The Cleveland Cavaliers And The "Grit" Trap

It's borderline miraculous that the Cleveland Cavaliers have stayed in these NBA Finals. Let's not make that achievement into some grit-driven morality play.

by Seerat Sohi
Jun 16 2015, 4:05pm

Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With 34.4 seconds left in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, bodies flying all over the hardwood, and the Cavaliers leading the Warriors by seven, a jump-ball was whistled between Matthew Dellavedova and Klay Thompson. The chaos took a momentary pause. Despite the absence of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, a two games to one series advantage was just a few ticks of the clock away. The crowd at the Quicken Loans Arena, giving their confusion and delight a name, erupted into a deafening cheer: "Delly, Delly, Delly!"

Dellavedova, who made the Cavs as an undrafted rookie in 2013, makes less money than anyone on his team, dresses like a blogger, and (literally) drives a Mazda, was the king of the basketball world after Game 3. He scored a playoff career high 20 points and, along with Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, anchored Cleveland's playoff defense.

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There is, always, a heavy aspirational aspect to underdogs like Dellavedova. A floorburned scrapper's success can be, almost begs to be, rewritten by fans as a reflection of how they'd like to see themselves: tough, hard working, possessed of a self-contained and resilient ingenuity in the face of adversity. And so Delly became the new standard for sports' strangest and most loaded intangible: grit.

It was not just the NBA's pageantry machine doing this, either. In a sideline interview with Doris Burke after the game, LeBron James, just two days after referring to the revamped Cavs as "the grit squad," said of Delly, "It's like he's made of steel or something. If there's a ball on the ground, he's the first guy to the ground. He gives us that grit, that grit that we need."

"They seem to like him, don't they?" Cavs coach David Blatt said in his press conference after the game. "You know Delly is the most Cleveland-like Australian I've ever met in my life. And if you're from Cleveland, you know just what I'm talking about." Seemingly every headline the next day featured the words "Dellavedova" and "grit" in some proximity.

Fly, Teen Wolf! Fly! — Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Delly's subsequent failures in Game 4 and 5 exemplified how this sort of willful gritting falls short. It cheapens complicated things in favor of audience-flattering relatability; by presenting every game as strictly a battle of will, it flattens and simplifies what makes the sport interesting and beautiful. In Dellavedova's case, it replaced his very real defensive skill with a thumbnail idea of hustle; it implied that every time Steph Curry, one of the best shooters ever to play the game, missed a shot while being guarded by an undrafted Teen Wolf-ish Aussie, it was because the latter wanted it more. It distorted who Matthew Dellavedova is and what he does, and did the same disservice to his team.

Delly then proceeded to play like a guy who was reading too much of his own good press. He went 3-for-14 and attempted post ups from outside the high post in Game 4; he also missed seven threes, including a few spectacularly ill-advised pull-ups, and played forgettable defense. In Game 5, the Warriors started leaving him alone in the corner and wing. He went 2-of-9. He still played tough defense and nailed a few floaters—that is, excelled at the stuff he's actually good at.

Given enough time, most of these silly narratives correct themselves. But as this unusual Cavaliers team faces its reckoning in Game 6, it's worth giving them their due and trying to figure out what they actually did, beyond the Wanting It More temptation. This all collapses, in the end, on the fact that defense—despite changing understandings of the game, despite the legions of fans and analysts clamoring about how Defense Wins Championships— still isn't appreciated like offense, or as easily quantified.

Consider, to go back to our guy, how Dellavedova defended Curry in Game 2 and 3. He used every trick: angling through slivers in screens, staying square in isolation and off the ball, preventing baseline cuts. Contrast this with Iman Shumpert, whose body is seemingly custom-built for perimeter defense, but gets called for a reach near every time he's in the MVP's radius. Let's not bother with J.R. Smith, who infamously bites on pump fakes as a matter of course. In different series and at critical junctures, Dellavedova shut down elite point guards of all stripes, including Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague and Curry, who had the worst game of his career in Game 2 and struggled against Delly again for most of Game 3.

Ah yes... the beautiful game. — Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Dellavedova really is doing something right, and a decent percentage of that involves work. The rest is craft, chippiness, savvy, and other things less loaded with value judgment than grit. The problem, at bottom, is that defensive ability and hustle are still muddled together. If players could simply will themselves to play championship-level defense, they would. Elite basketball requires elite effort, but the decisive factor is skill, not will. By implying that everything is about effort, grit summons an old American fable: that people who fail do so because they aren't trying. But defense is a skill just like offense, and it's a carefully honed discipline that Delly happens to be very good at. It's also a contingent one; sometimes the MVP's just going to explode for 37 points on contested threes, and it won't matter whose hand is in his face. Delly's defeat in Game 5 was no more because he Wanted It Less than his triumph in Game 2 was because he Wanted It More.

It's not just Dellavedova, either. Reducing Tristan Thompson's ferocious rebounding—he's averaged 13 boards per game in the Finals—to hustle alone ignores how his constant crashing has slowed the game down to Cleveland's preferred drag-it-out pace. That created a tactical watershed by limiting possessions and checking Golden State's lethal transition game. It may not be enough to win the series, but it's remarkable enough that Thompson, a guy who can't score five feet away from the rim, has dictated the pace on the biggest stage in basketball.

Grit, where the Cavs are concerned, is less an answer than a placeholder. The logic of grit is fun in a glib and self-flattering way—we always know who deserves to win, because they're already winning—but it's a hollow fantasy. More importantly, it's boring, and replaces everything that's interesting about the game with something simpler and sillier. We can do better than grit. The Cavaliers already have.