The Cleveland Cavaliers lost all three games this week. Those losses are insignificant compared to the news that Collin Sexton will miss the remainder of the season and Evan Mobley will be out two to four weeks with an elbow sprain.
Here’s what we learned from a season altering week.
Dean Wade has done enough to earn a spot in the rotation.
Wade has been able to provide a stabilizing presence in the starting lineup with Lauri Markkanen out. Wade hasn’t been a good shooter this season, but his competence on the defensive end has been a pleasant surprise. He’s been able to use his size defensively on the wing to make up for his lack of quickness which has allowed him to hold his own against more skilled and athletic opponents.
The offensive end has been somewhat disappointing. Wade is shooting 31% from three on three attempts per game, down from the 36.6% he shot last season. As is a theme with other Cavs’ bench shooters, Wade isn’t getting off many three-point attempts and he isn’t making the most of the ones he is getting.
Wade had his first real productive offensive game this season against Golden State. He finished Thursday’s contest with 17 points on 7-13 shooting and grabbed 5 offensive rebounds. Wade’s shooting and activity on the offensive glass allowed the shorthanded Cavs to stay in a game they had no business being in.
Lauri Markkanen’s return will presumably bump Wade out of the starting lineup but that doesn’t mean Wade should be out of the rotation. The Cavs need lower usage offensive players who are comfortable taking open shots and moving the ball to pair alongside the Cavs’ offensive oriented reserves Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Cedi Osman. They also need a solid defensive player to cover up for that trio’s lack of defensive ability. Lamar Stevens was the natural fit for this unit when he was healthy given his activity on both ends of the floor.
I would be more comfortable giving those minutes to Wade. Stevens is active on the defensive end, but activity doesn’t make you a great individual defender. Wade isn’t as active on the defensive end, but I don’t believe there’s a drastic drop between Stevens’s defense and Wade’s. There is however a gap on the offensive end. While Wade hasn’t been a great shooter, he’s far from an offensive liability.
Wade would be my choice for the ninth man in the rotation when Mobley returns. At the very least, I would expect him to rotate with Stevens depending on the matchup.
Dylan Windler the idea remains better than Dylan Windler the player.
Windler has not been able to make the most of his added playing time due to injuries. Windler played over 41 minutes in three games this last week and registered a combined 2 points, 2 assists, 5 rebounds, 3 turnovers and 1 three-point attempt. The one three-point attempt is the most alarming stat among those.
Windler is playing like someone who isn’t confident in his shot. His primary role in the half-court is a floor spacer station in either the baseline corner or on the wing. When he does get the ball, he rarely seems ready to shoot. Instead he tends to make the extra pass or put the ball on the floor. Neither of those outcomes are ideal for an injury riddled offense that has struggled to create good spot up three-point looks.
The most frustrating thing about all of this is how good Windler has shot as he is 9 for 22 (40.9%) from three on the season. Windler has taken only one three when the closest defender is within four feet of him. Seven of his three-point attempts have come when the closest defender is 4 to 6 feet away and 13 have come when the closest defender is over 6 feet away. This shows that he is not taking threes unless he is open or wide open which isn’t a luxury a spot up three-point specialist generally has.
This is not to say that Windler should be taking shots when defenders are on top of him. However, Windler often lets the idea of a great shot be the enemy of a good one. That’s not the mindset you want to see from your bench player whose whole job is to shoot threes.
Windler is the type of player the Cavs desperately need. He has good size, is a decent rebounder for his position, and can be a lights-out shooter. Unfortunately, his hesitancy and lack of shot attempts have kept him from being that player thus far. It’s hard to picture him staying in the rotation if he doesn’t become someone who’s shooting every time he has a chance to.
The Cavs could be on the right path.
The Cavs have not had an identity outside of LeBron James for the better part of the last two decades. They’ve been defined by him either being on the team or leaving them in shambles. The Cavaliers still haven’t broken away from his shadow and created their own identity, but J.B. Bickerstaff and company are well on their way to creating their own brand of basketball.
The Cavs lost all three games this week, but it should’ve been much worse. The shorthanded Cavs were able to keep it close against two of the best teams in the league on back-to-back nights due to a willingness to not give up. The Nets needed 37 minutes from both Kevin Durant and James Harden to stave off the Cavaliers while the Warriors needed 40 points from Steph Curry to complete a fourth quarter comeback.
We’ve seen stretches of good play before in these last four years, but those have always been followed by prolonged periods of aimlessness. They’ve had a tendency to let go of the rope for a month or so at a time and bury themselves in the standings.
It’s easy to buy into a culture or a brand of basketball when you’re getting results like the Cavs have gotten for the first month of the season. It’s harder when you’ve been depleted by injuries for an extended period of time and the results aren’t coming. Every team has a breaking point. It’s encouraging that we haven’t seen signs of coming close to the Cavs’ breaking point considering how difficult the schedule has been and the injuries they’ve sustained.
We’ve seen enough to know that the Cavs are at least a competitive team when Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen share the floor. The pair’s defensive ability is enough to keep them in games. Combining that talent with a willingness to compete gives the Cavs a chance to win every night.
Organizations with winning cultures get the most out of their players every night. They have an identity and a baseline of competency which allows the team to be competitive no matter who is in the lineup. J.B. Bickerstaff and company have met that baseline so far this season. They’ve gotten the best out of their players nearly every night.
It’s still way too early to say that the Cavs are building a winning culture. However, this is the first time in decades that it feels like they are on the right path without James putting them there. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle this adversity in the coming weeks and if they can sustain this level of urgency for 82 games.