CLEVELAND, Ohio — It wasn’t that long ago when the Cleveland Cavaliers lived by the “layups and 3s” mantra.
That approach — a system centered on the game’s most wondrous superstar LeBron James, combined with All-Star talent, skillful perimeter shooters and deadly isolations — led to the Cavaliers crafting an offense that ranked top 5 in rating four straight years.
The Cavs also finished alongside the NBA’s elite in effective field goal percentage.
The offensive rating statistic measures points per 100 possessions. Effective field goal percentage adjusts for the fact that 3-point field goals are worth 50 percent more than 2-point field goals. That’s the added parameter that means so much more in this pace-and-space era.
The Cavaliers have seemingly abandoned that old philosophy, becoming more enamored with the league’s most inefficient shot — the mid-range jumper.
According to NBA stats, the Cavs average the second-most shots from midrange in the NBA, taking a whopping 22.3 per night.
They also rank second in the “long mid-range” area — attempts around 14 feet and out while also staying inside the 3-point line.
In terms of shot frequency, the Cavs are hoisting mid-range jumpers 37.9 percent of the time.
For perspective, last year’s Cavs had a frequency of just 30.2 percent, taking the sixth-fewest mid-range shots. During their four-year stretch of Eastern Conference supremacy, the Cavs never finished higher than 25th in that particular category.
With those outside-the-paint 2s rising, the Cavs have plummeted from the 3-point ranks — a trend initially shown in the preseason and one that has carried over into the first three games of the regular season.
In terms of total 3s, no team has taken fewer than the Cavs. They also currently rank 29th in 3-point frequency at 23.2 percent.
The only team below them in that particular category? The Sacramento Kings, who entered Tuesday’s slate placed second in mid-range shots. No offense to Sacramento, but that’s probably not the kind of company the Cavs are looking to keep on offense.
In the last four years, the Cavs never finished lower than fourth in 3-point frequency, getting as a high as second on two separate occasions. They were always near the top in total long-range attempts as well.
When asked recently about Cleveland’s drop in 3-pointers, head coach Tyronn Lue showed little concern.
“I think you have to take what the defense gives you,” he said. “I mean, we’re not just going to be a jump-shooting team. We have guys that can create, get to the basket and finish at the basket and get to the free throw line. We’re not just going to focus on 3s. The last few years we had specialty players that shot 3s. I think now we have guys that can shoot the 3-ball but also get to the basket and finish at the rim as well. A little different.”
Lue’s right about one thing: The Cavs are getting to the rim.
They rank 11th in shots from that distance. The only problem is they aren’t finishing when they get there, currently sitting at 51 percent — the NBA’s second-worst mark.
All throughout training camp and the preseason, Lue spoke about adjusting his system to his player’s strengths. The Cavs went isolation-heavy in the James era because of his dominance — and Kyrie Irving’s — in ISO situations, which made that Cleveland’s best option. Without James, the Cavs have tried to implement a system with an abundance movement and more options on any given possession.
They are also giving a majority of playing time to guys who appear more comfortable inside the 3-point line.
JR Smith, one of Cleveland’s bombers, has played four total minutes. Kyle Korver, a premier long-distance threat, logged 19 minutes in the first two games before seemingly getting bumped from the rotation in favor of the youngsters in Sunday’s eye-opening loss to the Hawks.
That’s left Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Cedi Osman and Collin Sexton — a quarter in Cleveland’s future plans — to handle a bulk of the wing minutes.
Sexton has taken more mid-range shots than anyone on the roster, firing 16 of his 27 total attempts from that in-between distance.
Hood is next with 11. Clarkson and Osman have each hoisted 10.
On Sunday, during the Cavaliers’ 22-point loss, they looked to be playing a different sport than the Hawks, who rank 26th in mid-range shot frequency.
Atlanta hoisted 47 triples, 20 more than the Cavs, and canned a franchise-record 22 of them. They outscored Cleveland by 36 points from beyond the arc, a complete role reversal from what it used to look like between the two teams. The Hawks, whose general manager Travis Schlenk came from revolutionary Golden State, attempted just seven mid-range shots on Sunday.
The other 91 tries came inside the paint or outside the arc. The Cavs, meanwhile, put up 24 shots from midrange.
According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, the percentage of 2-pointers that teams have taken outside the paint has already declined by more than 3 percent league-wide. Only the Cavs are going the other way.
To Cleveland’s credit, hitting 45 percent on mid-range shots puts them fourth in the NBA. But when it’s widely considered the league’s most inefficient shot and has also led to such a decline in triple attempts, is that really something to brag about?
Part of this was expected. James, who is in Los Angeles now after a landscape-shifting free agency, is the league’s preeminent 3-point setup man, snapping on-target passes directly into the shooting pockets of his capable teammates while defenses collapse to halt his drives.
With all the floor spacing that Cleveland used to enjoy, especially after Kevin Love moved to center in a small-ball lineup, the Cavs would bury teams from beyond the arc. And when defenses honored the outside shooters, it would allow James — or other attackers — to feast around the rim.
This season, Love is back at his original power forward spot, with Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. sharing starting center duties. Playing that more traditional big takes one outside shooter off the floor.
Smith and Korver being swapped out eliminates two more. A lack of effective play creators has minimized the number of open catch-and-shoot chances.
“Can we still be a good 3-point shooting team,” Korver asked when that question was phrased to him during training camp. “I think so. Just think we are going to be shooting different 3s.
“We’re not going to get as many of those ones, but we are all going to be moving more, it’s going to be hard to guard each of us because we are coming off a screen, dribble handoff, pick and roll, we’re swinging the ball and there’s more opportunities for breakdowns on the defense. Obviously, we don’t have LeBron creating breakdowns. But we will create different breakdowns hopefully with a lot more movement.”
That hasn’t happened yet.
Cleveland’s offensive rating is respectable. But 20th still puts them in the bottom third, needing to improve, especially given those continued defensive woes.
So this is the real question for the Cavs: Do these mid-range numbers represent a nothing-to-worry-about extremely small sample size or a nasty movement the wrong direction — a sign of things to come as the season continues?