How Good Will the Cavs Small Lineup Be?
After a week long negotiation due to Isaiah Thomas's hip problems, and the Cavaliers desire to add onto the huge blockbuster trade to send Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics, the deal is finally in place. The Cavaliers finally bring in Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick and the Miami Heat 2020 second round pick.
While this is a great package for Kyrie, there are still some questions about what Cleveland will be next year. There is still the fact that LeBron James is at least there for another year, Isaiah Thomas can really score and had an awesome season in 2016-17, Jae Crowder is a high level defensive player, and also Kevin Love wasn't traded so he's still a part of the team as well.
This Cavaliers team is not just loaded, they actually have options this year. Bringing in Jae Crowder means LeBron may not have to play 37.8 minutes a game in 2017-18. If Isaiah Thomas needs to come off the floor for a few minutes you have former MVP Derrick Rose, and a very dependable Jose Calderon, to back him up. If J.R. Smith is cold, there's still Kyle Korver waiting to come in. Plus there's still those rumors of Dwyane Wade making a stop in Cleveland once the Chicago Bulls buy him out of the stupid contract they signed him to in the first place.
But what I am focusing on here is when the Cavs play small ball, and try to bring in their death squad, just how good can it be? Can it beat Golden State? Eh, probably not, if their healthy. But, there really aren't many teams who pack the punch in that circumstance either.
I'm going off the impression that when the Cavaliers go small, we can see the lineup of Isaiah Thomas, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, LeBron James, and Kevin Love. By name alone that's pretty damn good, but, how about their true values as players? To get an idea of what they bring to the floor, I had to do some digging on the value they bring to their team.
Last year Isaiah Thomas looked like he was on his way to being a Boston Celtics legend. He had by far his best year ever averaging 28.9 PPG, 5.9 APG, a 34.0 Usage rate, and a 4.8 VORP (Value over replacement player). Isaiah was actually 15th in the league in Vorp, his new teammate LeBron James was 3rd behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden so those two could very well be a very good sequel of LeBron and Kyrie Irving.
Jae Crowder had just his second season of his career where he averaged double digit scoring, when he turned in a very respectable 13.9 PPG last season in Brad Stevens offense. While Crowder definitely upped his offensive game, he took a little bit of a step back from the defensive star he is known to be. Per 100 possessions last season, Crowder tied his career high for his defensive rating being at 108 when just the year before he had his finest year of a 102 Drtg/per 100 possessions. There are many reasons to believe, with his role in Cleveland, that he very much can return to that player for the 2017-18 season.
Last year was not J.R. Smith's year. His thumb injury caused him to miss half the season, he had his second lowest career ppg average for a season, and his worst true shooting percentage, of .484, since leaving the Knicks. But all signs point to J.R. being healthy and good to go for the 17-18 season, and he will be counted on to bring back his 3 point shot that brought him to the dance in Cleveland.
While Kevin Love had his first all-star season for the Cavs last year, he still only played 60 games. He was really good on the offensive side of the ball as expected, but only had a win share rate of 6.4. To put that in context, his last year in Minnesota he was at 14.3. But Love still had a +/- of 9.0 per 100 possessions, and had his highest usage rate for his time with the Cavaliers at 26.4. Love and IT are well known defensive liabilities, but are so good at scoring, and we have seen both players get hot and look like they can't miss.
Then of course, there's LeBron James. The best NBA player of our generation, the face of the league, Mr. Seven-Straight-Trips-To-The-Finals, and a new addition to his career highlight reel every night. How good was LeBron last year? He had his highest assist average in his career of 8.7 a game, he also had his best rebound average of 8.6 while scoring 26.4 ppg. He was 5th in the league in offensive win shares at 9.8 (Isaiah Thomas was 2nd in the league with 10.9), 11th in WS/48 at .22,1 and had a box +/- of 8.4, which was 4th in the league behind Westbrook's ridiculous 15.1, James Harden's 10.1 and Chris Paul's 8.8...those 3 are point guards! LeBron also had his career best 1641 points generated by assists, and his best before that was 1262 the year before.
Putting all of this in context, this Cavs team is a major injury to an opponent away from being NBA champions again. We have to believe that Jae Crowder will find that defensive side to him we all know, while also having a player like Jeff Green to also help out with getting LeBron some rest. If Thomas can stay healthy, and keep from hurting his hip more, he will be a great asset to what Ty Lue loves to do with his point guards. The question remains, what will they get from J.R. and Love, and their impact on how good this small ball lineup can be.
Tim Daniel is a host of 48 Minutes Podcast and can be found tweeting about NBA, sneakers and life @TimDaniel518