Collin Sexton has not made a start that the Cavs originally intended upon; he only started against the Thunder on Nov. 7 because George Hill hurt his shoulder and was a late scratch. Sexton was always going to start at some point -- lottery picks on bad teams all start eventually -- but the chance came earlier than expected.
Now, after missing nine games, Hill might be able to play on Thursday. He was the starter on day one and, although he might be hedging a bit, Larry Drew said on Tuesday that he isn’t sure who will start at point guard. He also talked about how important it was to have Hill, a steady veteran, back for three games this week against elite point guards in Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry.
”[He has] experience in the fact that he’s played against those guys, he knows those guys,” Drew said of Hill. “It’s a big task to have to defend guys like that. A part of Collin’s growth process is to prepare himself to go out and play against those guys. Collin is not going to shy away. He’s going to compete. If I tell him that’s his matchup he’s going to compete to the best of his ability.
”Obviously having a veteran like George Hill that can defend those guys as well and be in Collin’s ear does help a lot.”
But Sexton has also forced Drew and the Cavs’ hands to keep him in the starting lineup based on how he’s played as a starter. He has not been perfect — he is a rookie point guard — but he’s been too good to back to the bench. This would be a different conversation if the Cavs were in the playoff hunt, if Kevin Love was healthy and the team was meeting its public preseason expectations.
But, as it stands, Cleveland is 4-14 and is tied with the Hawks and Suns for lowest amount of wins in the NBA, and with it close to the best chance to have the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft. It has the league’s worst defense by almost a full point per 100 possessions; defensive miscues like this are a normal occurrence. The offense is anemic and archaic with an offense in the bottom third of the league, per nba.com/stats, and third in the league in mid-range shot frequency per Cleaning The Glass. The Cavs are simply bad.
Make no mistake: Sexton is part of the reason the Cavs are bad. Offensively, he’s still chucking up mid-range shots more than any other look and it sometimes kills possessions. Lineups with him and Jordan Clarkson, the Cavs’ sixth-most used two-man pairing, have been a disaster by any metric. His assist-to-turnover ratio is now positive after it started the year as a negative, but he (understandably) isn’t yet seeing the whole floor. Case in point:
On the flip side, he has to be more patient here. You can see from the moment Nance gets the rebound that Sexton has one thought and doesn't seem to look anywhere else. pic.twitter.com/dAUDNxUEtH— Chris Manning (@cwmwrites) November 27, 2018
Defensively, he’s still learning how to defend any form of pick-and-roll and he has a tendency to get sucked into one guy instead of paying attention to the whole floor. This, again, is to be expected. And on Monday against the Wolves, he got out of a rhythm on the same night he shot 5-19 from the field with four assists and four turnover.
“There are going to be nights like that. I’ve said it before, it being a good game or him having a bad game should not be predicated on whether he’s making shots or not,” Drew. “He has to do other things to impact the game. That’s what good point guards do. If the shot is not falling, they find other ways they can impact the game. I don’t ever want him to feel because he misses shots that he didn’t have a good game. He still has to get us into our offense and he still has to be vocal on the floor and he still has to defensively have an assignment. There’s other ways he can impact the game.”
Sexton has improved since starting and opposing teams — the Wolves might have been the first team to directly game plan for Sexton and blitz him and make him make decisive decisions. Even in that loss and a bad performance, he showed patience that wasn’t there a few weeks ago. Not too long ago, this would have been a mid-range jump shot and instead it might be his best read of the season:
Talked about this on today's @LockedOnCavs: This might be my favorite Collin Sexton assist of the year. He didn't rush, didn't only look for the jump shot and read Towns correctly. https://t.co/2Kqc7gdf27 pic.twitter.com/RsQW6Z0Wlv— Chris Manning (@cwmwrites) November 27, 2018
Now, unlike earlier in the year, Sexton is making plays — albeit largely for himself; he’s still averaging only 5.6 potential assists per game this year and 7.3 as a starter with a usage rate of 23.2 for the year and 24.4 as a starter — and being empowered to do so. He’s also coming off two of his best performances of the year in two Cavaliers wins against the 76ers and the Rockets. His improvement, not long after veterans questioned if he knew how to play and J.R. Smith called Trae Young the Rookie of the Year after the Cavs played the Hawks, shouldn’t go unnoticed. And it’s the reason he should keep starting — there’s no going back at this point. What value is there is cutting his minutes back down to 17-20 per game when he’s playing around 30 a night now? It’s not as if he’s looked out of place since becoming a starter.
“I’m just going out there and playing my game,” Sexton said after the loss to the Wolves. “If I’m doing what I can for my team, we have a chance to win.”
Keeping Sexton as a starter would have repercussions. Would Hill come off the bench, and how would he receive that move? Could he slot in at the two-guard spot, perhaps bumping Rodney Hood to the bench? And how would Hood respond to that considering what’s on the line for him this season? Regardless of how those players and others might feel about having their role adjusted, keeping Sexton a starter would make it easier to separate him and Clarkson. Who, again, have been a disastrous pairing. Keeping them apart might be justification enough for keeping Sexton as a starter.
There’s not really a perfect answer for Drew. And if he were to go with a Sexton-Hill backcourt, it’s unclear how it would look; the most common lineup featuring both players has played just 17 possessions together, per Cleaning The Glass. That lineup featured a healthy Love.
What the Cavs look like with Love back, though, is a 2019 problem. For now, in a season that is only going to end one way, this year has to be about continuing to start, and empower, Sexton.