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Can a Collin Sexton-Darius Garland tandem work for the Cleveland Cavaliers?

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A feasibility study for the pairing of two smaller guards in the modern NBA.

2019 Las Vegas Summer League - Day 1 Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers turned heads when they drafted Darius Garland fifth overall in the 2019 draft. Going back to back with point guards with their lottery picks made some question if the team was already giving up on Collin Sexton.

There were indications that the Cavs viewed Sexton as more of a score-first guard last season. However, with neither player possessing above average height for their position, questions immediately popped up about whether or not they could work long-term.

One of the largest concerns surrounding the selection of Garland was that it wasn’t going to address the Cavs holes on the defensive end. In a vacuum, having a point guard that isn’t a strong contributor on defense isn’t a huge deal. It’s essentially the norm in the NBA, especially if they’re a high usage player offensively.

But with the Cavs having the worst defense in league history last season, the selection was one that clearly will not address that end of the floor next season. A decision that raised valid team-building concerns, especially with players that project to be difference makers on that end still on the board.

Both Sexton and Garland have the physical tools to be plus defenders, or at the very least good positional defenders the same way Steph Curry is. Sexton has a 6’7” wingspan to go with his 6’2” frame, while Garland has a 6’5” wingspan at 6’3” and both are fairly good athletes.

The reason they are unlikely to be a good defensive tandem next season will have more to do with age and inexperience than ability. They lack the physical maturity required to make a consistent impact on the defensive end. If the Cavs do manage to have a average or better defense with them on the court, it would almost certainly be a result of the front court rather than anything they did as a tandem.

But the selections of Sexton and Garland aren’t moves designed to win in 2020. Right now the goal is player development, and to determine whether or not the Sexland tandem can work (I’m making this a thing and you can’t stop me).

So the two important questions surrounding the duo next season are as follows: Will having both players on the roster help or hurt their individual development? Can the tandem work long-term?

To get a better picture of whether or not pairings like them have had success, I looked at two-man pairings of guards 6’4” or shorter in the league last season. To help clean up some noise, I only looked at tandems that played at least 15 minutes per game together.

While finding reliable height information is a bit of a journey, I used listed height on basketball reference for simplicity. As well as two-man lineup data from NBA.com to get the net and defensive ratings for each pairing. Keep in mind that last season’s league average DRTG was 109.7.

6’4” or shorter guard tandems

Team Players Min/Game DEF RTG NET RTG
Team Players Min/Game DEF RTG NET RTG
POR Damian Lillard CJ McCollum 30 108.9 7.5
IND Victor Oladipo Darren Collison 25 106.2 3.9
SAC De'Aaron Fox Buddy Heild 25 109.1 -0.1
UTA Ricky Rubio Donovan Mitchell 24 103.3 8.1
BOS Kyrie Irving Marcus Smart 21 108 6.2
HOU Chris Paul Eric Gordon 21 104.1 11.8
NOP Jrue Holiday Elfrid Payton 21 108.9 8.8
DEN Jamal Murray Garry Harris 20 106.6 4.8
SAS Bryn Forbes Derrick White 18 106.4 3.1
CLE Collin Sexton Brandon Knight 17 117.1 -13
MIN Jeff Teague Josh Okogie 17 111 2
NOP Elfrid Payton E'Twaun Moore 17 107.1 7
OKC Russell Westbrook Dennis Schroeder 17 107 4.9
MIA Goran Dragic Dwyane Wade 16 107.5 2.4
TOR Kyle Lowry Fred VanVleet 16 100.6 14.4
LAC Patrick Beverley Avery Bradley 15 105.2 3.7
Stats via nba.com

So first, a few qualifiers and observations:

  • If a tandem of short guards do not work together, they likely aren’t getting 15+ minutes per game. Teams don’t often like shooting themselves in the foot of their own free will.
  • The only tandems that were below league average defensively were Collin Sexton and Brandon Knight, as well as Jeff Teague and Josh Okogie. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise as the Cavs and Wovles both were terrible defensively and didn’t have the front court support needed to hide their weaknesses.
  • The other thing that’s noteworthy is the age of these tandems. The only players under 22 years old are Okogie, with his 7 foot wingspan and incredible physical tools; De’Aaron Fox, who is part of one of the two net negative tandems and is paired with possibly the oldest player on the list; and Collin Sexton, which as you can see was a tire fire.
  • These are players that are more physically developed, experienced, and with a few exceptions have at least one player in the tandem that is a positive defensive player. For the ones that don’t have a noteworthy positive within the tandem, the surrounding roster typically has strong defensive talent throughout the front court.

In all honesty, I didn’t expect there to be this many tandems that qualify, let alone this many positives overall and defensively. The calculus probably changes come playoffs, where teams game plan and target any weaknesses you have. But those concerns are way down the road for Cleveland.

As I said previously, the duo of Garland and Sexton is not going to be good defensively next season and may not be able to get there for a couple years. But history would indicate that a pairing like them can work if one or both can become good positional defenders, or if the Cavs surround them with players that help mask their flaws.

The next question is whether having both guards on the roster will help or hurt their individual development. Given the draft capital invested into both players, they will likely spend a fair amount of time sharing the court next season.

Whether or not they work as a tandem over time will determine if the Cavs use them as a Lillard/McCollum duo playing 30 minutes a night, or a Westbrook/Schroeder duo where one comes off the bench and they only share the floor for about 17 minutes a night.

In theory, playing with another guard that needs the ball should be a good thing if both guards approach it with the right attitude.

Neither guard has shown they have the requisite level of vision to be the central cog of an offense. That being said, fewer and fewer teams have offenses centered around one player creating for everybody. Plus the ones that do typically are easy to game plan against come playoffs.

For Sexton and Garland to develop off-ball skills will be a major factor in whether or not you can build a successful team around them. If Sexton can’t improve his vision as a passer, he can still be a quality piece within the offense if he increases his decisiveness.

Neither can be a ball stopper once they have the ball and they will need to be active moving without it. If they keep the ball moving and aren’t pounding the air out of it offensively it will help empower the team so they can work as a unit and share the play-making responsibility.

Even Steph Curry, the best example of a score-first point guard in the league, plays a good amount off-ball. He has historically shared the play-making responsibility and provided a blueprint for how score-first guards can fit within a cohesive offense. And Currey causes defensive chaos when he gives up the ball, moves and resets for a shot. He draws more attention than Sexton or Garland will, but there’s something to having a guard who can shoot and move off ball to get a good look.

For what it’s worth, Garland has shown an ability and some willingness to play off-ball at Vanderbilt, even though it was a small sample size. While Sexton’s post All-Star break success came partly as a result of him playing off ball more. Increasing his catch and shoot frequency from 10.6% to 17.5%.

Forcing both guards to learn these skills early in their career could help raise the ceiling of what they can be long-term. In a universe where the Cavs only had one of Sexton or Garland, asking that player to have the ball in their hands constantly might lead to a decent looking stat-line, but is unlikely to lead to actual team success.

The more likely outcome would be for them to develop bad habits that but a cap on what they can be as building blocks. With a shared load offensively it could also allow them to show more dedication and attention on the defensive side of the floor. At least when you compare it to what would be possible with a even higher usage role as a solo act.

Time will tell if the duo has the right mindset to make this union work. It’s far from an ideal pairing and it’s very possible they will need to be staggered or broken up in the future. But for now it’s something worth investing in and living with the mistakes in the hopes of developing two well-rounded offensive guards.