How Cleveland Cavaliers Would Cover for Kevin Love's Defensive Deficiencies

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 1, 2014

Apr 8, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love (42) grabs the ball pre game at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers could put up cheat-code-aided video game numbers with Kevin Love on board, but they might need every last one of them.

This has not been a good defensive team, and Love carries the reputation of a turnstile. While the Cavs might win a majority of nightly races on 110-plus points, chances are head coach David Blatt would rather not turn the Quicken Loans Arena into the NBA's fastest track.

He especially would not want one that allows both teams to play at ludicrous speed, at least.

The Cavaliers don't need to become a dominant defense. LeBron James' Miami Heat proved as much last season, booking their fourth-consecutive NBA Finals berth, despite finishing a mediocre 11th in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com.

But Cleveland needs to be respectable at the defensive end, a standard it has struggled to reach over the past few seasons.

Cleveland's Recent Defensive Struggles
SeasonDefensive RatingRank
2013-14104.817th
2012-13106.926th
2011-12106.026th
2010-11109.129th
NBA.com

Getting prodigal son LeBron back on board should help. He has collected All-Defensive honors in each of the last six seasons and ranks seventh among active players with 51.5 career defensive win shares, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Still, having one lockdown defender will only do so much to secure that end of the floor, especially if getting Love means losing top pick Andrew Wiggins. And, judging by reports, it absolutely would mean that.

As sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst, the Cavaliers are the only team having trade talks with the Minnesota Timberwolves about their stranded superstar, a deal that would be "co-headlined" by Wiggins.

Bob Finnan of The News-Herald reported that Cleveland's return package could "possibly" include Corey Brewer, which would give the Cavaliers a long, athletic defender on the perimeter. Of course, the swingman couldn't help Cleveland's interior, which looks uncomfortably close to being kitten-tee soft.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

Cavs' opponents shot 61.3 percent within five feet of the basket last season, per NBA.com, which tied for the fifth-highest percentage in the league. The most generous team in that category? Love's Timberwolves, who allowed a 63.1 percent success rate.

Love and potential frontcourt mates Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao averaged a combined 1.5 blocks a night in 2013-14. There were 14 different players who averaged at least as many rejections on their own.

Granted, interior defense is more than shot blocking. But adding different defensive criteria still doesn't paint this trio in a favorable light.

Opposing centers put up a 17.4 player efficiency rating against Varejao and a 17.7 PER when matched up with Love, per 82games.com. Thompson "held" 4's to a 16.5 mark, which is still above the league average of 15.0.

As rim protectors, none of the three did a lot of protecting. There were 77 players who faced at least five shots at the rim last season, and Cleveland's probable interior partners all ranked among the bottom 15 in field-goal percentage allowed, per NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data.

Opponent's Success Rate vs. Cleveland's Likely Frontcourt
PlayerFGM at RimFGA at RimFG% at RimRank
Kevin Love5.29.157.474th
Tristan Thompson3.15.259.176th
Anderson Varejao2.95.354.264th
NBA.com

For a team in need of paint protection, Love seems like a curious target.

"He offers no rim protection, he lollygags in transition defense, he’s not going to make spirited second and third rotations on the same defensive possession, and he often fails to challenge shots in order to secure boxout position...," Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote.

Clearly, the Cavs aren't making this a defensive decision.

They're likely enamored with the idea of pairing three of the NBA's top 15 scorers—James finished third with 27.1, Love was fourth at 26.1 and Kyrie Irving ranked 14th with 20.8—as they should be. The fact that all three are willing, capable and creative passers only adds to the fascination.

The stars are aligning for this to potentially be a historically significant offense.

Feb 24, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (left) looks over at Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (right) as Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Byron Scott (center) looks on during the second half at the American Airlines A
USA TODAY Sports

But the defensive deficiencies are real, and the issue will need to be addressed by Blatt and his staff.

So, how will they go about solving it?

Well, it would help if they could get an assist from the front office. Love, Varejao and Thompson aren't going to transform into intimidating basket guardians, so the Cavs could help themselves by finding a way to bring in that type of player.

With players such as Emeka Okafor, Ekpe Udoh and Elton Brand still unclaimed in free agency, there should be low-cost options available to help the Cavs bolster their ranks.

However, this late in the offseason and with so much money already invested elsewhere, the Cavaliers may not find bigs as talented as the ones they already have. Any additions they make could serve a marginal role, so Blatt will need to play the cards already in his hand—or the big one that's almost there, in Love's case.

For the Cavaliers, their key to success could be relying on the two things James no longer had in Miami: youth and athleticism. Rather than turning teams back at the rim, they'll need to cut off the attacks before they happen.

Varejao, when healthy, is a 6'11", 267-pound ball of energy. ESPN Insider David Thorpe (subscription required) called Thompson "a long and elite athlete" in 2012, and that description still fits.

In other words, Cleveland might have some of the pieces needed to play the swarming type of defense like James' Heat did. If the middle is vulnerable—and it definitely will be—then the Cavs need to prevent teams from getting inside.

They have the physical tools to be pesky on the perimeter, hounding ball-handlers and jumping out on pick-and-rolls. If Cleveland's rotations are crisp and defensive breakdowns are avoided, opponents won't have the point-blank chances that give this frontcourt trouble.

It can be an exhausting brand of basketball to play, but James could be the perfect leader to elicit that type of effort from his teammates.

"Defense is about commitment, resolve, discipline and an ability to concentrate," former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy told Tom Reed of the Northeast Ohio Media Group. "The pressure is going to be exerted by James. He is in his prime and they have a chance to win so as a player you don't want to not play up to your potential defensively."

Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) calls a play during the first quarter against the San Antonio Spurs in game five of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

If the Cavs can force bad shots on the outside, Love is the perfect player to inhale those misses. He has finished inside the top five in defensive rebounding percentage during four of the last five seasons.

Varejao has the motor, and Thompson has the natural gifts needed to aggressively attack the opposition, which could free up Love to lay back and rely on his instincts, possibly clogging up a passing lane or gaining prime rebounding position. Blatt could even pair Love with James on the interior, creating a more frantic defense at one end and a powerful, versatile force at the other.

James has helped build immovable objects that didn't have great rim protectors before. The Cavs were seventh in defensive efficiency during the 2009-10 season with an aging Shaquille O'Neal leading the team with 1.2 blocks a night. The Heat ranked fifth in the category in 2010-11, while Dwyane Wade's 1.1 rejections led Miami's starters.

This team will have even less rim protection, and that could prevent it from becoming an elite defense. But if the offense is as good as it looks on paper, a solid defense could be enough to secure James' fifth consecutive Finals appearance. It worked for the King last season, and he didn't have Irving or Love then.

Defense could be a problem for the Cavaliers, but it's a risk worth taking considering this club's limitless offensive potential.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.