For a team such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have made three straight NBA Finals, winning it all in 2016, they sure did make a lot of changes this offseason.
All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas and “3 and D” wing Jae Crowder were acquired from the Boston Celtics for LeBron James’s star sidekick Kyrie Irving. Former league MVP Derrick Rose — the focal point for the Chicago Bulls for seven seasons before a year with the New York Knicks — signed a one-year, $2.1 million deal to play with the Cavs as a role player. Three-time champion and 12-time all-star Dwyane Wade reunites with James after a buyout agreement with the Bulls facilitated his signing with Cleveland in September.
On paper, LeBron James is surrounded by more talent than at any point in his previous 14 seasons, which is saying something considering last year’s squad had the highest offensive rating of any team James has been on since he broke into the league in 2003. But the new additions don’t appear to be a good fit to either take this offense to another level or even sustain it as one of the most potent in the NBA.
The Cavaliers offense was efficient last season due to a league-leading 734 corner three-point shot attempts, 147 more than the second-ranked Miami Heat. Corner threes are worth 1.15 points per shot, the third-most efficient attempt after a trip to the free throw line (1.52) and shots from the restricted area (1.21). And if you are open in the corner, James is going to get you the ball. According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, James set a record for most assists on corner threes last season (162), 66 more than anyone else had in 2016-17.
So anyone coming to Cleveland should be proficient in either making or setting up these attempts. Yet that isn’t the case for many of the new players wearing a Cavaliers uniform in 2017-18.
In his career, Wade has taken less than 10 percent of his shots from behind the arc, where the NBA, by comparison, has attempted a three-point shot on 24 percent of field goal attempts since 2003-04, Wade’s first season in the league. Even in his four seasons with James as a member of the Miami Heat, Wade took less than nine percent of his attempts from behind the arc. He has attempted just 38 corner threes over the last two seasons. And his arrival sends three-year starting shooting guard J.R. Smith to the bench.
Smith led the team in three-point attempts per game (6.6) and made a respectable 35.1 percent from behind the arc (league average is 35.4 percent). Almost a third of those attempts were corner threes, which he hit 41.3 percent of the time.
Wade not only made fewer three-point attempts than Smith, he took 6.3 midrange shots per game in 2016-17, the 11th most attempts by a player last season. Midrange shots are among the least efficient in the NBA, as players score on average 0.8 points per attempt.
Thomas was on some MVP short lists at the end of the 2016-17 season, but most of his offense was created at the rim or at the top of the three-point arc: just one out of every seven of his three-point attempts (13.4 percent) came from the corners. Thomas did show he can play off the ball, a skill set Coach Tyronn Lue needs when he rests James. Thomas had an effective field goal percentage of 60.9 as a spot-up shooter during the 2016-17 regular season and was in the top eight percent of players for scoring efficiency (1.22 points per possession) on these plays. Unfortunately, a hip injury suffered in the regular season and exacerbated in the playoffs rendered him unavailable for the start of the 2017-18 season, opening the door for Rose to start at point guard — and that’s not ideal.
Rose’s three-point shooting hit a career-low last season (21.7 percent) and he hasn’t hit over 30 percent of his threes since the 2013-14 season. Rose’s value as an NBA player is in doubt as it is. His inefficiency on offense and defense placed him 51st among 82 point guards per ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, and since missing the entire season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in 2012-13, Rose hasn’t ranked in the top half of the league’s most efficient scorers, per Synergy Sports. In fact, he hasn’t been worth more than a replacement player per Basketball Reference’s VORP.
To make the fit in Cleveland even worse, Rose scored just 0.8 points per possession when used as a spot-up shooter last season, with an effective field goal percentage of 39.2 percent, placing him in the bottom 20 percent of the league. He scored just 1.07 points per possession on cuts to the basket, also ranking him in the bottom 20 percent. Rose was even worse on his catch-and-shoot opportunities: 9 for 42 overall and a woeful 4 for 19 on wide-open attempts.
On the bright side, Crowder fits perfectly with what Cleveland tries to do on offense. He was successful on more than 46 percent of his three-point attempts from the corner and scored 1.35 points per possession last year on open threes off the catch-and-shoot, placing him in the top 20 percent of the NBA. That skill set helped the 26-year-old boost Boston’s offensive rating from 103 to 112.3 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, roughly the difference between the offensive output of the Golden State Warriors and the New Orleans Pelicans last season.
Crowder will give the Cavaliers much-needed help on defense, too. He contested 7.1 shots per game, almost four of those (3.6) behind the three-point line, which would place him fourth and first, respectively, among Cleveland’s defenders. He was also a key cog in Boston’s transition defense, which ranked ninth overall for fewest points allowed per possession (1.07) and sixth in the percentage of turnovers generated (14 per 100 possessions against). Last season, Cleveland ranked 22nd defensively, with transition defense being their Achilles’ heel — no team allowed more points per possession in transition and only six clubs allowed a higher frequency of transition possessions.
In addition, Crowder’s presence slides Kevin Love to center, which in turn moves Tristan Thompson, a starter on the past three Finals teams, to the bench. Though that creates some depth on Cleveland’s roster, expect Love’s to endure some growing pains his in transition to center. His net rating per 48 minutes was plus-9.6 last season as a power forward but dropped to plus-1.3 at center. Thompson’s net rating per 48 minutes was plus-2.7. Viewed another way, the Cavaliers played like a 51-win team last season with Love at power forward but just a 44-win team with him at center. Part of this is could be due to a small sample size — just 18 percent of Love’s minutes played were as a center last season — yet it’s worth noting his effective field goal percentage and points per 48 minutes both suffered in these situations. One of the most used small-ball lineups from last season featuring Love with James, Irving, Smith and Iman Shumpert (36 minutes) managed a net rating of minus-5.9, on par with the 28-win Philadelphia 76ers.
Any team with James is going to have high expectations — the latest odds from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook have Cleveland as the second choice behind the Warriors to win the 2018 NBA title (4-to-1 odds) — but if the team can’t operate with the same efficiency as it did last season, either Cleveland will have to make more changes at the trade deadline or face the end of their reign of the Eastern Conference.
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