It may not have seemed like it at the time, but the Jordan Clarkson trade was a turning point for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Not in the sense of improving the team, as it most certainly did not do that. But it was the removal for a safety net for the Cavs three young guards. Clarkson may be remembered by some for his struggles in his lone playoff appearances. However after the departure of LeBron James he became the team’s most reliable scoring option.
Trading Clarkson away was in part to acquire picks for an expiring player that didn’t fit into their future plans. But without him in the mix, the team no longer had a reliable veteran option to lean on should the guards struggle. Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. would all be asked to take on more responsibility.
Since that point, all three guards have shown various levels of growth. 33 games have passed since the trade and Clarkson’s return game in Cleveland, so it feels like a fitting time to look at how each player has done individually and as tandems since that point.
First, their stats (All stats as of March 4th):
23.1 points, 3.3 assists, 48.2 FG%, 44.5 3P%, 58.2 TS%, 15.3 AST%, 26.7 USG%
13.6 points, 4.7 assists, 41.6 FG%, 34.6 3P%, 50.7 TS%, 19.8 AST%, 19.9 USG%
Kevin Porter Jr:
12.6 points, 2.5 assists, 45.2 FG%, 34.9 3P%, 54.5 TS%, 14.5 AST%, 22.2 USG%
While Clarkson was on the team, it was a near certainty that he would be featured in closing lineups for the Cavs. Without him, the team has adopted an approach where whichever guards are playing best on a night to night basis will be rewarded with closing minutes.
The biggest beneficiary of Clarkson’s departure is Porter, who has averaged 26 minutes per game since the trade. Coming into this season the thinking was that he was a prospect with immense talent, but would likely need time before he would be NBA ready. Perhaps even needing some time in the G League.
But by the time training camp came around, it was clear that the team would need to find ways to get him on the floor. As he has improved, he has been rewarded with more and more minutes and responsibility.
Since the trade he has been given steady minutes, with the understanding that if he plays well in any game he will get to play more. His minutes per game have been split evenly, seeing 11 with Sexton (-9.7 net rating), 10 with Garland (+3 net rating), and just under five with all three together (-17.6 net rating). The pairing of Sexton and Garland have a -7.5 net rating over this time as well.
While the team has performed better with Garland and Porter together, it’s interesting to note both perform worse individually when together. Porter’s true shooting percentage falls by 4.6% when together, while Garland’s also drops by 4.6%.
Meanwhile both guards are far more efficient alongside Sexton. With Porter’s true shooting percentage increasing by 8 percent and Garland’s by 10.3 percent.
Sexton has become a more willing passer throughout this stretch. However his greatest impact on teammates is how much easier he makes things for them by shouldering his load offensively. While the other guards fluctuate in their offensive efficiency, Sexton’s changes from a true shooting percentage of 59% with Porter to 58.2% with Garland. As well as 57% when neither is on the court with him.
As is the case with all young players, these guards are learning how to translate their individual strengths into team success. Assuming all three remain in the Cavs future plans, they will inevitably spend prolonged stretches of each game in every imaginable combination.
The flashes from Porter we’ve seen this season have been special. Largely due to his ability to have a two-way impact on the game. But he’s also been the most inconsistent of the three guards. His offensive skills also haven’t yet translated to consistent team success on that end of the floor.
Splitting his minutes evenly with each guard has been an intelligent way to approach this situation. There are no artificial restrictions on his minutes, they are solely dictated by how well he plays on any night. On the nights where everything is coming together, the Cavs are willing to ride the hot hand with whatever pairing has it going on that night.
It’s an approach that has resulted in steady improvement for Porter It also helps the team give time to the pairings that help each other have better individual success such as Sexland or Port. Sex (okay that one needs some work), to the pairing that’s resulted in better team play but individual struggles in Garland and Porter.
Garland and Sexton: 113.78 ORTG, 120.55 DRTG, -6.77 NET
Garland and Porter: 103.98 ORTG, 103.33 DRTG, +0.65 NET
Sexton and Porter: 104.48 ORTG, 114.68 DRTG, -10.19 NET
All three: 114.25 ORTG, 126.38 DRTG, -12.13 NET
The emergence of Porter causes many to imagine what could be in his very near future. But at this point, the sixth man role is the most logical way to deploy him. While the pairing of he and Garland is marginally better, individually he is not consistent enough to justify starting him over Sexton. Plus the pairing of he and Sexton has been disastrous for the season, sporting a -19.2 net rating in their 495 minutes together.
It’s possible that the three could all start together someday. The 19-year-old Porter looks far taller these days than his 6’4 barefoot measurement on the combine and growth spurts aren’t unusual for someone his age. He also has the length and the strength necessary to project him as someone that could someday play and defend small forwards.
But currently the thought of starting all three together is untenable. For starters, you probably want at least one of the guards on the floor at all times. Preferably, you’d want two. Something that becomes nearly impossible to accomplish if they are all starting together.
There’s also a defensive end to the floor, where the trio has posted a 122.6 DRTG since the Clarkson trade in their 76 min together. This is likely a case where the small sample size has a lot to do with how porous the unit is together.
It shouldn’t be a shock that the guards have struggled on the defensive end of the floor. Given their age, offensive responsibility, and playing against arguably the deepest position in the league will do that to you.
Still, that end of the floor will likely be the largest determining factor of where each player settles into the rotation.
At this point it’s hard to point to anybody but Sexton as the least impactful defender of the group. Since the Clarkson trade the team’s DRTG is 118.6 with him on and 103.1 with him off for a staggering difference of 15.5 points. Meanwhile the defense improves from 115.9 to 112.9 when Garland is on the floor and 116.7 to 111.6 when Porter is on the court.
Naturally when there’s this large of a discrepancy you have to look into what it is about the rotation that causes this to be the case. The Cavalier with the best defensive numbers over that stretch has been Larry Nance Jr., but Sexton has a -2.6 net rating in 451 minutes with him compared to the +2.1 net rating Garland and Nance have in 366 together.
Sexton has played 80 more minutes over that stretch with the defensively deficient trio of Cedi Osman, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, but not enough to solely account for the discrepancy.
Plus while on/off numbers can be messy, his D-PIPM of -3.61 is a team worst and nearly twice as bad as Garland’s -1.86. While Porter is already close to the break-even point at -0.01 D-PIPM.
The numbers will likely come as a shock to anybody that’s watched the Cavs this season. Anybody with eyes can see that Sexton has the higher defensive upside between he and Garland and is capable of making high-impact plays on that end. While Garland is typically attentive and in the right spots, but can easily get bullied as a result of his slender frame.
The most obvious culprit to Sexton’s defensive woes would be his off ball awareness. He can be tenacious when his man has the ball but is frequently caught falling asleep in other situations. With Porter you can see the flashes of his offensive upside, but he hasn’t yet figured out how to work those into a team concept. The same is true for Sexton harnessing his tools on the defensive end.
It’s understandable why Sexton wouldn’t be able to fully exert himself on defense, given the load he shoulders offensively. But while it’s understandable, that shouldn’t excuse just how bad it has been overall.
As Garland and Porter improve, they will hopefully be able to alleviate Sexton of some of his offensive burden. As that happens, Sexton will need to channel his work ethic towards that end of the floor to take his game to the next level.
Sexton’s play making has reached a point that’s acceptable for a combo guard. The fact that he has brought his play making back to where it was towards the end of last season while exploding as a scorer is tremendously impressive. Now the focus has to be directed towards defense.
For a player as strangely divisive as Sexton, it may feel like moving the goalposts to bring up deficiencies in a season where he’s shown so much growth. But it’s truly a testament to how far he’s come since his first game, how quickly he’s hurdled the goals set out for him, and how he’s handled the setbacks that have allowed doubt to creep back in.
Capitalizing on his defensive tools in addition to his scoring is what will take him to the next level in his career. We’ve seen hard working players with great defensive tools like DeMar DeRozan fail to put it together on that end. He doesn’t have the height, but length can be a viable replacement for that.
The growth of all three members of this core will dictate how they can be used in the future. They may all improve at different rates but they are trending in the right direction. At the very least, they are providing clarity on why the team moved on from Clarkson and handed them the keys.