When we were last in the film room, I preached about the Cavaliers’ need to force turnovers, increase the pace, and run more as a recipe for success. Today, we’re going to look at how the Cavaliers’ rookie center Tyler Zeller has been faring in the absence of Anderson Varejao. It’s no secret that Anderson Varejao was the team’s most valuable rebounder and defender, but his knee injury leaves only one true center on the roster in Zeller. In this week’s games, the Cavaliers struggled with Demarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard, and Lamarcus Aldridge in the post and nearly gave away the Portland game on the glass. Get your mouthguard, because we’re going down low into the post.
We begin in Sacramento. Marcus Thornton shoots a three pointer over Shaun Livingston on the left wing. Pay attention to Thomas Robinson, who is currently standing on the right elbow as the shot is released.
The ball’s halfway to the basket and Robinson’s on the move as Tyler Zeller turns to try and put a body on him.
Instead of checking him out though, Zeller opts to just stand in front of him, and Robinson, being the strong offensive rebounder that he is (11.2 offensive rebound percentage), sneaks around Zeller and gets prime position opposite from where the shot is coming.
Robinson is the only man in position to keep the possession alive, but Zeller jumps for the ball instead of accounting for Robinson first. Tyler should worry about checking out his own man, and Walton or Casspi can easily grab the defensive rebound if he doesn’t get to it.
The Cavs lose the 50-50 scrum as Waiters can’t come up with the ball and Chuck Hayes does instead.
As John Salmons loads up a quick three pointer from the right wing, we again see Robinson and Zeller in the post. Once again, the shot goes up, and Zeller looks for Robinson but remains upright and relies on his height to get him the rebound. Once again, Robinson begins to slide around the 7-footer.
Robinson winds up moving to the other side of the rim as Zeller loses track of him and grabs the ball in front of Omri Casspi. The Kings get their third look of the possession, which is eventually a drive right down the lane by Isaiah Thomas.
The Kings had 16 offensive rebounds on Monday night, led by Robinson’s four, and the Cavaliers had just 19 defensive rebounds as the Kings shot over 51%. You cannot expect to win a game where that many shot attempts are ending in a made basket or the possession is extended. In fact, the Cavaliers rank just 25th as a team in defensive rebounding percentage (72.1%), and giving a team second and third possessions when you defensively allow the worst effective field goal percentage in the league (52.0%) is just asking for trouble.
Even without Anderson Varejao, this team is an excellent offensive rebounding unit (29.6 OR%, good for eighth in the league), and they posted 19 in this game for a staggering 33 second chance points. However, there’s two elements to rebounding, and not securing defensive rebounds can be much more backbreaking to a team than the opportunities created on the offensive glass. Trust me, defensive rebounding is supposed to be the EASY part, provided that you’re playing good position defense.
Let’s move on to Portland and straight to the fourth quarter. We’re going to pick on Tyler again unfortunately. Nicolas Batum fires a contested corner jumper. Opposite ball side, we have Tyler Zeller and former Cavalier J.J. Hickson, an undersized center. The shot goes up, Tyler has turned to get in front of Hickson, but J.J. is already jockeying for position and has moved in front of Zeller.
Come on, Tyler! Shot angles, man! Who is going to win that rebound by the law of averages 90% of the time? It’s Hickson, who has the long try covered. It needs some wicked spin on the shot to come right off the front of the rim where Zeller is standing.
Hickson grabs the rebound, and Zeller has yet to step in between him and the bucket. It’s just rookie positioning in the post yet again.
J.J. lands, does a power dribble move under the rim, and goes up on the right side of the rim, where he is fouled by Tyler as he finishes for an and-one.
Now, here’s where it gets REALLY irritating. Hickson shoots, the ball hits high off the rim, and Tristan, Gee, and Zeller have the two low guys covered. Zeller is, I will point out again, just standing in front of the lengthy Batum.
The problem is, the ball hits the rim a second time to mess up the timing of the rebounders. It turns out to be an offensive rebounder’s best friend.
What do we see here (other than J.J. Hickson’s HILARIOUS body language trying to will the ball in)? Batum slides into the middle as Zeller stands there flat-footed with no body contact on anyone. The third bounce comes right off the front of the rim.
And Batum finishes it off with a tip. In effect, it was a four-point play that sliced the lead from five to one with under three minutes to play.
This was the last straw in the Zeller montage in truth for the Blazers game. On two earlier possessions, Zeller allowed Lamarcus Aldridge to secure offensive rebounds that turned into six points on threes from Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews. That’s ten easily avoidable points on the board for Portland, just in the fourth quarter, just from Zeller’s responsibility, if you’re keeping score at home. Portland grabbed 15 offensive rebounds in this game, good for 27 second chance points. It wasn’t as much of a demolition inside as the Sacramento game was, since the Cavaliers did hold Portland to 26 points in the paint.
To be fair to Tyler, he’s the only center on the roster healthy, and his minutes have skyrocketed since Andy went down one month ago. In those 15 games without Andy, Zeller has failed to play over 33 minutes just twice, both due to extreme foul trouble. In many cases, he’s playing closer to 36 or 37 minutes, which is hardly sustainable for any center, especially a rookie who hasn’t quite figured out how to be tough enough or heady enough on the defensive end as of yet.
I still like Zeller a lot for his ability to run the floor, hit a jumper, and stay in the right place on the offensive end. He just needs to rely less on his height going forward when rebounding and LIVE in the weight room this offseason.
Until next week, the film room is closed!