A short few weeks ago, Basketball Insiders addressed the bedlam in Northeast Ohio with a column from yours truly.
Since then, believe it or not, a lot more has transpired with the Cleveland Cavaliers—two more blowout losses, a reportedly hostile in-house team meeting, trade rumors flying everywhere—which led head coach Tyronn Lue to finally shake things up.
The decision? What this writer and most people believed would happen: Tristan Thompson was inserted back into the starting five. Of course, sarcasm flooded in after the move was made.
That’s it? With all of the problems this team is having, that’s the major alteration?
It’s understandable that this was the reaction. Before the weekend came, the Cavaliers’ starting five were essentially lifeless. The bench bunch was even losing the luster that it had during the 13-game winning streak in November. How could a singular adjustment be the answer to this mess?
Hint—Thompson’s promotion wasn’t a singular adjustment, and it turned into a domino effect. How so?
Kevin Love slides back to his natural power forward position. Though he was having an All-Star year as a stretch five, it’s clear that Cleveland was suffering from too much damage on the interior defensively. Now that he won’t be drawing those tough matchups against traditional centers on the other end of the floor, he should be able to focus even more on his play as an inside-outside scoring option.
Isaiah Thomas gets a partner in the pick-and-roll. On both sides of the court, it’s been a tough road back for the soon to be 29-year-old. He’s been up and down as a shooter as he’s tried to get his rhythm back. He’s dominated the ball quite a bit despite making some rash decisions at inopportune times. Bringing Thompson in gives him a hard screener to either attack the basket on his own or find the big man on the roll for the easy two.
J.R. Smith has a familiar face to work with. Whether or not an extra presence out on the perimeter was causing him to be hesitant, something has started to click. He explains it as a change in mechanics and a quicker release after watching film and talking to his teammates. But he’ll be getting more opportunities to shoot if Thompson keeps the defense on their toes as a threat for a lob from the ball-handler.
Perhaps the most important effect, though, is that Channing Frye is going to play key minutes once again. Yes, he’s been linked to the rumor mill. Yes, he’s an aging veteran with an expiring contract. But he is the last remaining piece that is holding this Cavaliers team together and, frankly, an X-Factor on the floor.
So get this—Frye played a combined 34 minutes between Friday and Sunday. That’s more than he played in the previous five games he stepped foot on the hardwood in total. That goes without mentioning the inactive game vs. San Antonio and the three DNP-CDs during that stretch. Against the Pistons, he’s played for over 20 minutes for the first time since December 4.
Where do you start with Frye’s impact? Offensively, he demands attention on the outside. The reason he and Kyle Korver have had so much success together on the floor is that the opposition has to pick their poison. That kind spacing itself makes it a nightmare because if you’re worried about those two shooting the ball, then the lane has to be open.
Pair those threats up with LeBron James as the one to expose that hole, and it might be a fair to assume that defenses might have some trouble on their hands. It’s one of Lue’s favorite concepts that brought Cleveland waves of success at the end of last season and in the playoffs. Putting an aggressor like Jeff Green and a versatile player such as Jae Crowder with those other three makes for an intriguing bunch. It’s the group that extended the lead over Detroit as the fourth quarter winded down; Lue loves to ride certain rotations when they’re bringing the juice, and this was a good example.
It took much longer than it should have, but Lue hasn’t had it easy on him. There have been players in and out of the lineup with injuries and other issues. Not playing Frye was very questionable, especially since Thompson had trouble on the floor with the bench, who had only one struggling shooter in Korver. Dwyane Wade is expected to return Tuesday, so we’ll see how that comes into play.
As argued before, nobody should envy Lue. He’s got the microscope on him because of the team he coaches, which is led by a man who gets the most publicity and attention in all of sports. He’s being asked to fit minutes in for everybody on a team with too much depth in the backcourt and not enough depth in the frontcourt. He’s hardheaded when it comes to certain things, but he’s also loyal to his guys, and that’s hard to do when those players aren’t producing and doing their job.
But we’ve seen in two games that maybe the best move was the simple one. It’s opened up avenues for everybody on the team to improve and gain chemistry with one another. The sample size is extremely small and it could be fool’s gold, but if they can get the kind of effort we saw this past weekend on a nightly basis, the Cavaliers can take some momentum into the All-Star break.
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