At first glance, the Cavaliers’ Friday announcement that Iman Shumpert would miss 6-8 weeks would not seem to have much bearing on the season.
After all, at the time of this statement, Shumpert had already missed nine of the team’s 22 games, having last made a brief seven minute cameo during the Cavs’ blowout win versus the 76ers on November 27.
While on the court, he seemed to be lost on the offensive end, posting career lows in several categories, including PPG (4.8), APG (1.3), three-point percentage (28%) and PER (6.81). Perhaps most damning of all, he had contributed exactly zero win shares to the Cavaliers this season, meaning his impact had been minimal at best.
All of these statistics seemingly make Shumpert’s reputation as one of the Cavs’ most maligned players one that is deserved, rather than simply a hasty assumption.
The Cavaliers’ fantastic play during their 11-game win streak, in which Shumpert only played more than 10 minutes four times, has only strengthened this perception.
However, these measures do not paint a complete picture of Shumpert’s impact on the Cavaliers.
According to the NBA’s advanced statistics tracking, Shumpert’s numbers in defensive rating (103.0), SPG (0.7), and defensive win shares (0.026) all rank in the top five on the Cavs. While these numbers are somewhat pedestrian, they do rank highly on this team.
This happens when you play alongside below-average defenders such as Kevin Love and also underlines just how large of an issue defense has been for this squad.
Make no mistake: the Cavaliers’ defense this year has been absolutely atrocious. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the team had to integrate so many new pieces and parts but, as of press, they rank near the bottom of the league in several categories.
These include PPG (108.8), in which they rank 25th, among bottom feeders such as the Hawks and Lakers and defensive rating (108.0), in which they rank 24th.
This can also be seen by anyone who follows this team. They possess such an explosive offense, but it is their lackadaisical effort on defense which causes immense frusturation from the fans. It also leads to the team having to close down games late and lose several close contests, including games versus the Rockets and Hawks.
Despite these grave numbers, there are some signs that this start might be somewhat of a mirage.
The Cavs have been without Tristan Thompson, perhaps their best defensive big man, for about a month. However, he is slated to return soon, which should give the defense somewhat of a boost.
Last year, Thompson led all qualifying Cavs in blocks, averaging 1.1 per game and could guard multiple positions, giving the Cavs flexibility within their lineups, which they have surely missed.
The Cavs’ defense has also improved during their 11-game win streak, ranking 9th in defensive rating (103.0) and 12th in PPG (103.1) during this span, both of which are noticeable improvements over their overall body of work.
The players, particularly the new acquisitions, also seem to getting more and more comfortable with what is expected from them defensively, leading to a unit that is functioning more and more like one, rather than a collection of individuals.
One of the foundations of any title-winning team is a stout defense, which the Cavs can attest to. They saw this in the 2016 NBA Finals, when their defensive reawakening was one of the things which allowed them to mount a historic comeback from a 3-1 deficit.
This also stood true in last year’s finals, in which their (admittedly great) offense was offset by their inability to defend the Warriors, so much so that it took a historic offensive onslaught just for the Cavs to win Game 4 and avoid getting swept.
Therefore, the team needs to continue this trend if they want to have any hope of getting past the Warriors or (gulp) Celtics, whom are holding opponents to a league-leading 96.8 PPG.
They also would also need this to continue if they want a fresh Lebron James for the playoffs. James, in his 15th NBA season, has had to channel Playoff Lebron and carry the team just to keep the Cavs competitive. This, of course, is going to come at the cost of rest.
The Cavs have been accused of coasting through regular seasons. They have also shown that, with proper rest, they can dominate through the East, as evidenced by last year’s 12-1 rampage.
However, without a competent defense, they might not even have the opportunity to do this, leaving Lebron and Co. exhausted for potential showdowns with the Celtics and Warriors.
Overall, the Cavs’ defense, given its performance, needs to improve going forward. Shumpert’s injury, upon further examination, is just another reminder of this.
Whether this is through the returns of injured players such as Tristan Thompson, continued improvement from within, or the acquisition of more defensive-minded personnel, this problem has to be addressed if this organization wants to reach their ultimate goal: bringing another title back to The Land.
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