Before their trade-deadline overhaul, the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers were stagnant. They lost their three-year vise grip on the Eastern Conference; the post-Kyrie Irving era was rocky at best.
Because general manager Koby Altman reshuffled the deck, LeBron James and Co. have a chance to revive their season. The addition of Rodney Hood, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. gives the Cavs more two-way juice — and in a way, dispatching Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Channing Frye and Jae Crowder will also give Cleveland new life.
All four newcomers are poised to make strong contributions during the club’s late-season push and playoff run. Nance has a unique opportunity to influence the team’s playing style and make life harder for opponents.
The dunk contest runner-up was a bright spot in the Los Angeles Lakers’ rebuilding efforts. Now he’s a crucial X-factor in the Cavs’ title chase. While he’s not an incredibly versatile talent, Nance makes a positive impact on both ends of the floor and gives coach Tyronn Lue something he didn’t have in the frontcourt this season.
Nance’s third year in the NBA has been his best. He filled his role in LA quite efficiently before the midseason swap, and when he landed in Cleveland, he gave a quick glimpse of his usefulness before the All-Star break.
He is most potent as a rim-runner, particularly in pick-and-rolls. Nance has a great feel for where and when to cut, and he has the athleticism and touch to make awesome plays around the rim. Lue would be wise to involve the newcomer in a healthy dose of pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs.
Teammates can loft the ball above the crowd, knowing Nance will get it and put it in the basket. But he’s also more than a DeAndre Jordan type of powerful pick-and-roll finisher. Nance can come down with the ball and score with touch, and he can also find the open spots on short rolls or pick-and-pops.
Even though Cleveland already has a rim diver in Tristan Thompson, Nance can do things when plays break down that Thompson can’t consistently pull off. He can hit jumpers outside the paint, hook shots and reverse layups with tough angles.
A few clips from his last days with LA and first days with the Cavs illustrate his roll-man skills:
Nance can positively impact the offense even when he doesn’t get the ball on the roll. Opponents fear him catching the rock in the middle, so he draws help defenders when he dives to the rim. It starts a domino effect that often leaves a teammate open on the weak side.
Here are a couple of instances where Nance freed up his Cavalier comrades for wide-open jumpers just by rolling to the rim. Cleveland can expect a lot more of these sets for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs:
If the Cavs’ new stable of creators and shooters capitalizes properly, Nance will put a new level of pressure on opposing defenses. Mike Zavagno of Fear The Sword believes Nance’s presence will dramatically boost the squad’s offensive efficiency:
The Cavs had a 71.2 TS% with Larry Nance on the floor yesterday–highest of any Cavs player. He only played 4 minutes with LeBron.
Going to be tracking the TS% with him on with the expectation that it will be quite high due to his roll gravity
— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) February 12, 2018
When he’s not busy occupying defenders as an explosive rim diver, Nance makes a dent in the blue-collar categories. His rebounding and defense will significantly improve Cleveland’s chances to thwart Eastern Conference challengers.
He besieges the offensive glass unlike anyone else on the Cavs’ roster. Nance has a knack for outmaneuvering foes and corralling the ball in traffic. His offensive rebounding percentage (12.7, eighth in the NBA) and boxouts per 48 minutes (also 12.7, coincidentally) top Cleveland’s rotation. While Thompson is a decent offensive rebounder himself, he’s not as skilled at putting the ball back in the hoop.
Nance snagged eight offensive rebounds during the Cavs’ win over the Oklahoma City Thunder last week. Here are a few of the best boards, including a couple where he outdueled Steven Adams near the hoop:
He also brings more defensive footspeed to the frontcourt. Cleveland’s lack of depth on defense was a colossal deficiency that held it back against top-tier opponents. With Nance flying around, hopefully Ty Lue’s defensive units will at least rise near respectability. He’s not a savior by any means, but he could be an important piece of the solution.
Rim protection is not Nance’s forte. In fact, within six feet of the rim, his defensive field goal percentage (67.5) is below average. However, Nance is a net positive on defense by almost every metric because he can compete away from the basket. His defensive field goal percentage outside of 15 feet is 32.5, which is 5.2 percentage points better than the league average.
Nance is valuable all over the court because he can anticipate when to switch, chase quick guards and close off passing lanes. While he’s known primarily as a horizontal offensive player, his defensive impact is mostly lateral. That will come in handy when Cleveland encounters Boston’s screen-happy onslaught or Toronto’s cast of slashers.
It’s too early to declare that the post-trade Cavaliers are back in the driver’s seat of the Eastern Conference. We’ve seen the new group together for two games and should still have healthy skepticism about its defense. The Raptors and Celtics also command more respect than they did in previous years.
However, if Lue incorporates the new pieces optimally and makes full use of Nance’s strengths, the landscape will re-shift back in their favor. The high-flying arrival will give Cleveland the edge to retain its conference crown.