CLEVELAND, Ohio — Way back on Opening Night, Toronto Raptors All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry torched the Cavaliers, scoring 27 points to go with eight assists while making 10 of his 12 shots.
Call it a precursor of what was to come this season.
More than two months later, the Cavaliers still have few answers when it comes to defending opposing lead guards.
Can new addition Patrick McCaw help change that?
“I can see him doing some of that, absolutely,” head coach Larry Drew said when asked if McCaw would get a chance to defend high-level backcourt players. “What we’ve done, against scoring point guards like Mike Conley, like Trae Young, we did switch our matchups and go bigger on both guys. That seemed to have some effect.”
Since sliding into the starting lineup for an injured Rodney Hood, Alec Burks has taken over that defensive role.
Burks, who is 6-foot-6, helped pester Mike Conley into a 15-point, 6-of-16 shooting night last week. Burks’ combination of length and athleticism bothered Hawks rookie Young early in Saturday’s game, forcing Young to get yanked after struggling in the first three minutes. Young rebounded, started hunting switches and finished with 21 points on 8-of-16 from the field.
McCaw, listed at 6-foot-7 with long arms, brings some of those same characteristics as Burks.
“Some point guards have a problem with size. I see Patrick in that same role. I think he has that ability to play a smaller point guard,” Drew said. “He really defends well on the ball. He’s athletic and he has long arms and he gets his hands on a lot of balls defensively. You can’t play with the ball in front of him. He’s got a knack for coming up with it.
“I really like his on-ball defense, because he has long arms and he really gets down in a stance. I saw something (at practice) that I was very happy to see from a defensive standpoint, that we have been struggling with this year. He certainly has some tangibles that really excite us.”
Drew compared McCaw to Corey Brewer. McCaw said he doesn’t have a specific position. He called himself a “basketball player,” one that brings the necessary tools to play — and defend — multiple spots.
But defending point guards is where the Cavs need the most help. Even with some decent performances recently, they rank 27th in points allowed to the position. The only teams worse: Atlanta, Detroit and Washington.
Rookie Collin Sexton is at the center of the issue. Statistically, he has been one of the league’s worst defensive players. According to ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric — a player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions — Sexton ranks 465th out of 466 total players.
With Sexton on the floor, opponents boast an offensive rating of 123.1. For perspective, the Warriors’ No. 1-ranked offense has a rating of 112.9. With Sexton off the floor, the offensive rating drops significantly to 114.4.
Sexton admitted recently that adjusting on defense has been a challenge. The amount of film work required and detailed scouting reports is a change from college.
“You have to know different teams’ plays,” Sexton said. “As a point guard I have to know what they like to run and what positions, so I have to do more of watching film before the game.”
Cleveland has tried hiding him. Against Memphis last week, Sexton was matched up against Garrett Temple. Sexton primarily guarded Rodney McGruder a few nights later in the Miami matchup, with the Cavs not wanting to expose Sexton against Justise Winslow or Josh Richardson. On Saturday night, Sexton spent most of his defensive possessions against rookie Kevin Huerter, who was the lowest-scoring perimeter player in the Hawks’ starting group that night.
Having McCaw gives the Cavs another option on defense, letting them continue the same strategy of keeping Sexton off opposing point guards.
Perhaps McCaw will even help solve this big problem, one that became evident at the start of the season and has only gotten worse from there.