The Cleveland Cavaliers are Playing Historically Bad Defense

We might not see professional defense played this poorly ever again.
January 18, 2019, 2:15pm
Dwight Howard dunks as J.R. Smith and Larry Nance, Jr. look on.
Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE

The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.

Years from now, someone will produce an engrossing documentary that attempts to describe just how unimaginably awful the Cleveland Cavaliers played defense during the 2018-19 season. From non-existent effort in transition, to constant miscommunication, to over-helping off good shooters and treating bad ones like Steph Curry, to lineups that have no business in an NBA game, we may never again see professional defense played as poorly as they’re doing it right now.


Remember last year, when Cleveland allowed 111.0 points per 100 possessions and were accurately viewed as a laughingstock? What’s happening now makes that group look like the 2004 San Antonio Spurs. Since they traded George Hill, Cleveland’s defensive rating is not only a league-worst 120.3, but the gap between them and the 29th-ranked New York Knicks is the same as the 29th-ranked Knicks and the 15th-ranked Philadelphia 76ers!

Opposing field goal percentages are 3.6 percent higher than their normal average. That’s almost TWICE as high as Phoenix, the next worst team. You have to go back to 2015 to find anyone (the Minnesota Timberwolves right after they traded Kevin Love) even close to that realm of terrible. Cleveland gets obliterated at the rim and allows a league-high 46 percent on long twos (bad luck that they probably earn in some way I won’t ever know because figuring it out means watching the Cavaliers play lots of basketball and life is just too short for that).

Larry Nance’s injury hurts and there seem to always be new faces in and out of the rotation. But what is a greater indication of any one team trying to tank than lineups that feature Cameron Payne, Matthew Dellavedova, and Jordan Clarkson at the same time? Cleveland ranks near or at the bottom of almost every hustle stat listed in the NBA’s stats page, and what’s most incredible about their complete collapse is that they’re doing it while not totally falling apart in transition, where they’ve been about average. Their demons spring in the half-court, where opponents have their way at a rate that’s completely unheard of in recent memory. (The Cavs had the worst half-court defense in the league last season. Since they traded Hill, they’re nearly eight points worse than that! How is this even possible?)

No scheme is bad enough at this level to yield these results. It’s largely driven by personnel. One anonymous Cavalier recently told as much: “We don't have good defenders. Period…Watch the tape. You can see it. You can't hide them. Those teams will find the two of them in particular and attack, attack, attack. There are times when analytics and numbers are just numbers. This is not one of those times."

Not to bury the lede, but according to Basketball-Reference, Cleveland’s defense is indeed the worst the NBA’s seen since at least 1974. Seven months ago this organization was in the NBA Finals. If the basketball gods let Zion Williamson go here, I will stop believing in basketball gods.