CLEVELAND, Ohio — While the Cleveland Cavaliers’ revamped starting lineup continues to jell and search for an identity, the second unit appears to have found theirs already — along with a new nickname.
Tristan Thompson would like to introduce you to the Bench Mob.
“That’s what we call ourselves: Bench Mob,” Thompson told cleveland.com following Tuesday’s preseason loss against the Chicago Bulls. “Yeah, because I said it’s official so put that in your script.”
Head coach Tyronn Lue recently asked Derrick Rose to anchor the group, getting him some rest near the end of the first quarter so he can be fresh to run the offense at the start of the second.
On Tuesday, that five-man lineup — Rose, Thompson, Kyle Korver, JR Smith and Jeff Green — looked in midseason form.
“I think we just play with a ton of energy and pace,” Korver told cleveland.com “Think it’s fun with me and Swish out there filling the wings and being threats on the wing. Tristan, you know, backup centers having to wrestle with him. That first half Derrick was out there really pushing the pace. Jeff is such a versatile player. A bunch of guys who can kind of just play. I think we can get away with — we don’t have to run sets. We can just kind of like flow and play. Certain guys who can create. I think it can be a lot of fun.”
Unlike the starters, Tuesday wasn’t the Bench Mob’s first action of the preseason and they’ve had plenty of time together on the practice floor.
As the first unit was tossing the ball all over the place, struggling with spacing issues and not fully comprehending all the sets Lue tried to implement, the Bench Mob was quickly wiping away Chicago’s early lead — a stunning reversal considering the bench inconsistencies the last few seasons.
Most importantly, it looked — and felt — like Cavaliers basketball.
“First of all, the Bench Mob has a lot of athletes from one through five,” Thompson explained. “Kyle, myself, Swish, Jeff Green and whether it was D-Rose or Shump (Iman Shumpert), we have guys that can get up and down the floor, especially with Kyle and JR being able to shoot at a high clip and it makes it easy for myself and Jeff.
“We set pick-and-rolls, single-side bumps and teams have to make a decision. You want to stick on those shooters or will you take the roll away? Then with the guys we have handling the ball they can get to the rim. Bench Mob has a lot of deadly weapons so I’m loving it.”
Sound familiar? What Thompson described is the same pick-your-poison approach the Cavs strived for every night the last few years, only with different personnel.
Rose, a blur in the open court, pushes the ball up the floor, looking for early-clock attempts — just as James and Kyrie Irving did the past few years.
“You talk about…that looked like us,” Kevin Love said. “That second unit, they played fast and Kyle was getting open looks and Swish was getting open looks and miss or make those are the shots we want.”
If those shots aren’t available, the Cavs will lean on drive-and-kicks, pindowns for Smith or Korver, backcuts, elbow touches for Green — who has the same inside-outside skill set as Love — or high pick-and-rolls between Rose and Thompson. It’s about spacing, slashing, creating, reading and reacting. There seems to be more freedom and Thompson is in the middle of everything, setting menacing screens and gobbling offensive rebounds.
“You’re saying it flows better?” Thompson asked. “It looks like the Cavaliers. It looks like the team last year or whatever or every year. It does help having three or four guys that have played with each other for over a year.
“For Jeff, it’s just kind of be himself. Catch on the elbow, be a playmaker and if not, attack the rim and be that 4-man that’s going to be an advantage because he’s so quick and him always being a 3-man going to the 4, he’s going to have the advantage. That’s how we view it.”
Green and Rose are the newbies, still trying to get acclimated. The other three have plenty of chemistry, built from playing together so much last year. Shumpert will rotate in there too, just as he did Tuesday night.
With Rose resting, Lue had Shumpert initiate offense, creating shots for teammates or looking for his own offense. He scored 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting to go with 2-of-2 from beyond the arc.
The first unit, with James still shaking off the rust following an injury-filled training camp, is striving for the same cohesiveness. It will take a bit longer, especially with four players in new spots and limited practice time together. And when it comes, there will be obvious differences with the two main groups.
“I think they should be different styles,” Korver said. “It’s different personnel. If we tried to play the same style as the first unit it wouldn’t work as well. Think that’s kind of what has happened in the past. The second unit tries to take over the same plays and we’re just different players and personnel so I think it probably will be a different style. That’s something we will figure out as the season goes on.”
“The first unit they have the big dogs,” Thompson added. “You have Kev in the post, Bron, D-Wade and D-Rose so each unit is going to be different. We just have to find out what works and get that rolling.”
For the past few years, Cavaliers basketball was simple. Getting stops, pushing the pace, moving the ball and attacking the defense with a spread court and snipers at the ready.
That seems to be the Bench Mob’s identity.
“I think hopefully it’s just free and fun,” Korver said when asked to describe the group. “I think go out there and let it fly. There will be a lot of games where we push the lead and maybe a couple ones that we lose because we’re missing. I think go out there and be really, really aggressive and let different guys attack and see what happens.”
It looked promising against the Bulls. The bench opened the second quarter on a 14-3 spurt, going 6-of-12 from the field and recording four assists during that stretch, two by Smith, who is getting an opportunity to do more in this new role.
“The ball was popping and they got it from one side to the other,” James said. “They were sharing the ball. They were defending and rebounding. So, that was huge. JR has turned himself into a playmaker as well and to get him coming off screens where a lot of defenses react to that, he came down the lane and threw T-Top an and-one lob, got JG on a pass as well. JR’s ability to playmake in that second lineup helped us out a lot.”
Last season, Cleveland’s enigmatic bench ranked 28th in scoring, averaging 28.3 points. Things got so shaky that Lue often used James at the start of the second and fourth quarters so the team wouldn’t collapse. The lack of depth wore down the starters and in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the Warriors’ sturdy bench outscored Cleveland’s, 35-7.
With the Cavs’ overhauled second unit, a quintet of one-time starters, depth no longer seems like an issue.
“As you know, last year, especially heading into the fourth quarter, we would have a big lead and the other team might fight back,” Love said. “That’s how (our second unit) needs to play in order for us to have a lot of success, to kind of even out our minutes or play less minutes.
“If we want to go as far as we think we should that will be paramount.”