The Cleveland Cavaliers are outscoring opponents by 16.4 points per 100 possessions with Larry Nance Jr. on the floor. (David Richard/USA Today Sports)

With the Cleveland Cavaliers “marching a slow death,” General Manager Koby Altman dealt away 40 percent of his roster at the NBA’s trade deadline. This was no blind garage sale, though. Mere months before LeBron James is set to hit unrestricted free agency, Altman trained his sights on younger, more athletic talent (the lone exception being George Hill) with which to surround his generational talent.

Larry Nance Jr., one of those acquisitions, checked every box for the Eastern Conference titans. Less than a month after the roster was turned inside out, the spring-loaded 6-foot-9 forward out of the University of Wyoming has made a seismic impact in Cleveland.

Among players with at least 90 possessions, Nance leads the league by scoring 1.22 points per possession, according to data provided by Synergy Sports. His averages per 36 minutes are solid: 16.9 points, 11.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, with a true-shooting percentage of 63.7. In the 245 on-court minutes Nance has logged in Cleveland, he has turned the ball over just three times.

The change of scenery has also effectively led to a change in position for Nance. With Kevin Love sidelined with a non-displaced fracture in his left hand and Tristan Thompson out with an ankle injury, Nance is filling in at center, where he has logged 33 percent of his career minutes. Despite that limited experience, Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue has allocated 98 percent of Nance’s on-court time at center. That alteration has allowed the Cavaliers to ride smaller lineups to more effective results.

Nance’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time for the Cavaliers, given those injuries. But there’s ample evidence to suggest Nance should’ve been starting over Thompson anyway. Like Thompson, Nance is a rim-runner, rebounder and proficient pick-and-roll partner, scoring a robust 1.56 points per possession as a roll man.

Unlike Thompson, Nance provides versatility at both ends. While Thompson struggles whenever he’s farther than 10 feet from the basket, Nance plays just fine outside the paint. Additionally, Nance is capable of hitting pullup jumpers and diving toward the rim for late defensive help, aspects absent from Thompson’s game. Neither is a particularly deft rim protector, but at least Nance isn’t allowing opponents to shoot 70 percent at the rim when he’s the primary defender.

Cleveland is outscoring opponents by 16.4 points per 100 possessions with Nance on the floor. A defense that ranks among the league’s worst is allowing just 99.4 points per 100 possessions when he plays which, if maintained over a full season, would be the best mark in the NBA over the past three years.

Specifically, with Nance in the fold, Cleveland’s defense forces opponents to take longer possessions and hoist more inefficient midrange jump shots. With Nance’s lateral quickness, Cleveland’s defense rotates far better, as exemplified by the disparity in opponent field goal percentage at the rim (59.2 percent when Nance plays, 65.3 percent when he sits) and on corner three-pointers (25 percent when Nance plays, 45.8 percent when he sits).

And because opponents have to honor Nance’s range and ability to drive to the basket, the spacing he provides has a positive effect on everyone, especially James, the most critical chess piece on the floor.

With the Thompson-James tandem on the court, James has a true-shooting percentage of 62.3 percent and the team has a net rating of minus-6.1. But when Thompson sits and Nance takes his place, James’s figure spikes to 66.7 percent, and the team has a net rating of plus-21.4.

Two-man lineup

LeBron James with Tristan Thompson 668 109.7 115.8 -6.1 1.6 14.2 57.5
LeBron James with Larry Nance Jr. 156 123.4 102.0 21.4 3.3 9.2 62.5

Nance projects to be more than a lukewarm starter and, like many who came before him, he deserves an increased diet of minutes. Paul Millsap made a combined 49 starts over his first four seasons in the NBA, but since the 2010-11 campaign, he has started all but six games and earned four all-star nods. Clint Capela was too raw to be a consistent starter during his first two seasons in the league; now he’s an essential starting piece on one of the league’s top teams. Serge Ibaka largely played with the second unit when he entered the league; his first season as an every-night starter, the Oklahoma City Thunder reached the NBA Finals. More minutes for Nance could provide a significant step up for both the Cavaliers and Nance’s reputation around the league.

With Nance in the fold, Cleveland is surging at both ends of the court. Should the team hope to make a deep playoff push, Lue would do well to consider keeping Nance in the starting lineup.

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