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Rather than conceding another lost year after Collin Sexton’s season-ending knee injury, the Cavs have become one of the NBA’s best defensive units. All that, and a look at Chris Paul’s mid-range shooting in this week’s The Long Two.
From last NBA season to this one, no team has improved as drastically or as suddenly as the Cavs. Through 32 games, Cleveland has outscored its opponents by nearly six points per 100 possessions — the fourth-best margin in the league and a 15-point increase over last year. That’s the kind of improvement that might correlate with the addition of a superstar or a complete roster overhaul, not a team in the midst of a gradual rebuild. But the combination of a few targeted offseason moves and internal improvement from the team’s youth have alchemized into something stronger than the sum of their parts.
Rather than conceding another lost year after Collin Sexton’s season-ending knee injury in November, Cleveland has reorganized, rooted its identity in defense, and discovered the best version of itself.
How have the Cavs built such a dominating defense?
Last season, the Cavaliers had the 25th-ranked defense in the NBA; this year, they’re third, which is a testament to both J.B. Bickerstaff’s tactical wherewithal and his players’ investment on that end of the floor. Like most of the NBA’s best defenses, Cleveland has benefitted from poor opponent 3-point shooting, but there’s more than just variance driving the team’s success.
Despite allowing the fourth-most shots in the NBA within four feet of the basket, the Cavs hold teams to the lowest shooting percentage in the league on those looks and, crucially, don’t send opponents to the foul line. Without easy access to layups or free throws, Cleveland’s opponents are squeezed into less efficient sources of offense — a product of how much size the Cavs put on the floor.
Even as the modern NBA continues to prioritize floor spacing and defensive versatility, teams can still find value in playing two traditional(ish) big men together, and the Cavs’ starting front line has developed into one of the most imposing defensive pairings in the league. Allen has steadily improved his discipline and awareness since he entered the league in 2017, while Mobley is turning in one of the best defensive seasons from a rookie in recent memory (which makes it all the more worrying that both players are currently in the league’s health and safety protocols). The two big men are quick to rotate and defuse threats when ball-handlers break Cleveland’s initial line of defense, and both expertly contest shots without fouling:
Among the 42 NBA players who defend at least five shots per game within six feet of the basket, Mobley and Allen rank second and third, respectively, in field goal percentage allowed. On the whole, Cleveland surrenders a minuscule 98 points per 100 possessions and 53 percent shooting at the rim when those two share the floor. That solid interior foundation affords the Cavs a certain safety net, which has ripple effects across the entire defense.
The presence of multiple rim protectors allows the Cavs to mask weaker surrounding defenders and leaves them less vulnerable should either big man get pulled out onto the perimeter. Cleveland’s guards can more aggressively pressure ball-handlers and contest shooters knowing a teammate is always behind them to clean up mistakes (which might partially explain opposing teams’ poor 3-point shooting). It also helps that Isaac Okoro and Darius Garland have improved as on-ball defenders, and Ricky Rubio’s ability to navigate screens and interrupt passing lanes puts less defensive weight on Cleveland’s big men.
It would be easy to let such rapid defensive growth overshadow how much the Cavs’ offense has improved this season. Cleveland has jumped from 28th in points per possession last season to 18th this year — a significant leap in its own right. Garland has been the primary catalyst of that change, posting career-highs in usage, true shooting and assist rate. The third-year guard has developed into a legitimate three-level scorer and primary playmaker, which has helped the Cavs weather Sexton’s absence offensively. Garland is shooting 39 percent from beyond the arc and a career-best 60 percent at the rim, and his scoring diversity has unlocked a wider array of options when defenders chase him over ball screens. Garland isn’t an elite shooter, passer or finisher, but he does all three well enough to keep every choice at his disposal in the pick-and-roll:
His increased processing speed allows him to improvise passes he didn’t see earlier in his career and manipulate defenses to create angles that aren’t immediately available:
Garland isn’t carrying the entire offensive load on his own; Kevin Love remains a clever passer and efficient scorer while Rubio, though inefficient as an individual scorer, helps steady the offense as both a backup point guard and a backcourt partner to Garland.
A bottom-three turnover rate has mitigated some of the team’s offensive progress, though that’s a common byproduct of offenses led by young guards. It’s conceivable that cutting down on turnovers could help Cleveland could break into the top third of the league in offense, but so long as they maintain a league-average scoring rate, the Cavaliers’ defense should keep them squarely in the league’s upper echelon.
Chris Paul: Champion of the long two
In an era of NBA basketball increasingly geared toward rangy wings who can get to the rim, bomb 3-pointers or both, a player like Chris Paul is something of a singularity. Paul has spent nearly 17 years cementing himself as one of the most prolific mid-range practitioners of all time, but this season he has pushed that part of his game to an extreme.
As wings like Kevin Durant and DeMar DeRozan have rightfully garnered attention for their scintillating mid-range scoring seasons, Paul has been just as effective from the same spots of the floor despite working from a significantly lower vantage point. Where DeRozan and Durant can simply work to spots and rise up over their defenders, Paul has to be more creative in getting his shot off, using deceptive feints, mesmerizing dribble moves and abnormal release angles to generate the same looks.
Over years of repetition, Paul has developed a preternatural understanding of exactly how much space he needs to shoot and how he can manufacture that space against any defender in any setting. Even in his athletic prime, mid-range shooting was an essential part of Paul’s scoring vocabulary. Save for his two years in Houston, he has taken at least half of his shots from the mid-range every year since 2007 and converted them with almost unparalleled efficiency.
Those shots serve as a weapon against drop pick-and-roll coverage, help compensate for his lack of size in the paint and give Paul’s game a certain degree of undeniability. This year, mid-range attempts account for over 70 percent of his shot diet — the highest figure in the NBA — and he’s making 54 percent of those looks. More impressively, Paul has converted a league-leading 59 percent of his shots between 14 feet and the 3-point line (meaning the average Paul long two is worth roughly as much as a Russell Westbrook layup or a Steph Curry 3 in expected value).
The drawback of such heavy mid-range dependence is a less varied scoring arsenal. Paul can’t dart all the way to the rim like he used to, nor does he appear fully comfortable pulling up from beyond the arc. His 3-point rate is the lowest it’s been since 2014, and he has attempted just 13 total shots in the restricted area all season. Though Paul remains an efficient scorer whose jumpshooting tends to translate in the postseason, that lopsided shot distribution could offer opponents a weakness to exploit in the playoffs. And while the Suns’ fate likely won’t hinge on their point guard’s ability to score at the rim, it could make it easier for defenses to stay home on shooters when Paul drives.
Or Paul might just continue to devastate opponents with buttery jumpers, as he did last postseason. Despite the way overall shot selection in the NBA has changed over the last decade, players who hit mid-rangers as accurately as Paul does haven’t lost their value; in fact, they can even provide an extra layer of value late in games and in the playoffs. Mid-range shooting isn’t (and has never been) dead; it’s just become more exclusive. And for players like Paul, it remains as sharp a weapon as ever.