The Cleveland Cavaliers are going to look a lot different when they take the court against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night. The Cavs, who had the oldest roster in the league this season, get younger, but more importantly —  after shipping out embattled point guard Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, Jae Crowder, Derek Rose, Iman Shumpert and Dwyane Wade, while welcoming Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, George Hill and Rodney Hood — they addressed their single biggest statistical deficiency, one that could keep them from a title if it does not improve.

Cleveland is allowing 109.9 points per 100 possessions entering Friday’s games, the second-worst defensive rating in the NBA after the Phoenix Suns (110.3). Of the 76 NBA Finals participants since the 1979-80 season, none had defensive ratings this bad when compared to the league average, according to research compiled by numberFire.

The trades should address that issue. Crowder, Shumpert and Rose all ranked in the bottom third of the league in terms of overall points allowed per possession this season. Thomas was in the bottom-third for his defense against the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll, an essential job for an NBA point guard. Frye struggled mightily with spot-up shooters, allowing a robust 64 percent effective field goal percentage against, essentially turning an opposing shooter into a better version of the Golden State Warriors (58 eFG%). And Wade, at 36 years old, just couldn’t stop many players in isolation, allowing them to score on him more than half the time when in one-on-one situations. Getting rid of those players would be a net positive even if only draft assets were received in return, let alone the bona fide NBA players that now are in Cleveland uniforms.

Hill will likely start at point guard and should be an upgrade defensively. He allowed 0.9 points per possession for the Kings this season, putting him in the top 25 percent of the NBA, almost completely locking down the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll (0.7 PPP, sixth-best among guards defending at least 100 possessions in 2017-18). He also held spot-up shooters to less than a point per attempt and would immediately become the best defender on the Cavs against this play type.

vs. spot-up shooters in 2017-18 Points allowed per shot eFG% against
George Hill 0.94 50%
Cavaliers 1.04 54%

Nance was a boost to the Lakers’ defense, improving his team’s defensive rating by almost two points when playing his 22 minutes per game. He also averages 6.8 rebounds per game, with three of those contested rebounds. Only one current member of the Cavaliers, Kevin Love, grabs as many contested rebounds (3.5) as Nance. In addition, Nance’s defensive Real Plus minus (plus-2.1), an estimated defensive impact measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions, is the ninth-highest among power forwards this season. That instantly becomes the highest on the Cavaliers, 1.3 points per 100 possessions better than Love, who ranks second on the overhauled roster.

Clarkson allowed 0.9 points per possession when tabbed as the primary defender this season, putting him in the top 30 percent of the league, suffocating opposing ball handlers on the pick-and-roll. Among all NBA players defending at least 100 pick-and-roll plays this season, only two guards — Lou Williams and Frank Ntilikina — allowed fewer points per possession.

Hood is an average defender overall, but he has shown an ability to defend opposing jump shots (effective field goal against of 46.3 percent) and neutralize players coming off screens (among top 6 percent of defenders in the NBA this season) which is critical when facing the Golden State Warriors, whose offense revolves around Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thomson turning ball screens into points.

2017-18 Off screens
Warriors offense 1.12 points per possession scored
Hood’s defense 0.58 points per possession allowed

Using ESPN’s Real Plus Minus of the players added to Cleveland’s roster projects the team to have a defense that is 2.2 points per 100 possessions below average, which would improve their current defensive rating from 109.9 to 108.1. The offense also improves slightly, going from an offensive rating of 109.3 to 109.7, giving them a projected net rating of plus-1.6, which would rank 10th in the NBA this season and tied for fifth in the East. Last year’s Cavaliers squad went to the NBA Finals after having a net rating of plus-2.9 during the regular season.

It certainly appears the Cavaliers addressed their biggest concern. Now we’ll have to see if the changes pay dividends at the defensive end.

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