INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Is it possible for the reigning NBA champions, a deep and talented squad that returned much of its core from last season, to improve?
Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue certainly thinks so, and is focusing on three specific areas: Pace, ball movement and defense.
The last one is a no-brainer. Lue, the defensive coordinator alongside assistant Mike Longabardi, has been in charge of that side of the floor since 2014, when he first came to Cleveland. He wants to use the regular season to build a strong defensive foundation, to implement positive habits rather than locking in during the playoffs when scouting reports become useful and imperative.
When things go wrong on defense, Lue takes the blame and quickly tries to make corrections.
That hasn’t been necessary this season. It’s a small sample size, but the Cavaliers have stymied their first three opponents — New York, Toronto and Orlando.
“If we’re playing with effort, we’re covering for one another, just playing hard, competing,” Lue said Monday afternoon. “I think if you compete every night — you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to have breakdowns — but you can cover for those breakdowns if you play hard and you compete every night.
“Our guys have been together now, it’s their third year, they’re picking things up and defensively I think we’ve been pretty good outside of the fourth quarter last game when I thought we got tired, we missed shots and we let missed shots dictate our defense in that fourth quarter.”
The Cavs inexplicably allowed 37 points to the Magic in a forgettable fourth quarter near-meltdown Saturday night. It’s the first time an opponent has reached the 30-point mark in a quarter since Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
“If we can hold teams under 25 per quarter, that gives us a good shot to win,” LeBron James said. “Keeps guys out of the hundred. Giving up 37 like we did in the fourth quarter last game is unacceptable. We all know that from the team aspect. We’ll correct that for sure, but we don’t really play by the numbers. We want to get stops and we want to get numbers and we want to get out and create tempo. We’ve been a really good defensive team that last couple years and we want to continue that.”
There are plenty of stats to measure defensive success.
James spoke about points, the obvious one. The Cavs finished fourth in that category last season, allowing 98.3 per game. They became even stingier in the postseason, giving up 96.1 points.
Through three games this season, Cleveland is only surrendering 92.7 points per contest, which currently ranks fifth.
Field goal percentage is another metric. Inside the Cavaliers’ locker room at Quicken Loans Arena, two white boards hang adjacent to Lue’s office door. One keeps track of the Eastern Conference standings. In the playoffs, that gets condensed, monitoring playoff records. The other board is a top 15 ranking of opponent’s field goal percentage, something that continues to stress.
“When I first came into the league and I had a chance to work under Tom Thibodeau the goal was always to keep teams under 43.9 (percent shooting) and so I still live by that,” Lue said. “The (league average) is a little higher now but if you keep a team under 44 percent shooting from the field, you got a good chance of winning.”
So far, so good. The Cavs rank second in that category, holding the first three teams to 40.2 percent. They look more connected, more focused on that end.
“It’s always about communication,” James said. “So when you talk about our defense, you can mess up at times but if you’re communicating it can get you away from a couple, a lot of mistakes. So communication is always the main thing when it comes to defense. If we continue to do that we put ourselves in the right positions.”
Offense shouldn’t be a problem. The team has myriad scoring options. But Lue built a coaching reputation on the defensive end. It’s at his core. He wants that to be the case with his team and it will be something to track all season.
How far have the Cavs come since last year? Can they enter the category of elite?
Perhaps those questions can be better answered after Tuesday night when the explosive Houston Rockets, averaging 104.3 points, come to town led by perennial MVP candidate James Harden and offensive wizard Mike D’Antoni.
“You see all the teams running some version of his offense,” Lue said of Tuesday’s counterpart. “His offense is spreading the floor, having a shooting big at the 4 position, the 5 rolling down the middle of the floor and just playing with pace and trying to get the ball up the floor in a timely fashion. A lot of ‘pistol’ actions he brought to the game. So, everyone is taking something out of D’Antoni’s offensive playbook.”
As for Harden, he looks poised for the best season of his career, especially as he’s taken on the primary point guard duties, dishing out 17 assists in Houston’s opener. He’s averaging a team-high 29.3 points and 10.7 assists. He will be the focus of the defensive plan.
“You gotta load on Harden,” James said. “He’s such a great playmaker, he’s going to push the tempo when he has the ball in his hands, so he’s a dual threat of being able to get guys involved and at the same time keep up his scoring pace.
“At the same time, we have to do a good job, everyone has to be in tune. You can’t guard Harden with one guy and it’s going to be five men on a string playing our defense.”
That doesn’t just mean Tuesday against the Rockets. It’s the goal for this year.
The top team in the East wants to get better. If there’s enough continued growth defensively, the Cavs will be sitting atop both white boards — as opposed to one — hanging prominently in the locker room.