The Cleveland Cavaliers are down two games to none to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, and when odds of winning are perilously low, the call for a high-risk, high-reward strategy is evident. How do the Cavs counter the Warriors, who helped usher in a new-wave small-ball movement where teams are downsizing their frontcourts and bringing in more shooters? They can go even smaller, and force them into the ultimate small-ball game with LeBron James as the team’s center.
Golden State is surprisingly thin on the perimeter. Outside of the stars — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green — there’s not much depth. Shaun Livingston is fine as a backup, but he probably shouldn’t get extended run alongside the big scorers, and he’s not an outside shooter. Nick Young has been decent in a bench role, but Cleveland would be happy to see him on the court more often. After that, there are more limited players such as Patrick McCaw and Quinn Cook. Finally, there’s Andre Iguodala, who helped unlock the team’s “death lineup” by playing versatile defense at small forward and filling any hole. But he’s injured and there’s no timetable for his return. Even if he does come back for Game 3, he’ll likely be rusty.
It’s the perfect opportunity for Cleveland to exploit Golden State’s depth. When Cleveland is playing “five-out” basketball with everyone on the perimeter, even the Warriors have issues defending the rim.
The main benefit of James at center is he would have an open lane to the basket and the Warriors would be less able to help inside. If Cleveland goes with one fewer big man, then that’s one fewer big man who can defend the rim, and all those help defenders would be chasing around perimeter players. You can see what happens to Cleveland in the table below when they have all three-point shooters on the court or, to the logical extreme, no traditional frontcourt players.
Cleveland’s standard model of having at least one center in the game, usually Tristan Thompson or Larry Nance Jr., has been the least successful model. They’ve been even better without any frontcourt player — sorry, Kevin Love. James as the center is a heavy burden on someone who’s already doing so much, but if anyone can shoulder it and bring in his shot-swatting magic, it’s LeBron. Additionally, those numbers have held up in the playoffs, even the few minutes without any big men in the game. It can work.
The proposal? Start George Hill, JR Smith, Kyle Korver, James and Love, adding in different perimeter players over Smith and Korver as needed, and when Love goes to the bench use Jeff Green to go even smaller. Golden State will either be stuck with one of their big guys guarding the perimeter or they’ll be forced into giving more minutes to their weak perimeter bench since Iguodala is still recovering from an injury. It’s not perfect, but their current approach could get them blown out of the water.
Iguodala’s injury is key here. He was their fifth piece who made those small lineups work smoothly. The Warriors can keep playing a big or use someone like Nick Young or Livingston. But Livingston is not a shooter and doesn’t fit well with the starters.
Innovation is spurred by circumstance. When you have few options and your back is against a wall, creativity is one of your few weapons. All that said, this risky strategy relies on Green to be their Swiss Army knife, a role he has been pressed into but in which he has never fully succeeded. It also relies on giving more minutes to the Cavs’ shaky perimeter rotation, which does not sound bright after the recent mental gaffe from Smith and the uninspired play of Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson. But if things were easy, they wouldn’t be underdogs, and if they don’t try something new, they could be eliminated early with regret.
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