all of Golden State's lesser shooters have mastered it:

On the other end, Tristan Thompson is good at this exact thing. He'll need to be. The Warriors will ignore him again, and he didn't make them pay until Game 4 last year. Steve Kerr often keeps a traditional center on the floor to contain Thompson's violent rebounding, and the Warriors are easier to guard with one of Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, David West, and even the forgotten Zaza Pachulia (the Tristan-stopper!) on the floor.

On offense, the Cavs use the LeBron-Thompson pick-and-roll to jab at those Golden State plodders -- and get them switched onto LeBron. That has been a better option than LeBron-Love pick-and-rolls; Golden State switches those with Durant and Draymond Green. Love has never made serious traction in the post against Golden State; Durant and even Klay Thompson have battled him well.

But without Love, this five-man group won't score enough. Depending on Golden State's lineup choices, the Warriors would either hide a center on Jeff Green, or unleash Draymond Green as a roving menace.

The Cavs could mitigate those issues by having Jeff Green screen for LeBron, but an overdose of Jeff Green is bad.

Option No. 2: The Fun Times Brigade (No Thompson)

Hill, Smith, Kyle Korver, LeBron, Love

This group humiliated Toronto. With Iguodala out, Cleveland might be tempted to start it again. If the Warriors start Looney (or Bell) against this lineup, where is he hiding? On Love? That is a death wish. Golden State could downsize and start Shaun Livingston or Nick Young instead, but that would deplete their wing reserves.

This group has zero chance of stopping the Warriors. LeBron would (mostly) defend Durant. Korver will have to spend some time guarding Klay Thompson, and the Warriors poke at that matchup.

A lot of Cleveland's lineup choices come down to going all defense or all offense. By the end of last year's Finals, they landed on all offense -- LeBron at center, or Love at center. It's an appealing theory: If you can't beat Golden State traditionally, go to some extreme, amp up the variance, and see what happens. It is also a sign of weakness -- of Cleveland's shortage in two-way players.

Cleveland can't win at either extreme, anyway; the Warriors can outplay them both ways. They have to search for balance.

Option No. 3: The People's Choice for Balance (No Thompson)

Hill, Smith, LeBron, Green, Love

There has been a groundswell for this group, and you can understand why: Green takes Durant, and Love stays on the floor to provide scoring punch. If the Warriors play a center, Love hides there on defense. If they go smaller, he takes either Draymond Green or Iguodala/Livingston/Young. (Quinn Cook and Pat McCaw will also probably get some Fifth Guy minutes until Iguodala returns.)

Love held up surprisingly well a year ago. We know the Warriors will drag him into one Curry pick-and-roll after another, sometimes even smashing him with a screen on the way up just to be mean. (Again: Boredom is allowed.) Cleveland only switches Love onto Curry in a pinch. Otherwise, they prefer to bum-rush Curry, force him to pass, and direct the ball to Golden State's poor shooters. The Cavs know how to do this by now. There has to be some value in familiarity.

These are ideal outcomes for Cleveland:

(When Green hits 3s, you lose -- unless it's Game 7 in 2016.)

Of course, the Warriors know how to counter using Green as a 4-on-3 fulcrum:

Who is supposed to help with Klay Thompson and Durant on the weak side?

Love has shown occasional ability to slide with Curry, and then drop back to close those holes before the Warriors jet through them:

By the numbers, Golden State actually had more success targeting other Cleveland defenders at the point of attack -- and leaving Love as the last line of defense. But Love didn't turn to mush in those sequences, either:

In last year's decisive, five-game loss, the Cavs were somehow plus-19 when LeBron and Love played without Thompson, per -- and a disastrous minus-45 with the Thompson/Love combination.

This Thompson-less lineup has some intuitive appeal. The Cavs will certainly use it. It was my first landing spot. I even thought about reintroducing Tristan Thompson in giant lineup like Hill, Green, LeBron, Love, and Thompson -- a group that has logged two minutes combined all season.

But I can't get past this: Green isn't good enough to justify benching a superior player over "fit" issues.

Option No. 4: Stick with it

Hill, Smith, LeBron, Love, Thompson

These are either Cleveland's five best players, or five of their top six. (I prefer Korver to Smith, but Smith is less of a target on defense, and that probably matters more in this matchup.)

The Warriors have few weaknesses, but they are vulnerable to nasty, physical big men on the offensive glass. Thompson qualifies. The Cavs have rebounded 30 percent of their own misses with Love and Thompson on the floor in the playoffs, equivalent to a league-leading mark. All their other lineups are meek on the glass. To win a slow-down possession game, you have to steal extra possessions.

Larry Nance Jr. brings some of the same skills, and a bouncier vertical game. He should have a role, including in some minutes next to Love.

Thompson is a crushing screener for both LeBron and Hill, and often spooks Kerr into playing Golden State's nonthreatening centers.

Love can defend those centers, leaving Tristan Thompson to defend Draymond Green. When the Warriors play the Death Lineup, or the Coma Lineup with Livingston in Iguodala's place, the Cavs stash Love on the weakest link -- and keep Thompson on Green. Again: They know how to do this.

None of that matchup-toggling solves the LeBron-on-Durant problem. But this group includes four pretty switchable defenders -- everyone but Love. Maybe the Cavs could switch everything except Curry pick-and-rolls targeting Love, and keep trapping those actions. Switching would at least spare LeBron full-time Durant duty.

It would also lead to a lot of worrisome mismatches. You'd just have to swallow hard, accept them, and send help off bricky shooters.

It is hard to switch on some actions, and stay home on others -- to essentially play two schemes at once. Even elite defensive teams struggle with an overload of rules.

The Cavs at their best are a below-average defensive team. At their worst, they are abysmal. The Rockets spent an entire season preparing for the Warriors. The Cavaliers spent an entire season not giving a crap on defense, sniping at each other, and overhauling their roster. To snap into competence against an all-time scoring team is too much to ask.

Still: This is the lineup I'm rolling with to start the series. It's not a perfect choice. No such option exists. The Cavs don't have as many interchangeable two-way players as Golden State. Nobody does.

But they have to try something, and by the end of Game 2, they will probably have tried all these lineup types -- and more. That's what underdogs do.

It probably won't be enough. If it is, LeBron will have done something so historic, and so monstrous, as to have tipped the Greatest Of All Time debate forever.

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