The Cavs managed to split their four game Western Conference swing with impressive wins over the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers. Here’s what we learned from an unexpectedly good road trip.
The short rotations are less than ideal.
The starting lineup of Garland/Sexton/Markkanen/Mobley/Allen has done surprisingly well so far this season. They’ve only played five games together, but the unit is outscoring opponents by 5.4 points per 100 possessions (small sample size) heading into Monday’s game. The issues this season largely come from lineups that don’t feature the starters. To counter this, Bickerstaff has gone with eight or nine-man rotations which is less than ideal for a young team at the start of the season.
Not counting garbage time, the Cavs featured a nine-man rotation against the Nuggets, an eight and a half man rotation against the Clippers (Cedi Osman played just over 3 minutes of non-garbage time), an eight-man rotation against the Lakers, and an eight-man rotation in the first half against the Suns before they ran away with things.
Running these short rotations for an extremely young team in October that is in the midst of playing five road games in eight nights is a huge red flag. Especially when you are relying heavily on Evan Mobley who has never played an 82-game season and already has a smaller frame for someone playing his position.
The Cavs went to a shorter rotation after Isaac Okoro’s hamstring injury. Injuries always necessitate changes in the rotation. Those changes rarely result in just playing the remaining rotation players more and not adding fresh bodies to the mix. Especially when it’s still October.
The NBA season is a marathon and not a sprint. We saw the effects of these short rotations in the second half of both the Lakers and Suns’ games. The Cavs started out extremely well in both, but they lost their legs in the second half and were beat physically by more rested teams. I understand that the back half of the bench isn’t ideal but trying to win those minutes seems like a more palatable alternative than running short rotations and playing one or more young player over 35 minutes a night.
Lack of wing depth continues to be an issue.
The short rotations are a response to JB Bickerstaff’s lack of trust with the wings. Lauri Markkanen has held his own, well at least compared to expectations, on defense thanks to his length and playing alongside Mobley and Allen. The offensive end has been the issue as he’s averaged just 11.7 points per game with a 43.6 effective field goal percentage. To put that in perspective, his effective field goal percentage las season was 59.4%.
Markkanen’s inability to hit the outside shot is his biggest issue as he’s shooting 28.6% from deep on 6 attempts per game. He’s attempting four spot ups per game, but is shooting a disappointing 32% effective field goal percentage on those shots.
The Markkanen on the wing experiment will only work if his outside shot is falling at a consistent rate which there’s plenty of reason to believe that it will. However, his lack of shooting at this time really exposes the lack of depth the Cavs have on the wing when he’s not hitting his shots as he is not close to being a plus defender.
Isaac Okoro has been the primary back up on the wing. His offense hasn’t taken a leap, but he has given solid minutes off the bench thanks to his defense and ability to run in transition.
Bickerstaff’s decision making when Okoro isn’t available has been perplexing. Osman seems to be the obvious choice to get 15 to 20 minutes a night given the lack of wings on this team, but his minutes have been inconsistent despite shooting 42.3% from three on 4.3 attempts per game. Osman played limited minutes against the Clippers and didn’t get off the bench against the Lakers.
Conversely, Lamar Stevens has been playing over 15 minutes a night since Okoro went down despite shooting 20% from the floor during that stretch and missing several key layups against the Lakers. His effort and intensity on the defensive end have been good, but his lack of offensive skill outweigh anything he’s giving defensively given the Cavs’ lack of scorers.
Dylan Winder hasn’t been able to see meaningful minutes despite the lack of trust in Osman and Stevens’s lack of scoring ability. This is concerning for someone who was supposed to be a high impact bench player when drafted but hasn’t been able to prove anything due to injuries.
The lack of trust with the wings and their various inherent flaws has forced Bickerstaff to run some weird lineups which included playing Garland, Sexton, and Rubio down the stretch against a much bigger and physical Lakers’ team. Needless to say, LeBron and company had a field day on offense.
It’s hard to buy into this team being competitive without a decent option on the wing. Wings run the NBA and there’s an argument that there are no NBA caliber wings on this roster given the limitations of the names mentioned above.
Garland and Rubio aren’t looking to score at the rim.
Garland and Rubio are off to good starts to the season. Garland has a team high 8.2 assists per game and has his highest effective field goal percentage of his career in large part to his increased willingness to take threes. Conversely, Rubio has held together some odd bench lineups and feels like the first Cavs’ bench player in years to have a positive net rating (we’ll see how long that lasts).
The two point guards have made a habit of driving to the paint and trying to create for others from there. These plays usually end up with a dump pass or lob to one of the bigs. The problem is, neither guard seems to have a counter when the lob or dump pass is taken away besides just dribbling through the key and pulling the ball back out.
Garland is attempting a career low 10.5% of his shots in the restricted area and is attempting nearly a free-throw less per game than he did last season. Not attempting shots at the rim or trying to get to the line really limits his ability as a scorer when his outside shot isn’t falling. This is a concerning for someone who presumably has the skills to be an all-star.
Rubio is falling into this trap as well. The veteran guard is posting a career low in free throw attempts (2.1) and a career low in field goal attempts within the restricted area (14.4%). His scoring has been buoyed by his hot outside shooting to start the season but has come back to earth this week as he’s hit only 25% of his three-point attempts in the last four games.
Mobley and Allen are dynamic finishers at the rim. It’s possible that the point guards not attempting many shots at the rim might not be that big of a deal. However, it is something that I will be keeping a close eye on. We’ll see if opposing defenses adjust to this trend and force the point guards to beat them scoring.
Collin Sexton is still adjusting to playing more off-ball.
It’s been a weird season for Sexton as he’s adjusting to playing almost exclusively off-ball. He’s averaging 17.3 points per game so far this season which is considerably lower than the previous two seasons (20.8 and 24.3). He’s also averaging a career low in assists per game (1.9) and field goal attempts per game (13.6). He’s also on pace to have his best effective field goal percentage of his career.
Sexton has been the focal point of the offense for the better part of the last three season. He’s led the team in usage rate all three of those seasons and scored about as efficiently as someone on a bad team with few offensive weapons around them reasonably could. Sexton still has the highest usage rate on the team, but it isn’t as high as it was last season.
None of these things are too surprising given the Rubio acquisition in the offseason. Sexton played off ball to Garland last season but was able to run the show when Garland was on the bench due to the lack of other point guards on the roster. That isn’t the case this season. According to basketball-reference’s lineup data, Sexton has been the primary guard in only 13% of his minutes. To put that in perspective, 42% of his minutes last season came as the primary ball-handler.
Wednesday’s game against the Clippers showed us how good Sexton can be playing off-ball. He finished that game with 26 points on 12 of 20 shooting and was a team high +17 in the win. He was disruptive off-ball as a cutter and was able to beat the defense with quick and decisive moves when he did attack off the dribble.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t always been the case. Sexton has struggled to find a rhythm early when he has the ball in his hands less. We saw what that looks like when he finished Friday’s game in LA with 9 points on 9 shots.
Sexton has the ability to be a weapon off-ball, but there will continue to be a learning curb. He’s been forced to adjust repeatedly throughout his career and has generally come out on the other side of things for the better. I don’t expect this to be any different.