Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Kyrie's Defense

Headed into Game 2 against the Bulls, one obvious adjustment the Cavs can make is what they did in the final minutes of Game 1 - putting more size and speed on Derrick Rose in the form of Iman Shumpert. Rose's stat-line wasn't particularly pretty (25 points and 5 assists on 26 shots) but he was able to consistently create shots off the bounce against the smaller and less athletic Kyrie Irving and he could take the ball into the middle of the defense whenever he wanted. The Bulls were never really bothered by the Cavs on the defensive end of the floor in Game 1 - they shot 50% from the field and had 23 assists on 10 turnovers. Without Kevin Love for the rest of the season and JR Smith for one more game, Cleveland is going to have to play better defense.

To slow down the Bulls, you want to attack the head of the snake and that means putting Shumpert on Rose. The problem becomes the domino effect for the rest of the line-up, especially without Smith or Love. Moving Shumpert on Rose means you have to slide LeBron over to Jimmy Butler, which leaves you with Kyrie on Mike Dunleavy and Player X on whoever the Bulls want to put out there at the PF position. If you have Kyrie on Rose and Shumpert on Butler, you can have LeBron on the Bulls 2nd big man and put a number of different players on Dunleavy. Moving Kyrie off the ball just puts David Blatt into a really tight bind with his line-ups for Game 2:

1. Kyrie on Rose                                  1. Shumpert on Rose
2. Shumpert on Butler                       2. LeBron on Butler
3. Player X on Dunleavy                    3. Kyrie on Dunleavy
4. LeBron on Noah + Gibson           4. Player X on Noah + Gibson

The question for Cleveland is who is Player X going to be? They tried Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and James Jones in Game 1 and none looked like they had much in the tank. Marion is retiring at the end of the season and there's a reason Miller and Jones fell out of favor in Miami. The only value you are getting out of those two is if they are left wide open and can hit rhythm 3's off ball movement. The problem is that neither can give you much of anything on defense or off the dribble so you are essentially punting a spot in your line-up and giving Chicago a ton of different options for who they want to play. If Thibs is throwing Butler on LeBron and Rose on Kyrie no matter what, he can hide just about anyone on Miller or Jones without worrying about the consequences on defense.

The Cavs don't really have any other wing players on their roster until JR Smith returns from his suspension in Game 3. They have been low-key playing with a Clippers-esque bench - there are a lot of spots at the back of their roster that are just giving them nothing. Why exactly do they need both Kendrick Perkins and Brendan Haywood? That's shades of the Miami Heat in 2011 when they Erick Dampier keeping a seat warm on the end of the bench. You might as well sign a few 6'6 wings out of the D-League and hope one of them can shoot 3's and dribble the ball. The odds of you needing 12 fouls off the bench to battle against an elite low-post scorer in the Eastern Conference are pretty much non-existent. Timofey Mozgov more than covers you with defense from the 5 position. The only way that distribution of resources would make sense is if you had to get through a prime Shaq in your conference to get to the Finals.

Given the realities of their roster, the only other option the Cavs have is Mozgov at the 5 and Thompson at the 4 with LeBron, Shumpert and Kyrie on the perimeter. The problem with that line-up is there's almost no space on the floor for the pick-and-roll or for LeBron and Kyrie to attack the rim and you are going to need both of those guys to score a lot of points in this series. You don't want to go with a line-up that's going to cramp their flow unless you absolutely have too. The Cavs are going to be playing in really tight spaces at least until Smith comes back for Game 3 and if they are down 2-0 headed back to Chicago it's going to be hard for them to win 4 out of 5 games and 2 out of 3 on the road.

Having Smith at least gives you the option of playing LeBron at the 4 and using him as a power guard with 3 wings who can shoot and put the ball on the floor. That should be the upside of not having Love out there - LeBron could play more like he did in Miami with a completely spaced floor and a lot of guys who are dangerous when the ball is swung to them. In that line-up, you could still have Shumpert on Rose and you would have to hope Smith could survive against Jimmy Butler. The alternative of LeBron on Butler and either Kyrie or Smith trying to guard the Bulls PF (Noah or Gibson or Nikola Mirotic) would quickly become untenable. It's basically a logic puzzle from an LSAT. Here are your options for Game 3 with bold being the option you worry most about in each set:

1. Kyrie on Rose         1. Shumpert on Rose        1. Shumpert on Rose
2. Shumpert on Butler    2. Smith on Butler     2. LeBron on Butler
3. Smith on Dunleavy    3. Kyrie on Dunleavy       3. Kyrie on Dunleavy
4. LeBron on Gibson      4. LeBron on Gibson       4. Smith on Gibson

The other major concern for Cleveland is that none of these line-ups work without each of the main 3 perimeter guys - LeBron, Kyrie and Shumpert. In Game 1, LeBron was at 42 minutes, Kyrie was at 44 and Shump was at 41 and they still lost the game comfortably. There's no room for Blatt to take his foot off the pedal when it comes to playing his best players. Even with Smith in there, he's probably mostly going to be to taking the spare minutes that went to Marion, Miller and Jones. There's just no one on the bench you can really turn too and ask him to be a difference maker. The only guys getting any kind of rest in this series are Thompson and Mozgov alternating at the 5 spot. Cleveland is a top heavy team without 2 of their best 6 players for the first two games so there's pretty much zero margin for error for them in the rest of the series.

When there's no margin for error, that's when the spotlight goes back on to the stars who are expected to carry the team. That's what happened with the Heat in 2012, when Chris Bosh went down and LeBron and Wade were asked to carry an extremely limited supporting cast. The difference this time around is Kyrie is still only 23 and he's never had as well-rounded a game as Wade. People forget how important Wade was in those Pacers series because he seemed to fall apart in the NBA Finals. Check out these numbers sans Bosh in 2012 after the Heat went down 2-1 to Indiana:

Game 4: 30 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists on 23 shots
Game 5: 28 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists on 17 shots
Game 6: 41 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists on 25 shots

That was one of Wade's last real runs of greatness in the NBA playoffs. The Heat had the best 2 players in that series and pretty much nothing else and they were able to walk the tightrope enough to get to the next round. Just as important as the offense was that Miami could use him to defend any position 1-3 in the Pacers line-up while using Wade and LeBron's length and athleticism to jump passing lanes, speed up the tempo of the game and get into the open court, where those two were unstoppable. Indiana, a lot like Chicago, had a massive front-line that could wear down an undersized front-court over the course of the series but they weren't a particularly explosive offensive team and they had to control tempo and keep the game in the half-court. The difference between that 2012 second round series and this one in 2015 is that Cleveland doesn't have an extra gear they can go into on defense. 

Given the limited amount of options the Cavs have on their bench, what they really need to be able to do is have LeBron lock up Butler and Kyrie guard Rose and win those 1-on-1 match-ups. If their best two players are the best two players on the floor - wining match-ups to the point where they can hide their supporting cast on defense and create wide open shots for them on offense - the Cavs could still win this series. The question is whether that is really a feasible scenario for Kyrie Irving at this point in his career. The one silver lining they can hold on to is that Rose has played worse in the playoffs with only 1 day of rest but that was against a super long and super fast Bucks team that continued to throw size and speed on him over the course of the series. 

Kyrie has average size for the PG position (6'1 185 with a 6'4 wingspan) and he's a good (but not great) athlete so he really can't afford to make any lapses on D. He has to play super sound positional defense and he has to be able to trust the guys behind him to play on a string so that he can shade Rose one way or the other. He has no real margin for error on that side of the ball which is a problem when he's still at the age where he makes a lot of mental mistakes on defense. And while he can get his own shot whenever he wants, he has to be looking to create open shots for his teammates because these are all guys who need to be spoon fed the ball. Even LeBron could use some help at times with Butler draped all over him. 

Kyrie reminds me a lot of Damian Lillard in that they are both extremely explosive point guards who have catapulted into stardom early into their careers because of their ability to score the ball. The question for both those guys is how good they can be in the playoffs as defensive players and as all-around playmakers - the deeper you go into the post-season the more important it is for your game to be well-rounded because you are generally going to be going up against better and better players. That's why the playoffs are such an important of judging the games of the best players in the NBA because that's where you see A) what the holes in their game are and B) whether the other team can exploit them enough to defeat their team. 

You have seen that with Lillard in each of the last two playoffs. The Blazers didn't have an answer for the Spurs in 2014 or the Grizzles in 2015 in large part because they couldn't get any defense from the PG position against Tony Parker and Mike Conley. They need their star PG to be a better player on both sides of the ball if they are going to be able to take the next step as a team. It's no knock on either Kyrie or Lillard to wonder if they are ready for that - these are young guys who have been thrust into positions with a lot of responsibility extremely early in their careers. Most guys need 4-5 years to really get themselves comfortable in the NBA and with what it takes to be able to play at a high level in the playoffs when you have to play 1-on-1 against the best players in the world at your position.

That dynamic played out big time in the other playoff game on Monday. Blake Griffin wasn't playing at nearly this high a level in the playoffs in the first few seasons of his career. The analogy would be that Chris Paul was LeBron and LaMarcus Aldridge while Blake was Kyrie and Lillard - he was the young guy who was carried to that point in the playoffs by the older vet in the prime of his career and there were still lessons he had to learn before his team could advance. To put it even more simply, Kyrie and Lillard won't reach the prime of their careers until they are in their mid to late 20's and given the way their teams are constructed is it realistic that their teams can win a championship when they are not at their peaks?

You can see the affect of age and playoff experience in Terrence Jones, the guy playing across from Blake. He has grown in leaps and bounds from 22, when he was a first-year starter who was run off the floor by LMA in the first round, to 23, when he more or less played Dirk to a draw (I'd say the Rockets won the position as a whole in the series but a lot of that was because of Josh Smith). But now he has to go up against a 26-year old Blake Griffin and he's learning there is still a lot he needs to learn about the game and how to be an effective player. When he's 26, you can expect he'll be much more ready for these types of challenges. Of course this year's Rockets team can't afford to wait for Jones to progress any more than this year's Cavs team can afford to wait on Kyrie. They need those guys right now.

When you start projecting Kyrie's game into the future, the obvious place for him to start would be in the gym. You want to see what he would look like on D if he had more size to get into guys without being thrown out of the way. Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler are walking embodiments of the value of the weight room. They are two big and extremely physical guards who are going to go right through you if you don't have the weight to bang with them. Kyrie may never be an elite speed guy like Rose or Mike Conley but he should at least have the strength to push up on the ball and get over screens instead of dying on the vine and allowing Rose to get switched on to a big man.

Even if Kevin Love was in the series, this would still be a huge issue. If you have to move Kyrie off the ball he ends up sliding all the way to Mike Dunleavy at the 3 and he's going to have a hard time contesting the shot of a 6'9 small forward as a 6'1 point guard. The Bulls could also conceivably use a line-up like Pau - Gibson - Mirotic - Butler - Rose and then there's nowhere you can hide your PG and he had better be able to play D. That's what happened to Lillard against San Antonio in 2014 when they went Duncan - Diaw - Kawhi - Manu - Parker. When you are playing against elite teams in a 7-game series where they have time to move around their rotations, they are going to put weak defenders on islands and they are going to attack them. A good example is the Clippers trying to survive with Glen "Big Baby" Davis as their 3rd big man. The target gets bigger on him in every round. The Rockets were mercilessly attacking Davis in Game 1- that's what got them back into the game several times. There's really nowhere you can hide a bad defensive player against the Golden State Warriors.

When the Heat got put together, regardless of what happened with the other spots in the rotation, the 3 things you could count on where that LeBron, Wade and Bosh were all going to win their match-ups. When all three were rolling you could afford to structure your rotation around opening up the floor for the Big Three even if you were throwing one-dimensional shooters like Mike Miller out there. The problem against the Spurs is that Duncan was outplaying Bosh, Wade was hobbling around on one knee and Kawhi was playing LeBron to more and more of a draw as time went by. At that point, the deficiencies in the Miami supporting cast, which had always been well behind San Antonio, became a glaring concern. When you are running a Big Three system you have to be able to count on those guys to dominate individual match-ups in a playoff series.

That's what it's going to come down to for Kyrie Irving and the Cavs, not just this season but going forward into the future. What kind of defense is he going to play? If I can count on Kyrie to slow down the ball on defense, win his match-up and consistently outscore and outplay the guy across from him, then I'm walking into a series with him and LeBron winning their match-ups and I'm feeling pretty confident I have the edge. That's basically the formula the Oklahoma City Thunder have used with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook when they were healthy. It's like dominoes - you have to have the first few things lined up perfectly if the chain reaction is going to work.

If Kyrie is going to get bullied and pushed around by a guy like Derrick Rose, it's going to be hard for Cleveland to win this series. Even if they do, he has to go up against Jeff Teague or John Wall in the Eastern Conference Finals and probably Steph in the NBA Finals. And whether you are playing against Washington, who put Brad Beal, Paul Pierce and Otto Porter around Wall, or Atlanta, who have Dennis Schroder, Kyle Korver and Demarre Carroll around Teague, there aren't many spots in the line-up where you can stash a 6'1 guard who isn't playing great defense. The NBA playoffs come down to winning match-ups and the Cavs are going to need Kyrie to win his to continue advancing. That's what I'm watching most in Game 2 - is David Blatt going to trust his PG to do a better job against Derrick Rose or is he going to have to use a bunch of cross-switches and watch his margin for error against Chicago shrink even further?

Look at Golden State. When Steve Kerr took over as the coach one of the first things he told Steph Curry was that the Warriors were going to need their best player to play defense if they were going to win a championship. When you have to start adjusting match-ups because one guy can't guard his position it forces everyone else into a more difficult position and makes it hard to play sound overall team defense. An elite team needs great two-way play at as many positions on the floor as possible and when you don't have to cover for your best players and your best players can cover for others it makes it a lot easier to fill out a rotation over the course of a series. That's why I think the Cavs are going to need Kyrie Irving to play really good defense if they are going to win a title.

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