The Cavaliers Matthew Dellavedova is returning to are very different than the ones he left. He’s also a different player — it’s not only his jersey number that’s changed.
This does go without being said, of course. The 2015-16 Cavaliers were dominated by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving taking turns on offense with everyone else supporting their isolation attacks. Dellavedova filled his role too. On offense he stayed out of the way, taking 33.5 percent of his shots on catch-and-shoot three-pointers — and shooting 45.7 percent on those attempts, per nba.com/stats. Defensively, he was a key part of bench units and helped solidify a three-and-d identity around LeBron. In 2015-16, Cleveland was 4.8 points better on defense per 100 possessions with Dellavedova on the floor, per basketball-reference.
Dellavedova was 25 then; he’s 28 now. His ability to score in the paint, already a concern, has dropped off even further. Defensively, perhaps due to a few leg injuries, he looked a step slower on defense — something that grit alone can’t make up for. His individual defense rating was almost 10 points higher last year than it was in 2015-16, per nba.com/stats. And this season, due to an ankle injury, he’s only appeared in 12 games. As for the Cavs, well, they no longer have LeBron and Kyrie. The offense actually isn’t totally different, but it’s not as good when it’s Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Collin Sexton taking a large amount of the shots.
Still, weirdly, the Cavs need Dellavedova to play off-ball and shoot three-pointers in a similar way he did was on the team last time. The team he returns to is full of high-usage guards who are most comfortable with the ball in their hands or should be allowed to learn by playing with the ball in their hands. Here’s an overview:
Usage rate of Cavs guards - 2018-19 season
This doesn’t even include Kevin Love, who will be back in 2019 and figures to have the offense re-centered around him. The last thing the Cavs need is another player who is going to come in and try and create their own offense. They need a guy whose best offensive skill is this:
Assuming that Dellavedova comes off the bench, he could maybe replace Clarkson as the first guy off the bench. So many of the Sexton-Clarkson lineups are outright bad, and playing Sexton with someone who can allow him to remain the lead guard would largely be a good thing. And as the Cavs work on Sexton playing more off-ball, Delly can still initiate some of those sets.
The difference here from his last time in Cleveland is that he’s going to be playing in two point guard lineups way more often. This maybe leaves the Cavs vulnerable on the wing defensively, but this team is an absolute disaster there already. Dellavedova is at least going to try more than some of the other players on the roster.
Another option would be for Dellavedova to take some of Sexton’s minutes and play with Clarkson. As defined by ESPN’s real-plus minus, Clarkson is the second-worst defensive point guard in the NBA and the worst in the non-rookie point guard category. By playing Dellavedova with Clarkson, Larry Drew can at least try to hide Clarkson on the weaker of a team’s two guards. And pairing Dellavedova with someone who can initiate offense isn’t a bad idea, although Clarkson doesn’t look to set up others enough. Delly can do some secondary creation, at least in the pick-and-roll, so that can help. The Cavs at least have to hope the Dellavedova-Thompson pick-and-roll magic still exists.
Defensively, Dellavedova won’t fix anything. But, at the very least, it gives Larry Drew another guy who will try and knows where to be on the floor. With either Tristan Thompson or Larry Nance Jr. at center, he should be able to help the Cavs defend pick-and-rolls a bit better. He definitely won’t be worse than this, one of the many, many times Cleveland has botched its pick-and-roll coverage this year:
Who plays on the wing with Dellavedova figures to matter too. David Nwaba would be a good fit defensively, but playing him and Delly together would be putting a ton of pressure on the point to handle all of the creative duties. Love’s return could relieve some of those burdens, as both Nwaba and Sexton are good cutters and can find offense around Love touches at the elbow on the block. In the interim, Drew is probably just going to have to read the game each night and find solutions that work in the moment.
One intriguing option: Sexton-Dellavedova-Cedi Osman, if only because all three players play hard and that trio would give Sexton and Osman opportunities to create.
For any of this to matter, Dellavedova has to stay healthy, which he hasn’t since his first year with the Bucks. If he can stay on the court, he’s going to be asked to take on a more malleable role than he had last time around. If his past role was well-defined, this one will be subject to change.