The Cavaliers are still trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. They’ve gone 9-7 since blowing up their team at the trade deadline, putting them at risk of entering the playoffs without homecourt advantage in the first round for the first time since LeBron James returned to Cleveland in 2014. There have been games when they’ve looked like the best team in the Eastern Conference again, but recent losses to the 76ers, Nuggets, Clippers and Lakers served as a sobering reminder of how much further they have to go if they hope to return to the NBA Finals.
However, there is one thing that’s for certain. As inconsistent as George Hill, Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson have been over the last five weeks, Larry Nance Jr. has been everything the Cavaliers could’ve ever hoped for and more.
The Cavaliers have been 16.4 points per 100 possessions better with Nance on the court since he made his debut on Feb. 11. As noisy at that stat can be — it’s a small sample size that doesn’t give any insight into his role on the team and fails to account for the fact that Nance rarely plays without the most dominant player in the world — it’s a testament to how big of a need there was for his skill set. He’s not the offensive player Kevin Love is or the defensive player Tristan Thompson is when healthy, but Nance does enough on both ends of the court to make a positive impact at the center position, where he has logged practically all of his minutes with the Cavaliers.
On offense, Nance sticks to his strengths. Outside of the occasional midrange jumper, he focuses on setting hard screens, making himself as big of a target as possible on rolls to the basket and attacks the offensive glass for second chance opportunities. It makes him highly dependent on his teammates to create scoring opportunities for him — only 13 of his baskets have been unassisted in a Cavaliers uniform and most of those have come in the form of putbacks — but it makes the Cavaliers almost unstoppable offensively when he’s surrounded by the right players.
Cleveland’s most used non-Thompson lineups since the trade deadline feature James at power forward, Nance at center and some combination of Hill, Hood, Clarkson, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green in the backcourt. Those lineups are Rockets-like, providing James with the space he needs to make plays for himself and others as the lead ball handler. Seeing as James almost always commands a double team in halfcourt settings, having three players spot-up on the perimeter while an athletic center hangs around the paint greatly simplifies his options.
You can see the amount of pressure it puts on defenses here:
With Austin Rivers guarding James in the post being a huge mismatch, DeAndre Jordan slides over to help out. Doing so means Tobias Harris and Lou Williams have to drop down on the weakside to stop Nance from getting a wide open basket, although the gravity Smith and Clarkson provide as three-point shooters prevents one of them from switching off of their defensive assignment entirely. Nance sets a screen on Williams to force him into making a decision — stay with Nance to prevent the dunk or close out on Smith to prevent the three-pointer — paving the way for the Ohio native to score an easy two points when Williams chooses the latter.
This is what would’ve likely happened had Williams chosen the former:
Nance’s job might not look complicated, but it adds a different dimension to the Cavaliers on offense. James’ usage rate has skyrocketed to 33.2 percent since the trade deadline and he’s made the most of it with averages of 29.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 9.9 assists over his last 16 games. While it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on him to carry the Cavaliers on offense on a nightly basis, Nance is the type of center James needs to keep the backlines of defenses honest. Because if they don’t respect him or the three shooters surrounding James, the Cavaliers will feast on a diet of dunks and three-pointers.
The most important part about Nance’s production on offense is that he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make an impact. He averages only 1.59 seconds per touch and he’s constantly moving on offense. As James explained following Nance’s career night against the Pistons, Nance knows where to position himself to make teams pay for helping off of him. It’s culminated in 29.4 percent of his offense coming off of cuts since joining the Cavaliers, and he ranks in the 76.9 percentile with 1.41 points per cut possession.
Nance also does the little things on offense, like set smart off-ball screens for his teammates to get them open shots in their sweet spots:
He has showed the potential to push the ball in transition following missed shots or turnovers as well. He’s faster than most big men with the ball in his hands and he has the vision to make basic passes:
Nance has had an even greater impact on Cleveland’s defense. According to NBA.com, teams go from scoring 102.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court to 113.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. Small sample size aside, that’s basically the difference between the top ranked and bottom ranked defensive team in the NBA this season.
The energy Nance brings on defense stands out more than anything. He’s averaging 3.1 deflections, recovering 1.1 loose balls and contesting 10.3 shots per game with the Cavaliers, marks that would rank him near the top of the league if he were to sustain them for an entire season. Having someone who can make an impact in those areas as the anchor provides a tremendous boost to the third worst defensive team in the NBA. Nance will fight with bigger players in the post, meet ball handlers at the 3-point line in pick-and-rolls and make the rotations needed to take away easy baskets in the paint as a help defender.
The Cavaliers simply didn’t have a center making plays like this before the trade deadline:
That’s not to say Nance is the answer to all of Cleveland’s problems. He’s not someone who can be expected to make plays for himself with the ball in his hands and he has limited range on his jump shot. The combination means he’s at his best functioning as a center, which can be problematic considering he’s not a true rim protector or a strong defensive rebounder. (It’s concerning that the Cavaliers’ defensive rebounding rate falls from 76.7 percent to 73.8 percent with Nance on the court, the difference between them ranking 19th and 30th in that category).
And yet, despite those limitations, there’s no doubt the Cavaliers are better offensively and defensively when Nance is in the lineup. They still need to figure out if he’s their starting center or their first big off the bench who closes games depending on the matchups, but he gives them the youth and athleticism they’ve desperately been missing at a position of need. It makes him far more than a heartwarming story for the Cavaliers this season.