The Bench Bunch: Finally, Cavs seem to have plenty in tank
Do the Cavaliers have enough in reserve to make a deep playoff run?
Well, it sure looks that way lately.
Granted, when it comes to the Cavs and title aspirations, most everything hinges on the starters — particularly LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. You can throw Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith in there, too. After all, it wasn’t until the deals for Mozgov and Smith that the Cavs turned around their season.
But the performance of "role players," or the guys off the bench, often determines whether teams can win on the road. And if you want to win a championship, you’ll have to win on the road, and you’ll likely have to do it more than once.
With five games left in the regular season, the Cavs’ bench is near the bottom of the league in minutes per game (15.9) — and dead last in points per game (23.4). But both numbers can be deceiving, considering the production of the starters.
Plus, coach David Blatt and the Cavs aren’t necessarily looking for bushels of baskets from the reserves. They just want men such as Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova to keep a good thing going.
"The main thing we want is for our bench to come in and play with a defensive mindset, keep the tempo and play the right way," James said following last week’s blowout win over the Miami Heat. "Tonight, Shump was great. Delly chipped in. (Thompson) was a monster on the boards. We didn’t lose a step when those guys came in and that’s what it’s all about."
Like the starters, the bench also seems to be playing its best when it means the most.
Shumpert has struggled on offense lately, but continues to be a pest defensively, guarding everyone from quicker point guards to spot-up shooters. He isn’t one of those lockdown types, but he does know how to force people to do a lot of things they don’t want to do, how to step in passing lanes and slap at the ball.
Speaking of pests, the same is true of Dellavedova in the backcourt and Thompson around the basket.
Nobody on the Cavs annoys opponents more than Delly, who has no "off" button. He is always hustling, always pushing, always poking and prodding. Occasionally, he’ll make a 3-pointer, a pinpoint lob pass to Thompson for the alley-oop, or a general hustle play that helps save the day. He can make the occasional misstep, too — but in just his second season, Dellavedova is doing for James’ Cavs what Norris Cole once did for James’ Heat.
As for Thompson, it’s quite obvious he’s having a career year in terms of understanding his role, then going out and delivering. He comes in, he rebounds. That’s especially the case on the offensive glass — with Thompson constantly giving the Cavs second chances by chasing down rebounds and re-energizing the offense. No less than Charles Barkley called Thompson the best offensive rebounder in the league.
Now, some have questioned Blatt’s rotations, or if he goes deep enough into a bench that also includes been-there-before veterans such as James Jones, Kendrick Perkins, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and Brendan Haywood.
Those are fair questions. At least, until you realize the Cavs have won 18 straight at home and have compiled the league’s best record (31-7) since Jan. 15.
That’s really the bottom line in this business, and when you think about that, you can throw out the statistics. Frankly, the Cavs’ bench has been as productive as necessary, sometimes more.
And as LeBron James will tell you, that’s what it’s all about.