CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers have put together their best three-game stretch, including two straight wins, and it’s come on the heels of David Nwaba moving into the starting lineup.
The results might be a bit of a coincidence. But Nwaba’s increased role in conjunction with JR Smith’s leave of absence has led to a palpable difference in the team’s effort level, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
“I’ve always liked David from afar,” head coach Larry Drew said recently. “He’s just a guy who comes in and plays hard. You feel his presence when he’s out on the floor, whether he’s doing something on the offensive end or whether he’s doing something on the defensive end you feel his presence. I like the attitude that he brings as far as taking a challenge to whoever he guards. I don’t care who it is, he’s going to take the challenge. He may score on you, but he’ll step up to the plate and take the challenge. I admire that about any player that will do that.”
The Cavs have been searching all season for someone to take that defensive stopper role. In the first two games of the season, Cedi Osman got his shot against Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. But Osman is being asked to carry a substantial offensive load — and is also a bit grabby — so it’s tough to ask him to guard the opponent’s best perimeter threat on a nightly basis.
That’s where Nwaba — the antithesis of Smith — comes in. It’s partly why Drew moved Nwaba into the starting group.
Nwaba’s game is defined by grit and hustle. It’s about the little things that enhance team success. His individual stats aren’t gaudy, as Nwaba averages just 6.1 points on 42.4 percent from the field and 22.7 percent on 3-pointers. And yet, in 243 minutes with Nwaba on the floor, the Cavs’ offensive rating is 116.4. When he’s off the court, that number dips to 109.6.
He has the same impact on defense.
The opponent’s offensive rating with him on the floor is 110.8. With him off the floor, it explodes to 122.0.
On Wednesday night, when Drew altered his starting lineup, he was looking for someone to contain LeBron James. Two nights later, it was Jimmy Butler. Saturday came James Harden.
“He’s accepted the challenge,” Tristan Thompson said of Nwaba. “At the end of the day, you have to find your niche in this league. For him he has to be willing to guard the best guards in this league. If he can come out and make it tough for them. That’s how you wear them down. Guys start getting tired and they start missing shots they usually make. He’s doing his job, he’s found his niche. It’s to guard guys. Guard guys and take the challenge and make guys uncomfortable. Get nasty.”
Harden, the NBA’s leading scorer, tallied 40 points on Saturday night. He kept Houston within striking distance until the Cavs finally closed out their second straight win. But more than half of Harden’s points came against defenders other than Nwaba.
According to NBA.com’s matchup stats, Nwaba defended Harden on 50 possessions. Harden shot 4-of-15 with six turnovers against Nwaba, the rugged defender who has given Cleveland a jolt. He’s also solidified a prominent role — even when George Hill and Sam Dekker return from injury.
The Cavs have been at their best with Nwaba on the floor. No player has made a bigger impact statistically. Drew has started to recognize what Tyronn Lue couldn’t — or wouldn’t.
Through the first month of the season, Nwaba has the best net rating of any player on the roster, with the Cavs outscoring opponents by 6.1 points per 100 possessions.
“He’s just doing his job, doing his job to the best of his ability and he’s doing great at it,” Jordan Clarkson said. “Coming in there and being a stopper for us. He’s not focused on anything else.”