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The Cavaliers Are Going Through Changes—but Are They Any Better?

Coach Tyronn Lue has shown a willingness to adjust rotations. The burden of putting it all together, however, falls on the players.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The honeymoon in Cleveland didn’t last. After blowing the doors off the Celtics and Thunder in their first two games after the trade deadline, the new-look Cavs have come back to earth. They are 5–4 since adding George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr., with all four of their losses coming to playoff contenders. Their statistical profile over the past nine games hasn’t changed all that much from what it was before. They still have an elite offense (a 112.1 offensive rating, which would be third in the NBA over the whole season), and they don’t play enough defense (a 107.3 defensive rating, which would be 20th).

Their defensive issues are familiar. They don’t get back in transition, they fall asleep off the ball, and they rarely play as a unit against the pick-and-roll. The low point was a 126–117 loss to Denver on Saturday. Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue tried to jump-start his defense by blitzing ball screens, and the Nuggets picked them apart. It’s no wonder Denver shot 19-of-35 from 3 (54.3 percent) in the game. Look at the type of looks the Nuggets were getting:

Lue has never been considered a mastermind with X’s and O’s. Like a lot of ex-players who become coaches, he gives his players the freedom to figure things out on the court rather than trying to fit the roster into a system with defined roles on both sides of the ball. That strategy can backfire with relatively limited players like Jae Crowder, who struggled outside the confines of the structure he had played within for Brad Stevens in Boston. At this point in the season, Lue couldn’t change his philosophy even if he wanted to. There isn’t enough practice time for him to do much beyond experimenting with different lineups and hoping some of those combinations click.

The good news for Cleveland is that Lue has shown the flexibility to adjust his rotations on the fly. He’s more strategist than tactician. As an assistant in the 2015 Finals, he helped restructure an injury-ravaged team by playing a supersize front line and slowing the tempo to a crawl. He did a 180 as the head coach a year later, beating Golden State at its own game by going small, spreading the floor, and switching every screen. Lue adjusts by changing lineups and then allowing the skills of the new personnel to dictate the game plan.

The first starting lineup Lue tried after the trades (George Hill, J.R. Smith, Cedi Osman, LeBron James, and Tristan Thompson) wasn’t effective, with a net rating of minus-6.0 in 104 minutes together. He was likely going to make changes even before Thompson went down with a sprained ankle. Lue told reporters before their 112–90 victory over Detroit on Monday that he would stick with his new starting lineup for a while, with Hood in for Osman and Larry Nance Jr. for Thompson. Here’s a look at why he made those moves, and what other factors he will have to consider during the rest of the season:

Nance has been Cleveland’s second-best player since the trades.

It was a matter of time before Nance replaced Thompson as the starting center. The former Laker is averaging 11.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.1 blocks on 60.3 percent shooting in only 23.1 minutes per game, and the Cavs have an eye-popping net rating of plus-17.3 in his 208 minutes with them. Most of that has come against opposing second units, but Nance has been too productive on both ends of the floor to stay on the bench. Things only got better in his first game as a starter: He had a career-high 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting against the Pistons.

The 25-year-old Nance, who competed in the dunk contest, has more bounce in his legs than Thompson. Neither has the size of a traditional center, so they both have to depend on energy and positioning to defend the paint. Thompson has been a shadow of himself as he’s struggled with a lingering knee injury. His field goal percentage allowed at the rim has skyrocketed from 52.4 percent last season to 68 percent this season. It’s unfair to blame him for all of the Cavs’ defensive issues, but center is the last line of defense, and putting a more active player there is the simplest fix. Nance is far from an elite rim protector, but he has almost as many blocks (10) in nine games with Cleveland as Thompson had (16) in 42.

The bigger impact will come on offense. Nance’s jaw-dropping dunks get the headlines, but he’s not just a rim runner. He has almost identical rebounding percentages as Thompson, and he can also pass, knock down midrange jumpers, and put the ball on the floor. He can do a little bit of everything, and he could thrive now that he’s no longer sharing minutes with Julius Randle and Kyle Kuzma in a crowded frontcourt in Los Angeles. It’s hard not to get excited about a big man who can make plays like this:

LeBron has not played alongside a center with Nance’s combination of skill and athleticism in his second stint in Cleveland. The two have been dominant in limited time together, with a net rating of plus-22.0 in 127 minutes. Nance’s ability to finish all over the floor gives LeBron a lot of options on drives. If the opposing center comes off Nance, LeBron can throw the ball anywhere near the rim for an easy alley-oop. If the center stays with him, Nance can step out to the perimeter and give LeBron more room to finish. The growing chemistry between the two is the biggest reason for optimism in Cleveland going forward.

Hood is now a starter. Will that finally get him going?

The one constant for Cleveland this season is how much it’s had to depend on LeBron. The trades have not changed that; if anything, his offensive responsibility has grown during the past few weeks. He has a usage rate of 32.3 since the deadline, and their end-of-game offense has been too predictable, allowing defenses to overload against him. Replacing Kyrie Irving was always going to be impossible, but they at least need someone to fill the secondary-creator role on the perimeter that Isaiah Thomas was supposed to.

Hood is the obvious choice, but he has struggled since the trade. He went from averaging 16.8 points in 27.8 minutes a game with the Jazz to only 10.8 points in 27.6 minutes a game with the Cavs. He has been lost on the second unit, where fellow newcomer Jordan Clarkson has thrived as the first among equals. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Hood went from getting 34.9 percent of his offense out of pick-and-rolls in Utah to only 23.8 percent in Cleveland. He’s too effective as an on-ball creator to not get his number called: He was in the 81st percentile of scorers leaguewide on the play with the Jazz.

There should be plenty of opportunities for him with the starters. Hill is one of the least aggressive point guards in the league, while Smith, who is shooting 39.4 percent from the field this season, needs a shorter leash. Hood isn’t just a scorer, either. At 6-foot-8 and 206 pounds, he can see over the defense and make plays on the move. He has per-36-minute averages of 2.2 assists and only 0.7 turnovers with Cleveland. The Cavs need more guards who can make plays like this:

Is Kevin Love going to fit in? Or fit out?

Even if the Cavs figure out an identity over the next few weeks, they will need to start over when Love comes back from a broken hand sometime in early April. They won’t have much time to bring him back into the fold before the playoffs start. He didn’t fit at all with the first version of the team. Love put up excellent individual numbers after moving to center this season, but asking him to protect the rim on a team full of poor defenders never had a chance. Cleveland had a negative net rating (minus-2.2) with him on the floor.

Lue had gone back to the Thompson-and-Love frontcourt before his injury, and it’s hard to see him trusting Love as the starting center again. He’s one of the team’s best 3-point shooters, so starting him next to Nance won’t affect their floor spacing, but it will make them a significantly slower team. Lue could stagger their minutes somewhat by playing Love more with the second unit, which would also give him more opportunities to play with the ball. There isn’t much data on what that looks like, though: He has played only 85 minutes without LeBron all season. The big loser could end up being Thompson, who could see his minutes cut to almost nothing.

The Cavs will also need to take out one of their perimeter players if Love and Nance start together. Hill fills an important role as a 3-and-D point guard, which means either Hood or Smith will be the odd man out. Smith, who was suspended for their loss to the 76ers last week because he threw a bowl of soup at an assistant coach, would probably not respond well to being benched. Lue has done everything he can to show confidence in the struggling guard, but he may have to cut bait with him. Smith’s offense comes and goes, and he’s one of the prime culprits in their defensive breakdowns. These plays speak for themselves:

It would be hard for Lue to give up on Smith and Thompson after all they have done the past four seasons. However, this team hasn’t made sense since the Kyrie trade, and those two haven’t been effective without two All-NBA players next to them. The Cavs made all those deadline trades precisely to change their team. The only thing Lue can do now is lean on those changes. He’s starting Nance, Hood, and Hill, and he’s given Clarkson control of the second unit. Lue isn’t a conventional coach. He’s not going to make his players better versions of themselves, but he’s also not afraid to experiment with lineups until he finds a combination that works. He will put his players in position to show what they can do. We will see over the next month whether his new ones are good enough to make a difference.