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Can the Cavaliers’ Defense Win a Championship?

Do the Cleveland Cavaliers have what it takes on the defensive end to win the title?

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Scoring the ball was never going to be the issue for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They posted the league’s best per-possession offense from the moment LeBron James returned from his mid-season sabbatical until the end of the year, combining with a re-engineered rotation to form a devastating one-two punch with Kyrie Irving surrounded by a lethal group of shooters. There’s even reason to believe they have another gear here for the postseason; a number of specific lineup combinations featuring James, Irving and Kevin Love alongside various cohorts have approached historically great levels offensively, and as rotations tighten and become a larger point of emphasis in the second season, they’re sure to be leaned on more frequently.

No, the hurdle to this Cleveland team winning it all was always going to be their defense. They were a bottom-10 per-possession unit here through the new year, and have still only been roughly middle of the pack since adding guys like Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert in January despite the obvious upgrades both players have been. As with several LeBron teams in recent years, a big part of deciphering whether or not they’ve got the chops to defend at a championship level against teams like Atlanta, Golden State or San Antonio comes down to whether they have another level they’re capable of reaching.

There are some indications that they may. First and most obvious, of course, is LeBron, who has played roughly 400 fewer minutes over the course of the regular season than his previous two strenuous campaigns in Miami. His rest period mid-season will hopefully have kept his legs fresh, and if the Cavs can put up the type of dominating performance they’re surely hoping for in the first couple rounds, the assumption will be that there’s even more time between series to keep his energy levels high.

Assuming this happens to some degree, James should be capable of taking his per-game minutes load from the regular season (36.1, lowest of his career) up a solid notch, along with his intensity level on the defensive end when necessary. Coach David Blatt has saved his legs on this end much of the season by utilizing Shumpert and others on top opposing wings, but they’ll need LeBron engaged against elite offenses like Atlanta and potentially Golden State or San Antonio. Much of the year has set the table for this to be possible, though, and barring a betrayal from his body, it’s a fair bet that more LeBron will equal a better showing, particularly in later series.

The theme of tightened rotations is in play on this end of the floor as well, and Cleveland has player groupings that have excelled defensively together and should expect to see more time. Shumpert and Mozgov have both been big additions defensively, but have mostly played separately, with Mozgov in the starting lineup and Shumpert coming off the bench, often alongside Tristan Thompson. Blatt will almost certainly look to mix this up, particularly once Cleveland faces an elite offense – just over 300 minutes with both playing together produced a defensive efficiency figure significantly stingier than Golden State’s season-best mark. Conversely, lineups with either on their own have been much closer to league average, or below it in Mozgov’s case.

Truthfully, Shumpert may be the lynchpin once Cleveland gets to the championship rounds, so to speak. In particular, the way he compares with a guy like J.R. Smith in a playoff atmosphere may dictate something of a reversal of the roles frequent observers have seen them in over the latter half of the season.

Smith is clearly the better offensive player in a vacuum, particularly in the type of spot-up role both are asked to play while sharing the floor with James and Irving. Interestingly enough, though, the team’s per-possession offensive figures have been almost identical while LeBron plays with or without him since his arrival. And at the same time, said offensive numbers have actually been a hair better when LeBron plays with Shumpert, despite the latter being a clear downgrade from Smith as a shooter. And not surprisingly, virtually any unit that subs Shumpert in for Smith has been superior defensively, often by a wide margin.

Parts of this may be noise, of course – Shumpert has indeed come off the bench almost exclusively, and has therefore played significantly more minutes against opposing secondary units. But it’s tough to shake the feeling that he’ll play a big role when Cleveland has to be able to get some stops against the league’s elite offenses, ones more than capable of attacking a slightly weaker spot like Smith. Shumpert isn’t a sharpshooter on Smith’s level, but is a smart cutter and can’t simply be left alone in the corners. He may see preference over Smith down the stretch of close games, particularly when the Cavs are already “stretching” the floor with Love at the four.

Speaking of Love, he’ll have an interesting role to play as well. He’s taken a lot of heat for various elements of his game over the course of the year, but has actually been mostly solid as a defender, particularly over the latter half of the year. He’s quietly improved tremendously against the pick-and-roll from his time in Minnesota and is more than capable within Cleveland’s scheme, if perhaps still not a great interior defender. Potential opponents like the Hawks or Warriors will test his resolve and effort level; guys like Paul Millsap or any number of small-ball options the Dubs run at the four are a stiff challenge.

And down these same lines, a guy like Thompson may have a role to play as well. A team like the Warriors presents a unique set of challenges with their Steph Curry-oriented offense, one that makes Cleveland’s starters’ typical strategy versus high pick-and-rolls – a generally conservative scheme that drops the big man and allows tougher off-the-dribble looks to most guards – completely ineffective. This is where Thompson’s skill set may come in. Curry will feast on any space he’s left coming around picks, but Thompson has the lateral mobility to hedge high and trap before Steph can wreak havoc.

If Love or Mozgov struggles with this element of defense in this potential series, Thompson could become vital. Units with he and Love have been surprisingly competent defensively, and they’ve absolutely crushed teams while playing this frontcourt alongside LeBron since the latter’s return to the lineup. As effective as Mozgov has been overall, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Thompson steal a chunk of his minutes in this hypothetical Finals matchup. It’s imperfect, as neither Thompson nor Love is a true center, but it’s a safe bet that Cleveland will take their chances in a slight mismatch with a limited individual threat in Andrew Bogut as opposed to allowing Curry and Klay Thompson to rain away from deep. Some of these same principles will apply against a team like Atlanta with Millsap.

Some elements herein are nits being picked, but this is absolutely necessary if the Cavs hope to win their final game of the season. All of their likely opponents in the big money games are among the league’s true elite at recognizing and exploiting soft spots, and Cleveland still has some of these despite notable defensive improvements throughout the year. How Irving responds to potentially being targeted by guys like Curry, Jeff Teague or Tony Parker could be huge. Whether Smith can keep his head on straight enough to maintain what’s been passable defense thus far, likewise. How Love handles what’s sure to be a gauntlet of activity with a back that’s presumed to be well under 100 percent could be vital as well.

It should be a lot of fun to watch, regardless of the final outcome. Despite their holes, one can’t help but assume this is the most relatively complete team LeBron has had in Cleveland. He’s yet to truly shift into high gear for more than short periods this season, and how often he can do so could certainly be a larger individual predictor of the team’s success than anything outlined above. Bring on the second season.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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