The suddenly upstart Cleveland Cavaliers underwent a setback to their promising 2021-22 campaign, as news broke on Monday afternoon that starting guard Collin Sexton suffered a potential season-ending injury.
It's hard not to feel for Young Bull, a tireless worker who has gradually smoothed out his game to fit into a team construct, and a pending restricted free-agent in the 2022 offseason -- a big payday is still likely on the horizon. Here's to hoping for a full and speedy recovery.
The Cavaliers currently sit at 7-4 despite a road-heavy schedule and prolonged absences of three other rotation pieces. Will we look at the loss of Sexton — the team's leading scorer — as a turning point for this group? Where a hot start crumpled into dust as the rigorousness of the league finally set in? Cleveland did begin 2020-21 with an 8-7 record, after all.
I am confident that the Cavaliers can stay the course without Sexton and maintain their level of play, here's why:
It's time to unleash Darius Garland
Collin Sexton has led the team in usage each of the past three seasons. He averaged 24.3 a game last year. The Georgia native is essential to Cleveland's attack...or is he?
While it may not be reflected in the raw stats, the keys to the Cavaliers' offense have been in the hands of Darius Garland (and Ricky Rubio) in 2021-22. This has pushed Sexton into more of a play-finishing role, conducive to his skillset. In his third year, Garland has made incremental gains in several areas -- all coalescing into a budding premier facilitator.
It has taken him time, but Garland finally appears comfortable navigating tight corridors in the paint. He's always been a cheeky player -- relying more on craft and touch to surprise defenses. This year, however, he's drawing more attention, which in turn opens up higher quality looks for others.
Just look at this slight of hand.
The handle is tighter, the moves are more ergonomically efficient, the decisiveness is there. Now Garland can translate that creative bravado into high-value passes. Per Second Spectrum, Garland is averaging 14.4 potential assists per 36 minutes, a top-15 rate in the NBA. Further, his teammates are converting on a greater proportion of these chances.
|Darius Garland, assist to potential assist ratio|
Developing the pull-up three has been critical. Garland's nearly doubled his frequency on these attempts (from 2.6 last year to 4.3, per 36 minutes), on a seething 47.2% (17 of 36 in 9 games). This is the most potent shot in basketball. It's why Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard have broken efficiency metrics for years on end. It's why Nick Nurse box-and-one'd Kemba Walker in the Bubble. And it's frankly, why the organization is so high on Garland.
|Darius Garland, percentile by play type|
|Pick-and-roll ball handler||62.6|
Only Cole Anthony, Jaylen Brown, Stephen Curry, and Tobias Harris are exceeding that efficiency in both play types this year.
Now it's time to really see Garland stretch his boundaries with an increased workload. Even with the torrid shooting, he's only attempted over six triples in 2 of 9 games this season. Both Rubio and Kevin Love dwarf him in usage. A little bit more shameless gunning surely couldn't hurt, right? Consider the other options. (It's what head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is imploring out of him, too).
The question is: how will Darius Garland respond the increased focus from opposing teams?
So far in 2021-22, he's spent nearly 93% of his possessions next to another ball-handler in Sexton or Rubio. Expect more aggressive coverages, both in pick-and-roll and denying the catch. Defenses will press up on the perimeter and force the other guys to make plays.
The onus will be on Garland to trust his teammates and Bickerstaff to dial up creative sets; as well as everyone else to make defenses pay. I am intrigued to see Mobley and Okoro (when he returns) with increased play-making responsibilities, as both have flashed intuitive passing. Although Evan Mobley has been up-and-down as a scorer, asking him to make more decisions with the ball is never a bad thing.
Getting them increased reps in these spots could be healthy for the franchise long-term.
The defense won't skip a beat
It may seem counterintuitive, but the way to crack this Cavaliers' defense is playing from the outside-in -- by targeting the guards in space. Attacking the two centers (particularly Evan Mobley) is a fool's errand, and they always have tons of bodies in the interior. The young backcourt is the weak link. While Sexton has progressed on that end, he's still a clear net-negative defensively.
The maddening moments off-ball still occur far too often; he's a nonexistent contributor on the glass and on the help-side.
More minutes to Rubio and the currently-injured Isaac Okoro will help. Now it will be more palpable to insulate Garland from tough matchups -- and for Cleveland to lean all-in on a defensive identity, which has eluded them for years (the Cavaliers have finished in the bottom-ten in defense for five years running).
The Cavaliers to begin with are um...a bit light on shooting. Sexton's absence will only exasperate that issue. Garland and Rubio are going to see crowds prior to even cracking the paint.
Placing a non-threat in Okoro or Lamar Stevens in that wing spot could cause major problems for Cleveland's offense. At the same time, I believe Sexton's gravity as a floor-spacer is overrated.
|NBA 3-point shooting, 2019 to 2021||Sexton||League average|
|Wide open (6+ feet)||46.8%||38.5%|
|All others (under 6 feet)||32.4%||33.5%|
A similar trend has transpired this year. The fit between the two guards has long been somewhat clunky, in large part because Sexton isn't scalable off-ball. While he deserves for turning himself into a viable shooter from deep, the volume simply isn't there, at least not yet. He's only proficient from three with ample time and space. We can assume that Cedi Osman and Dylan Windler will get increased tick, both of whom more willing catch-and-shoot options from three. At 7.1 per game, only four teams have fewer makes of this variety, per game.
Overall, the Cavaliers likely won't sustain their current level of play -- FiveThirtyEight's ELO model projects them to go 32-39 the rest of the way. But that was inevitable, Sexton or no Sexton. They've been thoroughly outplayed in a few of their victories — a Damian Lillard 10-27 performance, leading for precisely 0.4 seconds total in Toronto — yet walked away on top. The season appeared on the brink until Bickerstaff unveiled the 3-2 zone in the second half of the Atlanta game.
Cleveland will miss certain elements to Collin Sexton's game. He pushes it down other teams' throats in transition, something where Garland is lacking in. On certain nights they'll be starved for buckets, and no longer having the bucket-getting from Sexton will be tough.
But I don't think that this will define the 2021-22 Cleveland Cavaliers. In my view, the team can overcome this bad break, which runs counter to what others might believe.