The Cavaliers Have Their Own Lineup of Death

How one of the wonkiest lineups in the NBA has become unstoppable.

Things are heating up in the Eastern Conference. Over the last month, the Wizards have come into their own, the Celtics have finally gotten healthy, and the Raptors have pushed their chips in by stocking up at the trade deadline. But hanging above all those teams at the top of the East are the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have also been adding weapons over the last month or so.

The Cavs need more depth to spruce up the bench and alleviate some of the workload from the shoulders of LeBron James, but it’s been astonishing how well the bench has played with James. That may sound obvious; of course players are going to play well alongside the best player in the world. But the numbers are even more jarring that you might expect.

The disparity between the Cavs with LeBron on the floor and the Cavs with him off is vast, and there might not be a better representation of that fact than Cleveland’s best lineup by net rating: James, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson, Derrick Williams, and Channing Frye. Without LeBron, that’s a pretty punchless and creaky group of post-prime veterans and a 25-year-old journeyman. But add in James, and it becomes a dominant wrecking crew.

That group is plus-38.7 points per 100 possessions, with a net effective field goal percentage of 32 percent in 39 minutes together. It isn’t a huge sample size, especially at this point in the season, but that group has been a death machine when it takes the court, and Tyronn Lue has gone to that lineup more frequently as he’s become more comfortable with it.

The reason this group works so well together comes down to two simple elements: spacing and mobility. It’s what the NBA is build upon nowadays, and while the Warriors are the figureheads of the small-ball, pace-and-space movement, the Cavs are just as capable of throwing out versatile, sweet-shooting lineups. Korver leads the NBA in three-point percentage (and is tripling at 51.2 percent since joining the Cavs!), Frye is just outside the top 20 at 40.2 percent, and James is hitting the long ball at his highest rate since 2013. Jefferson and Williams aren’t lights-out shooters my any stretch, but they at least pose the threat of a shot or a drive to the basket if given enough space.

By playing five out with this group, the Cavaliers turn into an older, more lethal version of the Houston Rockets, with James acting as a souped-up version of James Harden; they give the ball to their best player, space the floor, and let James make decisions. For the past 14 years, that’s generally been a good plan, but this group has the floor spacing and athleticism to really maximize James’ playmaking abilities.

On that play, Williams and James run a basic pick and roll, only Williams slips the screen when his man, Derrick Rose, jumps out early on James. Meanwhile, Willy Hernangomez and Courtney Lee are caught up in the screening action by Korver and Frye, while Carmelo Anthony, in poor help-side position, has to worry about Jefferson in the Corner. That leaves the paint wide open for the Williams roll, with no one there to prevent the open dunk.

Here, on a similar setup, LeBron uses that open space in the lane to beat his man off the dribble and finish:

Korver, Frye, and Jefferson all spot up, while Williams lurks just far enough away from the basket to free up James. With that much space, James is unstoppable. Take it away, and he’ll kick out to wide-open shooters:

With open looks like that, it’s no wonder that Cleveland shoots 44 percent on its threes with those five on the floor, and with nearly 42 percent of their shots coming from long distance, good luck keeping up.

In addition to shooting at a high level, this group also uses its versatility and size to form a defensive gauntlet. Korver, who stands at 6’7”, is the shortest player of the bunch, which makes it difficult to create real size mismatches. They switch every screen (except a few when Frye is involved), and James plays a lot of free safety with this group, allowing him to protect the rim from the help side and make up for any slow-footedness on the perimeter.

Somehow, it’s working, despite no one (save LeBron when he wants to) being a real lockdown defender. That group owns a defensive rating of 90.4, which would rank first in the league by a mile if extrapolated across a full season. They also do a great job of limiting high-percentage shots, and even when they do allow them, they force opponents into a ton of misses. Almost half of opponents’ shots come from the mid range when facing this stingy group, and teams are burying threes at just a 23.5 percent clip against them.

The strangest part is that this lineup was sort of an accident. With J.R. Smith and Kevin Love out for long stretches, the Cavs only went eight deep for a few weeks, and Lue had no choice but to try some funky things with his rotation. Korver and Williams, both midseason acquisitions, were thrust into significant roles due to Cleveland’s lack of depth, while Frye and Jefferson have played more than most could have imagined due to Love’s injury.

It remains to be seen how sustainable this group’s dominance is. The Cavs haven’t played particularly tough opponents lately, and many of the minutes this lineup plays are against other second units. James’ minutes are already a source of concern, and carrying a unit without a secondary playmaker puts even more strain on him.

Getting Smith and Love back will ease some of that pressure from LeBron’s shoulders, as will the integration of Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut. James should play fewer minutes down the stretch of the season, even if it causes the Cavaliers to lose the top seed in the East. That means he’ll either play less with the starters or we’ll see less of this dynamic lineup. Korver, Jefferson, and Frye are also “DNP-Rest” candidates for between now and the playoffs.

And that’s fine. Even if this lineup gets less action for a little while, the Cavs still have the capability to play the same style with different personnel. It’s easy to see Smith sliding into Korver or Jefferson’s spot as a shooter and stopper once he becomes healthy; Iman Shumpert is playing that role to a lesser degree right now.

Rotations will shorten in the playoffs. James will continue to play monster minutes, Kyrie Irving will play more, Love and Smith will need minutes to get re-acclimated, and most of these random role players won’t make a huge difference. But a good bench is crucial to a deep playoff run, and the “LeBron + Bench” group might be Cleveland’s best counter to Golden State—as well as the strongest support for James’ MVP candidacy.


Stats current through Wednesday afternoon.

Stats courtesy of nbawowy! and Basketball-Reference.

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