After trading for Kevin Love, the Cavaliers will struggle on defense


(Ap Photo/Nick Wass)

For the sake of our collective sanity, can we just assume that Kevin Love will be traded to the Cavaliers? [UPDATE: We can, Yahoo reports the Cavs and T-Wolves have come to an agreement.]

After all, it’s hardly a coincidence that Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that a trade is “likely” by Aug. 23, the day Andrew Wiggins can be traded.

So with that in mind, it’s fair to wonder how the Cavaliers will fare next season. With Love and Kyrie Irving, the team is projected to be devastating offensively, given the floor spacing and inside-outside versatility that LeBron James and Love provide. David Blatt is the wildcard, given his rookie coach status, but assuming he can put together some semblance of an European, ball-moving offense, then scoring will not be an issue.

However, the defense will be. Lost in the Cleveland Big 3 chatter is just how many below-average defenders the Cavaliers lineup will feature.

The main issue: rim protection. Love is a strong on-ball defender and allowed 0.721 points per possession in post-up situations, according to Synergy Sports data. But when it comes to helping on pick-and-rolls, or quickly covering teammates at the basket, he lacks the athleticism and effort to be an inside presence. Ian Levy thoroughly broke down Love’s defensive shortcomings last season, and picked out a few examples like the one below.

The numbers reflect the effort. Last season, Love allowed 9.1 rim attempts per game, 11th most in the league, while allowing opponents to shoot 57.4 percent on those attempts, which ranked 159th in the league among qualifying players per NBA.com’s sportVU data. Sure, Love grabs a ton of rebounds, but mediocre doesn’t begin to describe Love’s help defense.

When you look at the rest of the Cavaliers roster, there isn’t much relief in sight. Anderson Varejao is a better pick-and-roll defender, but was similarly ineffective when protecting the rim, allowing 54.2 percent shooting. The 31-year-old also has missed 182 combined games in the last four years. The only other center on the roster is 34-year-old Brendan Haywood.

Compounding the problem is Cleveland’s perimeter defense. The Cavaliers were an average defensive team last season, allowing 104.8 points per 100 possessions.  Irving plays arguably the deepest position in the league and is widely regarded as one of the worst defenders at his position. Last season, Irving ranked 72nd among point guards in defensive RPM, behind guys such as Trey Burke and Darren Collison.

Looking at the rest of the wings on the roster, the Cavs have more unproven young guards (Dion Waiters, Matthew Dellavedova and Joe Harris) and mid-30s small forwards Mike Miller and James Jones. Even if the team lands Shawn Marion and Ray Allen, the median age won’t exactly get any younger.

The downside of trading Andrew Wiggins is that he may have been their best perimeter defender outside of the 29-year-old James. Without Wiggins, the defensive burden will again fall on James’s shoulders, and wear aside, his defense regressed last season.

James led Miami to four consecutive Finals trips, due in large part to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh being above average defenders at their positions and as a result, the Heat was consistently one of the best defensive teams in the league. The same cannot be said about Irving, Love and the rest of the Cavaliers. Many casual fans and pundits are already predicting that the Cavaliers will come out of the Eastern Conference, but given the lack of defense, it will have its hands full stopping even average offenses.

(Previous version incorrectly spelled David Blatt’s last name.) 

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