Cheer up Cleveland, things could be worse.
You’ve got two home games coming up. You only have to win once in Oakland to take the series and you still have two more chances. You’re healthier than last year, even if Kevin Love has to miss a few games. Of course, that’s starting to seem like the problem, because you’d be a lot better off without Kyrie Irving than you are now. Just look at last year’s series for the proof.
Irving had the lowest plus/minus of any Cavalier in Game 2, with Cleveland being outscored by 26 points when he was on the floor. That’s not remotely surprising. As we covered in our Finals preview, the Cavs are significantly better without Irving on the floor.
In case you need a refresher, here are the numbers. The Cavaliers scored 110.4 points per possession with Irving on the floor in the regular season and gave up 104.7. That’s a +5.7 net rating. When Matthew Dellavedova is on the floor though, Cleveland’s offense drops less than a point per 100 to 109.7. But their defense improves significantly, all the way down to 99.7. That’s a +10 net rating, an incredible number.
In laymen’s terms, that means that Cleveland’s offense is pretty much even with either. But with Irving on the floor they play like the 17th best defense in basketball. With Delly? They play like the 3rd best defense in the league.
As long as Irving is on the floor, the Warriors are going to attack him mercilessly. According to fivethirtyeight, Golden State had an eFG% of 66.7% with Irving as the nearest defender in Game 1. That makes sense. Golden State went out of their way to attack him. They drew him into pick-and-rolls knowing he couldn’t switch. They caught him napping by sending his men on back cuts and through screens. They let Shaun Livingston post him up endlessly because he’s too small and too weak to contest him.
It’s telling that Golden State chose to attack Irving even when Kevin Love was on the floor. Love is a tailor-made Warrior-whipping boy with his slow reaction times, detrimental dedication to rebounding over rim protection and cement feet. But he’s actually held his own for the most part, sinking back towards the basket on pick-and-rolls to surrender midrange jumpers as he should, and even paying enough attention to switch onto shooters and contest shots against faster guards. He’s never going to be a good defensive player, but the Warriors realized fairly early that he at least knew where to be and put in some token effort.
That’s just not the case for Irving. Shooters as a whole have a 59.2% eFG% against him in these playoffs, and it’s not as though his offensive production has made him playable either. He’s shooting 12-for-36 from the field. His dribbling is suffocating Cleveland’ ball movement; they have only 32 assists in the series, Golden State has 55. There’s just no facet of the game in which he is helping the Cavs right now.
The idea of benching an All-Star while down 2-0 and with another All-Star injured is obviously going to be unpopular, but as SB Nation noted, Cleveland’s best lineup these playoffs has featured neither Irving nor Kevin Love. It’s LeBron James playing with the all-bench shooting brigade of Richard Jefferson, Matthew Dellavedova, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert.
That unit has decimated opponents to the tune of a ridiculous +48.4 net rating in the playoffs. It also makes far more sense against Golden State than any unit the Cavs have thrown out so far. Yes, Frye is a bad defensive player, but the other four are stout. Shumpert is the only below-average shooter, and he’s been fine so far in the Finals. It’s a very basic LeBron strategy: surround him with shooters and defenders and let him go to work.
When Kevin Love comes back he and Frye can share the “all-offense center” role. J.R. Smith is a major part of this rotation. That’s your seven. That group fits around LeBron, they shoot, they play defense, and they don’t bother wasting dribbles. The center hides on Andrew Bogut or, if the death lineup shows up, Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala. It may be a mismatch but at least all of those guys know where to be.
And Kyrie? He fills the role he’s best suited for anyway. Come off of the bench and score when LeBron needs a rest. Give him 10-12 minutes per game to do all of the dumb Kyrie stuff he wants. He can dribble around the court, take every shot, ultimately be that little offensive kick in the pants Cleveland needed last year without being the defensive detriment he’s become this year.
There’s just no reason to keep Irving on the floor any more than that in this series. He’s killed his team defensively and has provided almost nothing offensively. So make a bold change Ty Lue, bench Kyrie Irving and play your best lineups rather than your most famous players.