There are plenty of divisive figures to be found on the Cleveland Cavaliers' roster. LeBron James, for obvious reasons, leads the way. J.R. Smith, as locked in as he's been since his arrival from New York, has had his fair share of dubious moments in the past. Kyrie Irving gets steady grief for reasons that defy logical explanation. And at every moment of every day, if you look, you can find Cavs fans sniping at one another on social media on the merits of Kevin Love versus Andrew Wiggins.
Further down on the list, but important nonetheless, is Matthew Dellavedova, formerly of St. Mary's College (CA) and an undrafted free agent signee in August of 2013. His gradual ascent into the rotation was a silver lining in an otherwise forgetful season for the Cavaliers in 2013-14, as he put together very solid months of March and April (averages of 7 points and 4 assists on 46% shooting) to cap his rookie campaign.
It's difficult for some people to resist cheering for players like Delly, who can probably be best described as a scrapper. He appears to be a team-first guy who hustles on the defensive end and does his best to put overall execution ahead of his own numbers on offense. Any time an undrafted free agent makes a team and sticks, it's worth acknowledgement, because it doesn't happen as often as you'd think.
But the events of the summer of the 2014 raised expectations in Cleveland. Rooting for a feel-good-story is great, but there are loftier goals on everyone's mind now. Is the scrappy Australian a useful player? Can he be the third ball-handler on a contending team? He tries hard on defense, which is great, but is he actually a good defender?
Turning to SportVu, Synergy Sports and some of ESPN's advanced statistics (such as Real Plus Minus, or RPM for short) helps answer some of these questions. Delly's got his fair share of both devotees and detractors, thanks in large part to his unique style of play, but apart from the endless debates about his merits, what do some of the numbers say?
Let's begin with his shot chart:
A few things stand out. First things first, he's not good at finishing around the basket whatsoever. In fact, no player in the league who has taken at least 25 shots within 8 feet of the rim is worse at converting them. Secondly, he's clearly more comfortable shooting from the right side of the floor than the left. In fact, if you tally his three-point attempts from the right corner, right wing and straight ahead, he's a 48% shooter. From everywhere else, though? Just 27.9%.
Despite the fact that he's a very good catch-and-shooter from the right side of the floor, hunting for his own shots isn't really his modus operandi. In fact, only a handful of players have a lower usage rate than Dellavedova. That fact is not an indictment in and of itself; there are plenty of ways to bring value to the offensive end without shooting the ball.
The problem is, Delly doesn't really do any of them. He attempts just 0.6 free throw attempts per game, one of the lowest rates in the league. He doesn't rebound at a high rate, isn't an exceptional passer (5.0 assists per-36 minutes) and ranks in the 10th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy Sports. Nearly a quarter of the possessions he uses off pick-and-roll action end in turnovers, as a matter of fact. Cleveland's offense is nearly three points better per-100 possessions when he's off the floor entirely.
Granted, when both Kyrie Irving and LeBron James are healthy, Dellavedova's shortcomings don't mean much, because even if he is the lone ball handler in a lineup, it's usually only for a short stretch. But when Kyrie misses time, as he is at the moment (with his strained left shoulder), and Delly's minutes nearly double (from 19 to 36), all of these problems come to the forefront.
He's had a very difficult time generating good looks for teammates as well, as evidenced by this comparison, data courtesy of NBAWowy:
In other words, Matthew Dellavedova can do one specific thing on the offensive end (catch-and-shoot threes) from a few specific areas (straight ahead, right wing and right corner). He isn't adept at creating off the dribble in the pick-and-roll game, doesn't get to the free throw line, is not a very good passer, doesn't rebound and doesn't make his teammates better on the offensive end.
But what about defensively? Every coaching staff he's ever played for seems to love him, especially for his effort on that side of the ball. Surely his offensive woes are offset by the way he guards people, with effort and intensity, right?
Not exactly. Defensive metrics are far less abundant than offensive ones, but parsing through what's available tells the story of an average to below-average defender, at best. For one thing, Cleveland's defense has been much, much better since January 15th... except when Dellavedova is on the floor. The Cavs are more than 5 points better per 100 possessions when he is sitting on the bench. In other words, when Delly is out there, the team reverts to pre-hot-streak-level defense.
His Defensive Real Plus Minus also ranks him 409th out of 496 available players (as of March 1st). I don't have a PhD in statistics, so I can't explain how that metric precisely works, but what it endeavors to do is describe a player's defensive impact "by adjusting for the effects of each teammate, opposing player and coach." Single-number metrics are worthy of healthy skepticism, and must be used in an appropriate manner (i.e. to support an argument, not be the foundation for one, which leads to all kinds of problems), but Delly's -1.79 number ranks him 81st of 104 shooting guards (the position he's listed) and would be 59th of 92 point guards.
Synergy Sports has a few positive things to say about his defensive efforts that deserve mention here. He's a good pick and roll defender (70th percentile), allowing just 0.708 points per possession when he's guarding the ball handler. The Cavaliers as a whole struggle with closing out on spot-up shooters, but this is one area where Dellavedova excels, as he ranks in the 82nd percentile (0.842 PPP) at doing so. The team also struggles to hustle back in transition, but even Delly's harshest critic has to admit such a thing would never be a problem for him individually.
The issue with Dellavedova has never been, and will never be, his hustle. It's his other limitations. For example, when he stands in transition to foul a player streaking down the floor, it can be mistaken for a smart play. He isn't fast and can't jump, so sinking back and defending the paint by stopping the ball or contesting at the rim aren't options for him. There's nothing particularly noble about committing hard fouls after turnovers and putting your hand up, signaling to the refs "I did it!" when that's more or less the only play available to you.
Again, it feels weird to devote so much sharp criticism to a guy who clearly works his butt off to stay in the league. But the margin between winning and losing in the playoffs, particularly the conference and NBA Finals, is often razor-thin. Kyrie Irving has a history of getting nicked up. Should the Cavaliers have found a more suitable third ballhandler at the trade deadline or during buyout season?
I'd be surprised if Cleveland didn't at least kick the tires on making some sort of trade or signing, but I'm not sure how feasible any of the options were. Some of the guys moved around the deadline were out of the Cavs' price range, both in terms of salary and what it would've cost to attain them (Reggie Jackson, D.J. Augustin, Goran Dragic, Brandon Knight, Michael Carter-Williams, Isaiah Thomas) and others probably wouldn't have moved the needle much anyway (Norris Cole, Andre Miller, Ramon Sessions, Mo Williams). There was reported interest in Jordan Farmar, who struggled during his stint with the Clippers earlier this season. Unless you believe Nate Robinson or Sebastian Telfair would have been a better use of the roster spot Kendrick Perkins now holds (personally, I do not), that more or less sums up the point guard market. No clear alternative presents itself.
We'll never really know how close Cleveland came to adding another point guard. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert seem ill-suited to fill the role for any extended period of time, and it's clear the Cleveland coaching staff feels the same way; when Kyrie is out, Dellavedova averages nearly 37 minutes per game. The Cavs, unfortunately, are just 1-4 when that happens.
Hopefully it doesn't come to that in the playoffs, but it's a possibility, and while the front office likely explored finding an alternative, they ultimately settled on Matthew Dellavedova as a contingency plan if it does... for better or worse.