Max Strus and Georges Niang change everything for the Cleveland Cavaliers

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Georges Niang, Cleveland Cavaliers.

Key Highlights:

  • Strus and Niang greatly improve Cleveland’s spacing
  • By adding more shooting, Cleveland is losing some defensive value
  • Spacing (both creating it and taking it away) is the key to basketball

Take a look at these two plays in the clip below. What is the major difference between these two sequences?

Yes, one (the first play) ended in a miss, and one (the second play) ended in a make. But there is a much larger theme looming over these two possessions – a variable that will ultimately make or break the Cleveland Cavaliers season.

Spacing Means Everything In Team Sports

Let’s look at those two plays again. But this time, let’s include special effects in the video to hammer home the main point.

For those of you who prefer to read rather than watch, here’s an explanation in text. In the first play, Evan Mobley’s crusade toward the rim is stymied by NBA rookie darling Chet Holmgren. The reason Holmgren is so quick to react to Mobley’s roll is because he’s not worried about Jarrett Allen’s threat at a spacer.

In the second clip, Allen is able to complete his end of the pick-and-roll bargain because both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green hesitate to tag him as he’s steamrolling downhill. Their trepidation isn’t a byproduct of any sort of fear toward Allen (although that afro can be quite menacing). No, the reason they didn’t immediately react is because they were worried about Cleveland’s new Splash Brothers, Max Strus and Georges Niang.

They had good reason to worry. In the following game, the Oklahoma City Thunder made the mistake of collapsing in on the pick-and-roll to protect the paint, only to be reprimanded with a Niang three-pointer.

Last season, the Cavaliers were 24th in 3-point attempts per game. Despite this, they had the ninth-best offense in the league based on offensive rating. However, after the New York Knicks exploited their inability to burn teams from outside in last year’s postseason, Cleveland realized it was time for a change.

So, in the offseason, Cleveland acquired the services of the hired gunmen we alluded to earlier. As an aside, a great way to measure a player’s shooting proficiency is to look at how frequently they convert on wide-open threes. And according to the Thinking Basketball database, over the last three years, Strus has converted 46% of his wide-open triples (92nd percentile). Meanwhile, Niang has hit 42% of those shots (76th percentile). Simply put, if you try to help off one of these two, they will make you regret it.

With that said, Strus and Niang aren’t just spot-up squablers. And the Cavaliers have already leveraged their powers to create more dynamic versions of floor spacing.

On the surface, this next clip looks like just another marvelous drive and finish from Donovan Mitchell. That is true, but if you take a second to rewind (which we do), you’ll see that the whole play was created by Strus.

Cleveland runs an action commonly referred to as an “off-ball staggered screen.” Typically, this play is used to create an open shot for the player you have running off of the consecutive screens (in this case, Strus). To guard this, all three defenders need perfect communication. To their credit, that’s exactly what the Thunder had. The only problem is that they were so preoccupied with avoiding a Strus three that they forgot about the All-NBA guard zooming right past them.

Along with using them as decoys, we’ve also seen Strus and Niang operate as screeners, playmakers, and closeout attackers.

In basketball (and all team-centric sports, for that matter), everything revolves around spacing. Offenses are trying to create as much spacing as possible. Meanwhile, defenses are trying to take away as much as they can. By sagging off of non-shooters, the Knicks did the latter. And by adding Strus and Niang this offseason, the Cavaliers have been able to achieve the former.

What Does This All Mean?

We’re still very early into the season, so it is hard to trust the numbers we’re seeing beyond a reasonable doubt. That is especially the case for this Cavaliers team, as they have only had their intended starting five (Darius Garland, Strus, Mitchell, Allen, and Mobley) all healthy for only three games. But even with that in mind, the early results are promising.

With more space to operate, the paint is becoming less congested for Cleveland. And it shows as both Garland and Mitchell shoot a higher percentage around the rim when one or both of Strus and Niang are on the floor (per PBP Stats).

On top of that, the team’s third most-used lineup (consisting of Niang, Strus, Mitchell, Mobley, and Caris LeVert) is outscoring opponents by 46 points per 100 possessions in a very limited sample size (34 possessions per Cleaning the Glass).

Strus, specifically, is putting together a monster statistical footprint to start the season. According to Cleaning the Glass, Cleveland’s offense is 10.8 points better when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s off of it (85th percentile). Their defense is -10.9 points stingier with him (90th percentile). Overall, the team is 21.7 points per 100 better when Strus is on the floor compared to when he’s on the bench (93rd percentile).

Now, this doesn’t mean that there are no downsides to adding Strus and Niang. After all, everything comes with a tradeoff. And when you add more shooting, you are generally sacrificing some defense.

That’s exactly what is happening here. By playing Strus and Niang and opting for more single big lineups, Cleveland is losing the twin tower dynamic that made them the best defense in basketball last year. That isn’t to say that Strus and Niang are bad defenders (Strus in particular is actually pretty solid). They just aren’t as good as Mobley and Allen (very few players in the league are).

How much are they losing on defense? Does what they are gaining on offense outweigh the value lost on defense? We can’t fully answer those questions until more time passes and we have more data available to us.

But if the offensive gain brought on by these two shooters outweighs the defensive loss, the rest of the league better watch out for Cleveland, because the Cavaliers will be pretty damn dangerous.