When the Cleveland Cavaliers swapped Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, an artful compliance with LeBron James' demand that the team contend immediately, we envisioned two of the league's dozen best players torturing defenses in an unguardable pick-and-roll ballet:
Trap LeBron, and Love would spring for an open triple. Send a third defender at Love, and he'd slice a pass to the next open teammate.
In practice, the LeBron-Love collaboration has been stilted -- a twist that explains a lot of why the Cavs are so hard to pin down, even when standing as huge favorites to make a repeat Finals appearance. Sleuthing for the origin of the disconnect takes you down lots of dark corridors, but that pick-and-roll partnership is a good place to start. It never really took off, mostly because defenses just switch.
"It sounded good to a lot of people," Jim Boylan, a Cavs assistant, told ESPN.com, "but it's something we haven't been able to take advantage of. It's easy for teams to scheme against. They switch and we're stuck with an isolation."
"It hasn't produced the sort of pick-and-pops that you would think," Tyronn Lue, Cleveland's head coach, told ESPN.com, "because teams switch it."
That switch isn't a bad thing, necessarily, even if the Cavs have scored just one point per possession on trips featuring a LeBron-Love pick-and-roll -- one of the lowest figures among Cleveland's core combinations, per Stats SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. It leaves Cleveland with its choice of mismatches: James blowing by a bigger defender or Love bullying a smaller one.
But to chase those mismatches, the Cavs deactivate the rest of their offense. A team that wants to play fast stands still, measuring entry passes against defenses locking into help position:
A good thing -- a mismatch -- has a downside that cuts against the kind of team Cleveland wants to be. These sorts of tensions crackle all around the Cavs. With a potential small-ball dynasty rising in the West, the Cavs spent $53 million in 2015-16 salary and a bundle of draft picks on four rotation big men -- a quartet that doesn't even include James, who needs to play some power forward. At least one of those big men might not be able to survive against Golden State's Death Lineup, should the Warriors survive the likes of San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
The Warriors' three stars lift the team, and themselves, to higher places. Cleveland's stars are stuck battling between how they used to play and how they should play, now that they are together. "There is only one ball," Lue said, "and all three of LeBron, Kevin and Kyrie [Irving] need the ball in their hands. It is tough at times. It causes us to get stagnant."
Every lineup tweak meant to boost one area harms another. Two weeks from the playoffs, the Cavs are still learning fundamental things about themselves. "People try to identify what we are as a team," Boylan said last week, "and it's not even clear to us."
That internal struggle feels more urgent as two superteams without apparent weaknesses prepare to defeat you in the NBA Finals. It has created obvious turmoil, especially with James. He lashed out at teammates during a players-only meeting after the Cavs fired David Blatt in January, sources have told ESPN.com, and his social media droppings have been inscrutable.
The Cavs like to downplay that -- "It's hard enough to win without worrying about a damn Twitter," Lue said -- but officials across the organization have been nervously monitoring LeBron's on-court tantrums. "It's time for everyone to stop all the glaring and just compete," Lue said.
The organization is confident James won't leave again, but officials acknowledge it would be at least a slight possibility if Cleveland flames out. If he stays, James will have the clout to order another reconstruction. People who know James see a 31-year-old facing his basketball mortality -- watching a rival in Oakland seize the league and shorten James' championship window.
If LeBron thinks he's running out of time, this specific group of stars has two months left to prove it can win at the highest level. These Cavs should make the Finals, but can they do more?
Two connected issues have dogged the Cavs under Lue: The defense has regressed, and they are playing the wrong lineups. Cleveland won't defend like San Antonio and Golden State as long as Love and Irving get heavy minutes, but they will tighten up once the games matter. Their effort has waned, sometimes embarrassingly so, during a relentless stretch of games, and last season's playoff run is a reminder that these guys -- like any LeBron team -- hold another gear in reserve.
Hell, LeBron has loafed through stretches even while barking at Love and Irving every time they mess up.
The Cavs are scrapping the game-by-game adjustments that left help defenders paralyzed with confusion as some enemy player cut free to the hoop. Opponents have hit 64 percent of their shots in the restricted area since Lue took over, the fifth-worst mark in the league and a massive drop-off from Cleveland's stingy mark under Blatt, per NBA.com.
The Cavs' winter swoon was filled with basic bloopers like this, with Love and James unsure who had help duty on Utah's Derrick Favors at the rim:
The Cavs lead the league in shrugged shoulders, side-eyes and finger-pointing. Even the Kings are impressed.
That should subside now that Cleveland has gone back to basics: Drop down on the pick-and-roll, help from the weak side and encourage contested midrange jumpers. They'll start adding opponent-specific adjustments again in the playoffs, when they have time to practice.
"We had players thinking too much," Boylan said.
A lineup change would help, too. The Cavs are starting Timofey Mozgov over Tristan Thompson, even though opponents are outscoring that lineup by almost nine points per 100 possessions. That cannot continue. The same lineup with Thompson in Mozgov's place has mauled the league, and the Thompson-Love combo brings a mix of skills that fits LeBron's pick-and-roll game.
The Cavs are building up Mozgov's confidence in case they need him later, but at money time they should -- and probably will -- start Thompson. That move, like every tweak this team makes, introduces tension elsewhere. In Thompson, Love and James, the Cavs would essentially be starting three power forwards: one who runs the show, one shooter who struggles on defense and one rebound muncher sliding up a position. Lue feels the positional overlap and has played that trio a bit less in recent games.
"It can be hard for us to get to that lineup," Lue said.
With Irving and J.R. Smith springing leaks at the point of attack, it's unlikely that group would be sound enough defensively to beat Golden State and San Antonio four times in seven games -- and at least once on the road. There is a strong plurality around the league, including within the Warriors, that thinks Cleveland is more dangerous with defense-first role players around LeBron instead of Love and Irving.
One potential minisolution: Start Iman Shumpert over Smith, as the Cavs did in last season's playoffs. Shumpert is lost without James to create offense for him -- about 75 percent of his corner 3s the past two seasons have come with LeBron on the floor -- and he's a more versatile, reliable defender than even this well-behaved version of Smith. You trust Shumpert enough to try him on Stephen Curry, Tony Parker or Kyle Lowry.
Smith has been white-hot from deep as a starter, but he has the ballhandling chops to create offense on second units. Lue said he isn't considering a Shumpert-Smith change. Still, even amid injuries, it's absurd that the Irving-Shumpert-LeBron-Love-Thompson lineup has logged just 41 minutes all season.
Shump or no Shump, the Thompson-Love frontcourt presents tricky challenges on defense. Thompson is a better rim protector, but he's also much faster; he usually guards stretch power forwards, leaving Love to bump with behemoth centers down low. That could be a minor problem against Jonas Valanciunas, Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond or Pau Gasol, though all four of those opponents would be massive underdogs against Cleveland. (It certainly was a problem against Brooklyn on Friday, when Brook Lopez obliterated everyone in his path -- mostly Thompson in crunch time.)
But inverting the matchups also engineers an advantage: Opponents prefer the opposite assignments, with their power forwards on the stretchier Love, so if Cleveland gets a stop, the Cavs can burst out in transition while the defense crisscrosses in search of the correct players. The Channing Frye-Thompson duo, killing it off the bench, bakes in the same gimmick: Frye guards low-post brutes, but opponents want those brutes banging with Thompson, not scampering around the 3-point arc with Frye.
"Teams are cross-matched against us, and we like that," Lue said. "Every big man just runs back into the paint. Kevin can get open 3s out of that in transition."
Ah, pushing the pace -- the elixir on which Lue staked his early head-coaching career. It's not about speed as much as how playing in transition organically encourages sharing. Chemistry issues don't matter when locomotive LeBron and Irving are zooming up the floor, with Love trailing: They look for that kickout to Love. Slink into a half-court set and all the dynamics about role, sacrifice and who gets the ball bog the Cavs down.
"That's why I want us to play fast," Lue said. "That's when we share. That's how it becomes fun for everyone again."
In the half court, the fundamental truth about the Cavs becomes clear: They have flanked LeBron with two offense-only guys who need the ball to maximize their value, but they won't get it enough to do that as long as they are flanking LeBron. Both look the part of perfect second bananas. Irving can run the show if LeBron needs a breather and zip into the defense after LeBron kicks him the ball.
Love drags a big man out of LeBron's way just by spotting up, and he can run the offense from the elbows and work as a dangerous screen-setter away from the ball. It might not be ideal to pay max money for third options, but stars can perform those roles better than midtier guys.
In a fundamental way, it's working: Cleveland's core lineups are scoring at Golden State levels, and when the stars coalesce, the Cavs put together stretches as dynamic as anything Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson pull off:
The Irving-LeBron pick-and-roll has been an especially effective trigger for a lot of the Cavs' best action, though playoff opponents might stick a wing on Irving so they can switch that play.
But the harmony rarely lasts long. Irving is still a score-first sort who can hijack possessions:
Love isn't involved at a level that justifies his salary or his defense. He either stands around without the ball or works in isolation with it. Even his elbow touches are down again after a ballyhooed uptick during Lue's honeymoon period; Love has recorded just 2.2 elbow touches per game in March, about half his season average, per SportVU data.
This is not the way to use Love, and everyone knows it. He might as well be Ryan Anderson -- or more to the point, Frye. The Wolves didn't unleash Love by throwing him the ball and letting him work one-on-one. They crafted live-wire in-between moments in which Love made himself a threat away from the ball and then went to get it:
Ironically, it's the kind of thing that would mesh well in Steve Kerr's system of constant screening and movement. It doesn't happen enough in Cleveland. Playing this way would require bumping Love up the hierarchy, at least above Irving, and shaking LeBron a bit further out of his pick-and-roll comfort zone. There is no indication of that happening -- not for Love, anyway, and not unless this group gets more time to marinate. Love's slump from deep has made an awkward situation worse.
And yet, going all-in on LeBron-Love-Thompson probably still stands as Cleveland's best shot, even against Golden State. Imitate what the Spurs did 10 days ago in their win over the Warriors: Slot LeBron onto Green, stash Love on Andrew Bogut, and have Tristan Thompson guard Harrison Barnes in the corner. When the Dubs replace Bogut with Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston, shifting into death mode, slide Love onto one of those guys.
It's not a fail-safe, obviously. The Warriors are 66-7, undefeated at home and have seen every defense. They'd hunt Love down in the pick-and-roll, knowing he has no hope switching onto Curry. The Cavs would just have to bet on Love's guy -- Barnes, Livingston, Iguodala -- being a less dangerous playmaker than Green, as well as on their ability to punish Golden State on the other end.
Lue is confident that setup would work and that two bigs can survive defensively against Golden State's supersmall group. "I think we could handle that," Lue said, cautioning that he's focused on the East right now. "Remember, last year against them, we had two nonshooting bigs in Tristan and Timo. They just clogged the paint on us. When we're clicking, we present our own matchup nightmares."
None of the alternatives are that appealing. The Cavs' depth on the wing probably isn't strong enough, especially on defense, to out-Warrior the Warriors in a small-ball battle -- even if they got radical and played LeBron at center. Mozgov has been bad since a knee surgery. Frye has been fantastic, and he's taller and longer than Love, but he has thrived mostly against backups. It's fashionable to nominate Frye as a better fit next to LeBron -- a low-usage shooter who tries hard on defense -- but I'm not convinced those alleged benefits are worth trading out Love's versatility on offense.
The Cavs are impossible to guard with Love at center in supersmall lineups -- that LeBron-Love pick-and-roll becomes harder to switch, at least until the other team goes small too -- but those Cleveland lineups have zero chance on defense. "Kevin at center just hasn't been effective for us," Boylan said.
Again, every tweak has a downside. That's normal. If the Cavs squeeze through the East again, they will be competing against teams that are not normal. Even so, their best chance might be leaning on Love, Thompson, and Irving around LeBron -- with some adjustments: less Love when the Warriors go small, more mixing and matching with Shumpert and perhaps even more of Frye and Matthew Dellavedova.
LeBron can make any lineup work. In the gushing over Curry -- all justified, obviously -- we're almost forgetting how damn good this guy is. Start a debate about who should be No. 2 on the MVP ballot and you might hear Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant before you hear LeBron. The answer might still be LeBron, even with his passive-aggressive fits and busted jumper. In the biggest moments, when he's engaged, there is no more terrifying two-way force in basketball.
He carried Cleveland halfway home last year, and he could get them close again this time -- even as huge underdogs.
Close isn't good enough for him or for a team busting payroll records. If the Cavs come up short, there will be changes. This is not a happy group. Even those who caution that the team isn't as miserable as it seems from the outside concede they are a joyless bunch. Joy matters.
If they lose again, I'd bet big on Love being elsewhere -- a split that might end up the best thing for everyone. Cleveland and Boston had trade talks for Love at the deadline, though they died with Boston offering a low-ball package the Cavs wouldn't consider, according to several league sources. Even if Boston's interest has faded, someone will call Cleveland about Love around the draft. Wiggins has more trade value than Love now, but that deal was the right move at the time.
Irving's situation is murkier, especially because Cleveland will need an immediate infusion of talent if they trade either of these guys. We all know the most popular fake trades centered on Team Banana Boat. Those are issues for July.
For now, this angsty bunch needs to find the best version of itself before it's too late. That team still won't be as good as Golden State and San Antonio, but Cleveland will only need 16 wins in the playoffs when random stuff -- injuries, fatigue, matchup variations -- can warp everything. They owe it to themselves to try.
10 things I like and don't like
1. Golden State, countering your (very interesting) counters
The Warriors have scored nearly 1.26 points per possession on any trip that features the dreaded Stephen Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll, the second-best number among all such combinations, trailing only Russell Westbrook-Enes Kanter, per Stats SportVU data provided to ESPN.com.
Opponents are trying new things to defang the Curry-Green show, including the trick of guarding Green with wing defenders -- like Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant -- who can switch onto Curry and actually hang. It is working, at least by some measures. Green has set about 11 ball screens per game for Curry this season, but that number is down to about 8.5 in March, and Green set just nine on-ball picks for Curry combined in two recent games against the Thunder and Spurs, per SportVU data.
Teams are stashing their big men on Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala -- inviting the Warriors to have them screen for Curry. Trap Curry in that scenario, and he dishes to someone who can't quite match Green's lethal drive-and-kick skills.
But the Warriors have seen it all, and they've got counterpunches, including this out-of-timeout gem that starts with Barnes -- guarded by DeAndre Jordan here -- setting a pick for Green near the basket:
That wrinkle presents the Clippers with two bad choices: switch Jordan onto Green, giving Golden State the matchup they want, or have Paul Pierce chase Green from way behind once he squeezes around the Barnes pick.
2. Unorthodox close-out strategies
A few years ago, Michael Beasley set the bar for nutty closeouts when he crouched into a sprinter's stance, spread his arms wide, and ran at an opposing shooter's knees like a linebacker about to spear a quarterback. Beasley didn't raise a hand or even pretend to challenge the shot. He tried to unnerve the guy by being weird. I'm intrigued by the idea that occasional strangeness can be more effective than fundamental defense.
Yes! On Friday against the Cavs, Thaddeus Young was strolling to the scorer's table when he noticed a Cleveland player launching a triple a few feet away. Young stopped, leaned backward toward the shooter and screamed -- an impromptu, midwalk variation on the trope of bench guys yelling at opponents. Points for creativity, everyone!
3. Minnesota's starting five, lighting it up
For what feels like the fourth straight season, the Timberwolves win the award for Best Lottery Team Worth An April Watch -- edging out the Bucks, who are going through a bit of a Point Giannis hangover. The team's all-youth starting five has poured in nearly 117 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would lead the league, and they are a bouncy, fast-paced delight when they get rolling.
To the shock of literally no one, Zach LaVine is thriving next to Ricky Rubio; LaVine has drained 47 percent of his triples since emerging as a full-time starter, and all that time masquerading as a point guard gave him the dribbling oomph to attack scrambling defenses when Rubio whips him the ball.
Rubio has never been better. He's shooting with confidence from all over the floor, tossing his usual one-step-ahead-of-everyone passes and hustling on defense. He just makes people better.
Gorgui Dieng has done enough alongside Karl-Anthony Towns to at least make the Wolves think about his long-term place with the franchise, and what sort of frontcourt partner would suit Towns best. They are both really centers, and playing together means one of them needs to chase stretchy power forwards around the perimeter. That can get awkward. Ditto for the spacing on offense, especially given the limitations of both Rubio and Andrew Wiggins.
But this group can score, and they will get better defensively with experience.
4. Assumed big-against-small offensive fouls
You've seen it 100 times: Big guy finds a guard switched onto him, backs that sucker down and gets whistled for a bogus offensive foul when the poor little fella creates the illusion of violence. Little guy con artists scrunch down, so that their faces are at elbow level with the monsters bullying them, and flail their heads back whenever a 7-footer shifts his arm in jostling for position. Too many officials are penalizing height differential.
What are big guys supposed to do? Stand still, arms at their sides, and politely ask for the ball 20 feet from the basket?
5. Corey Brewer, throwing crap at the wall
Hypothesis: Corey Brewer has the ugliest offensive game in the league now that he's no longer running fly patterns for Kevin Love. Brewer is threatening to join Jason Williams -- the "White Chocolate" one -- as the only chuckers with two seasons of sub-30 percent shooting from deep on at least 4.5 attempts per 36 minutes. Somehow Antoine Walker only managed this once.
A lot of Brewer's two-point tries come on raggedy floaters, where he catches the ball running at full speed, lunges into some Euro step bordering on a pratfall and picks up his dribble in traffic to fling something off the glass before he hits the ground again. Sometimes I'm not sure he knows where the rim is:
6. "Phys Ed"
Someone in Portland bestowed this nickname on Ed Davis, having a sensational season off the bench for the Blazers. Perhaps it was Mike Barrett, the Blazers' play-by-play guy, who rattles it off a few times per game.
We need to kill this. It's a bad nickname for a guy who already has a good one: Boss Davis.
7. Fake help defense
The most nauseating bit of false hustle in the NBA: big men "challenging shots" at the basket by jumping in the vague direction of a driver but really just sliding sideways -- and out of the picture. I see you, Mirza Teletovic:
That is the opposite of verticality. It is horizontality. It is almost literally the least a rotating defender can do, a transparent means of tricking casual watchers into thinking you have fulfilled your obligation.
8. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Lone Starter
Detroit's shaky bench needs at least one starter on the floor to keep the offense afloat, and Stan Van Gundy usually gives the job to Marcus Morris -- a versatile sort who can run both ends of a pick-and-roll and bail out possessions with one-on-one stuff on the wing.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sometimes plays the Lone Starter, but his game isn't as well-suited for the job; he's still more of a spot-up guy, dependent on others to puncture the defense before he gets the ball. Opponents are destroying the current incarnation of the Caldwell-Pope bench mob, and with the Pistons in a heated battle for one of the last two playoff spots in the East, Van Gundy should probably mothball this look until next season.
9. Utah's blue road jerseys
We love blues that gleam, especially that San Diego Chargers/Denver Nuggets powder blue, but we sometimes forgot how regal and deep a nice navy blue can look -- especially when it has strong yellows and greens popping off it in the foreground. Utah's standard road duds are sneakily some of the sharpest jerseys in the league.
10. The Pacers, handicapping themselves
Even with Ty Lawson aboard and Rodney Stuckey back, it makes me queasy when the Pacers go just a single minute with all three of George Hill, Monta Ellis and Paul George on the bench. Their blah offense lacks a fulcrum, and the Pacers have predictably flailed around in the 249 minutes during which Frank Vogel has gambled with such lineups, per NBAwowy.
Unless Lawson rediscovers his form, expect Vogel to scrap this during meaningful playoff minutes.