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Film Don’t Lie: A closer look at Cade Cunningham’s defense after the All-Star break

Much has been made of the No. 1 pick’s defense so I went to the film to find out

Los Angeles Clippers v Detroit Pistons Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Opinions on Cade Cunningham’s defense range from great, to average, to bad to “Cade plays defense? Hadn’t noticed.” We are not going into this breakdown considering anything beyond the court — it’s not part of building up or tearing down Cade’s case for Rookie of the Year. I simply wanted to see how he looked on D since the All-Star Break.

This breakdown is a bit different than previous analyses, which usually includes breaking the film down into areas of the game. Instead, I wanted to do this game by game since I picked each game for a reason. Feb. 26 vs the Celtics because of the matchup and the foul trouble he experienced. March 4 vs the Pacers because it was the second night of a back-to-back. March 7 vs the Hawks because it was a game with HIGH shot attempts and March 19 vs the Cavs because it was a game with LOW shot attempts. (*I would love and welcome any feedback on this new structure I chose for this breakdown).

Obviously, I wanted to see how Cade looked overall on the defensive end, but I also wanted to compare and contrast what he looked like in different scenarios. Did his defense suffer when he was being asked to put up more shot attempts? How much did his mentality change when he got in foul trouble? Did tired legs on the back-to-back play a major factor? Let’s go to the film and answer these questions!

Feb. 26th vs Celtics (Foul Trouble)

This may not have been the right game to start off with if you are making the case for Cade as a plus defender as not only did he not make a positive impact defensively, you could argue he was a net negative. Then again, poor defense is less of a surprise when a player is fighting foul trouble and he had 19 field goal attempts, 3 assists, and 2 turnovers. Not to mention the quality of offensive players he was tasked with guarding in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. I will say that he was VERY good offensively for the majority of the game and highly efficient. BUT this is a defensive breakdown so let’s get to what I saw from Cade in a game having to play through those foul issues.

First and foremost, the foul trouble from this game, which was a frequent topic during this part of the season was something he improved on as the season came to a close. Not only does he end up with 5 fouls in this game, he committed some bad ones that limited his minutes. He also was not able to keep his hands “out of the cookie jar” in some situations where he absolutely HAS to if he is already in foul trouble.

The foul trouble also led to the Celtics attacking him in isolation situations which we all know is tough to do when you are trying to play without fouling. Coach Casey and Detroit did an interesting job of switching his matchup throughout the game as he started on Jayson Tatum then Jaylen Brown and eventually to Al Horford/Grant Williams.

There were also quite a few screening situations that left me scratching my head. Whether it was poor communication, execution by Cunningham, or execution by his teammate, there were some obvious struggles. He also got caught late in the game losing track of a shooter off the ball which has been a little bit of an issue with him all season long.

Before you bring out the pitchforks and ask Sean to ban me from writing another article, I do want to reiterate that you would anticipate this being a “bad” defensive game from Cade considering what he played through. I had my hopes that we would still see a net positive in some way, but I didn’t feel like he was put in many situations to make an impact away from the ball, and he simply was not able to hold up on the ball, especially once the foul trouble hit….which was early!

March 4th vs Pacers (Back to Back)

Whew!!! A much better performance from the No. 1 pick on the second night of a back-to-back. This was also a night that did not involve ANY foul trouble. Cade played 32 minutes after playing 38 the night before in a win over the Raptors, and I felt like you could definitely see it in his legs at times. Again, this is not an offensive breakdown, but he was 8-of-20 from the field with a lot of misses short. Also, though not many, there were some defensive possessions where I felt like you could tell he didn’t make an extra effort due to fatigue.

Let’s start with the positives in this game after being a little negative in the game against the Celtics. I thought Cade had some great transition possessions in this game that ranged from NOT fouling on a contest at the rim, to great communication and recognition and even holding up on the ball. Speaking of on-the-ball defense, that was also solid in this game, especially compared to the Celtics game. It is worth noting the type of on-ball creators the Pacers have compared to that Celtics team, but Cade did take on the matchup of Tyrese Haliburton. It was not perfect but definitely solid from Cade. Finally, the biggest improvement in this game was Cade (and his teammates) effectively navigating the Ghost Screens the Pacers employed. Again, this was not perfect but definitely flashed more improvements.

Losing a shooter off the ball showed up again in this game, though it may have been a teammate’s lack of communication at fault. Continuing with this, he also gives up a decent look from three playing as the “low man” just from being a little too flat-footed. I also highlight some “low man” clips where I wonder if he needed to come over and provide just a little bit more help.

All in all, a vast improvement from the first game I broke down (hoping that foul trouble was the overriding factor in that performance), and I would feel fine saying Cade was a plus defender in this game. At the very least he was a net neutral which I am fine with considering it was the latter half of a back-to-back, with the minutes played in Game 1, what he is tasked with offensively and some of the “conditioning” improvements still needed coming out of his rookie year.

March 7th vs Hawks (High Shot Attempts)

This may be the game I was most interested to break down. It was a high-usage game for Cade, and he was productive offensively. Was that going to impact what he brought on the defensive end? Considering he brought 28 points and 10 assists, you would feel pretty good if he was just a net neutral. I would say for the entire game he was at least that.

He drew the matchup of Bogdan Bogdanovic in this game, and I will admit he allowed him to get going a little more than I would like. Bogdan got some drives to the basket in the first half, as did Delon Wright, which I think you reasonably expect Cade not to give up as he gets better. This was also a GREAT game to test out Cade’s tendency to lose shooters away from the ball considering who he was matched with. He did lose him a couple of times but did a decent job overall.

If there was one thing that stood out to me from this game it was Cade’s communication. Again, if we go back to the game vs the Celtics, there were issues with switches. In this game, there were plenty of examples of his communication during AND after the play (this may be the favorite thing I saw). This game also provided some examples of Cade simply “being a player” off the ball that resulted in a block and a steal. These are the ones I have highlighted in previous breakdowns that can sometimes yield negative results but in this game it was the other end of the spectrum.

I could not help but walk away from this game feeling like Cade is best suited for guarding players who are more “off the ball.” This was not necessarily one of the themes I picked out going into this article, BUT against the Celtics, he initially matches up with Brown/Tatum and gets in foul trouble with a resulting net negative defensive performance. In the Pacers game, he matches with Haliburton and we see him struggle a bit from the field and still just has an OK defensive game. Even with the issues of losing shooters away from the ball, playing off the ball may play more to his strengths right now AND allow for him to conserve just a little bit of energy for the offensive performances like we saw in this OT victory.

March 19th vs Cavs (Low Shot Attempts) *6 Days Rest*

If the high shot attempt game vs the Hawks was the game I was most intrigued to breakdown, this was definitely No. 2. In a game where the shot attempts for Cade were low AND he had not played a game in six days, would we see a different impact from Cunningham on the defensive end?

I am not sure if there is a correlation between the offensive shot attempts and the rest, but I feel pretty comfortable saying this was Cade’s best game playing in that low man spot. It wasn’t perfect, BUT he had some extremely impactful reps between getting a block, turning a wide-open layup into a contest hook shot, and scram switching into one-on-one possessions vs Mobley.

Cade continued to show the tendency to lose shooters off the ball, and I hate continuing to highlight it every game but I think it is an important progression for him going into next season. It just is very confusing to me considering the high basketball IQ he shows in every other area of his game. Maybe this is his defensive version of some of the turnovers that surprise you.

In this game, I will show more on-ball reps than any of the previous, and it was another mixed bag. He has some really nice possessions holding up against Garland and then some equally as bad possessions against lesser talented players.

OVERALL

I started on this project to see if I could notice ANY correlations in Cade’s defensive output and what he was tasked with offensively or how many days rest. At the end of the day, I do not think I found what I was looking for. His absolutely worst defensive game was the “foul trouble” game but that is to be expected. Maybe, MAYBE the final breakdown shows a little as that was by far his best game in terms of off-ball impact and that was in a game with lower number of shot attempts and he had not played a game in almost a week.

In the end, I think Cunningham is absolutely more valuable guarding off the ball than on the ball. Yes, I repeatedly mentioned him leaving shooters at times but his high level of communication (I LOVE THIS ABOUT HIM!) and basketball awareness, the rotations to get box outs is big-time stuff, and his transition recognition definitely impacts the game, just makes him so much better in these situations than his mixed bag on the ball.

I still think he will improve on the ball over the next couple of years as he gets stronger. I do not think he ever consistently guards guys like Young and Garland, though he can hold up for possessions, but could he really defend bigger guards and wings when he is better able to hold up at the point of attack? Absolutely.

Before I give my final thoughts I also want to mention that I literally only watched Cade for the duration of those games and so it is very easy to get nit-picky when doing that. Maybe my evaluation will come off as overly negative for a player in his first year, but I wanted to give where I feel like he is at right now with the complete understanding he is going to get better.