Hey...what if we, maybe, I don’t know...made a run at the play-in tournament? Ha, just kidding! But seriously though...haha, not! Unless…?
The Cleveland Cavaliers have had that kind of half-season, one full of teases and wild swings and a whole lot of uhhhhh-how-concerned-should-I-be’s. I’ll summarize, but strap in first, because even just reading might give you whiplash: The Cavs opened the season 3–0, got in on a generational trade, reached Nirvana after two wins over the Brooklyn Nets, lost 10 straight by ~20 points per night, followed that with four straight wins, and put an appropriately nonsensical bow on all of this with a loss to the Indiana Pacers. They reached All-Star weekend at 14–22, just two-and-a-half games above last in the East but also only three games back of the play-in game.
So, umm...good job?
Standings-wise, the Cavs are around where most thought they’d be. But ask the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, only a half-decade removed from one of the worst seasons in NBA history, how much the standings matter in the throes of a rebuild. The Cavaliers have had plenty of encouraging wins and just as many hard-to-swallow losses. But the barometers that matter measure much deeper than the wins column.
Andre Drummond: D
Even with Drummond riding the bench as he waits for Cleveland to ship him away, I’m reluctant to consider Drummond’s season a complete failure if for no other reason than there was no reason not to trade for him. When you can get a 26-year-old All-Star who’s an all-time rebounder for Brandon Knight, John Henson, and a second-round pick, it’s practically impossible to not at least get an equal return.
...But man, it was getting rough, especially toward the end there. This unfortunate maneuver against the Memphis Grizzlies went viral, but honestly, it wasn’t all that atypical. Drummond sits at 16th in usage rate—right between Kevin Durant and Zach LaVine—and shot just over 45 percent at the rim, a stupefyingly low number for someone his size. Rock bottom probably came against the Portland Trail Blazers: during a first quarter in which he was guarded by Enes Kanter—who, in case you’ve forgotten, has forged his reputation on being cataclysmically awful at defense—and still failed to score a single point on four field goal attempts. The Cavs took a flier, and it didn’t work. But a flier for someone who can put up 30 points and 20 boards in a game is one worth taking every time.
Kevin Love: F
You might argue that Kevin Love hasn’t played enough to judge whether or not this season has been a failure. That’s a fair point—he’s played just 46 minutes this season, which is only five more than Yogi Ferrell—but, well, it’s also sort of the problem. It would be one thing if Love were missing the season as a part of the young core. But the ideal outcome for all parties involved would be a trade, whether that’s this season or down the road. The more time Love misses, the drier the trade market becomes. It’s not Love’s fault he’s injured, and his body language on the bench has been far more positive than it was last year. But a strong return would do more than just bolster Love’s trade value; it would give the Cavs’ young players a healthier offensive ecosystem to maneuver.
Collin Sexton: A-
People around the league have finally taken notice of Sexton this season. He’s shaken his reputation as an empty volume scorer and even spent a week or two on the fringes of the All-Star debate, largely because he’s taken yet another leap as a scorer. Some of this is the obvious, holyshit-type stuff like the shot-making clinics he put on late in wins over the Nets and Houston Rockets, but he’s also made more subtle improvements. Cleaning the Glass has Sexton as one of the best foul-drawing guards in the league, an essential skill for someone as reliant on the midrange as he is (94th percentile in midrange attempts).
But there’s not a scoring montage or advanced stat that encapsulates Sexton’s growth as well as this play from the end of a game against the Atlanta Hawks. In years past, not even an army of Huns would’ve deterred Sexton from plowing to the basket. But this is a new Collin, one who’s crushing his assist numbers from seasons past (4.5 per game this year vs. 3.0 career) and demonstrating a newfound sense of pace. If he keeps improving at this rate, Sexton might not be an All-Star snub for much longer.
Darius Garland: B
Are there stats for a player’s energy? Not as in, like, hustle stats, or that kind of energy. Energy as in their auras. Like a vibe check, but with visual aids? No?
Didn’t think so, which is why evaluating Darius Garland is weird. Not because it’s hard to tell whether or not he’s improved this season—he has, in just about every quantifiable way—but because so much of his improvement is more qualitative than quantitative. Lucky for us, Garland was kind enough to use his 25-point, 9-assist performance against 76ers as an exhibition of his improvements. It has a little of everything: decisive attacking, oracular passing vision, syncopated pacing, intricate shot-making, and raaaange. (If you want a more “scared straight” example of Garland’s impact, watch the Cavs’ offense after Garland left with an injury against the Pacers.)
That last thing—shooting from deep, his signature skill coming into the league—has been conspicuously missing for much of this season. The one thing Garland isn’t doing more of is shooting threes, even though he’s making them at a higher rate. Darius has amped up his passing of late—nearly 8 assists per game over his last six—juice up his three-point rate, and Garland could really blow the top off his game.
Jarrett Allen: A
As we’ve been over, the Cavaliers had a bad, awful, brutal, terrible stretch through most of February. No matter how hard you strain to look at anything but the final scores, it was almost impossible to find much to be excited about. Lucky for Cavs fans, Jarrett Allen is easy to see, because he’s seven feet tall.
Between roster politics in Brooklyn and then more roster politics in Cleveland, it took far too long for the full Allen experience to be given the floor. But it’s here, and thus far, the results have been fantastic. Since taking over the starting role on February 14, FrOhio has devoured the boards (13.1 rebounds per game, fourth in the league in that span), walled off the rim (1.7 blocks per game, tied for 12th), started shooting threes (three makes over his last five games), and done some general mauling and maiming for good measure. He’s also established a tentpole pick-and-roll rapport with Darius Garland, with both being 22 or younger. Allen may not have gotten All-Star consideration, but with Larry Nance Jr. missing an extended stretch and Collin Sexton slumping, Allen has probably been the Cavaliers’ best player since he touched down in Cleveland. All this for Dante Exum and a late-first? *swoon*
Issac Okoro: C
This is the part where I remind you (and myself) that having a ‘C’ or on your transcript isn’t bad! It means you’re performing to expectations! There’s no reason to drop freak out, especially early in your career!
Seems that might be a necessary reminder for fans who are stressing about Isaac Okoro. Because while Okoro’s poor shooting (30.1 percent from three, though he briefly went streaking late in February) make him a hiding spot for bad defenders, he’s a 19-year-old who is regularly tasked with guarding the basketball celestials that are NBA swingmen, and he hasn’t even died!
Okoro needs to become a better outside shooter. A tighter handle would also serve him well. But he’s already a good defender who plays within himself on offense. That’s about where the itinerary placed him during his rookie go-round.
Larry Nance Jr.: B+
It’s not particularly bold to say that Larry II was the Cavaliers’ best player this season through January; he’s clocked the best net rating of any rotation mainstay (-2.4). His career-best steal and deflection figures weren’t just the keys to Cleveland’s stifling early-season defense, they were the whole dang car. Before Nance Jr.’s injury, the Cavs had the seventh-best defensive rating in the league (108.0); in the time since, they’ve been the third-worst (117.6). Larry has also honed his offense and served admirably as a tertiary frontcourt playmaker (career-high tying 3.2 assist per game) and knockdown shooter (career-best 38.1 percent from deep). But maybe the strongest indication that Nance Jr. has made it big is that he’s become a popular figure in fake trades and is getting photoshopped into Boston Celtics jerseys on Instagram. Larry’s contract has turned into one of the best bargains in the league; there’s not a reasonable deal that should pry him out of Cleveland, no matter how many picks Danny Ainge almost maybe considers potentially offering, possibly.
Cedi Osman: D+
First, I would like to say this: :(((((
Cedi Osman has played nearly every position you could imagine this season. Early in the year, when the Cavaliers’ list of active players was roughly two deep, Osman was charging around the depth chart pressing buttons and filling holes like Plankton in Robot Krabs. But Osman has not been very good this year. He’s having the worst shooting season of his career (by, like, a lot). He has good games here and there, like a 20-pointer against the Los Angeles Clippers, but he’s equally likely to post 7 points on 2-of-9 shooting. Four years into his career, he’s still slight and gets pushed around on defense. Maybe it’s his hair, but the word ‘floppy’ comes to mind to describe him, and it’s almost never a good thing when you can describe a professional athlete as floppy.
There’s still good to be found! His contract (~$8 million per year) goes down pretty easy. If he ever levels out, he could make a solid floor-spacer off the bench. While he struggled to fill the vacant power forward spot, he’s always leaned more toward a guard than wing/forward; Osman is at times a good passer and could handle more complementary playmaking duties should the need arise. He has a great smile, and I like his floppy hair and floppy demeanor. Cedi is 25 years old; at this point he might just be what he is. That might just be a bench player, not a starter, as the Cavs move toward being competitive.
Taurean Prince: C
Bad news: Taurean Prince is not scoring as well as he has in seasons past. Per Cleaning the Glass, The Cavs’ new swingman skyfell from the 61st percentile in points per shot attempt last year to the 14th this year. Good news: Prince skyflew from the 7th percentile in assist percentage all the way up to the 79th(!) this year. That feels like a net gain, not only because bigger number, but because the Cavs aren’t wanting as much for another scoring threat as they are for additional playmakers
Other than a somewhat confusing switcheroo, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better word than ‘average’ to describe Prince’s season. His numbers vary minimally from his career averages thus far, and he’s around the middle of the pack in most major statistical categories. Prince was mostly a footnote in the Harden/Allen/Wall/Oladpo ultra trade; even if he hasn’t made an outsized impact like his fro’ed friend, Prince was a nice pickup and worth the price.
JaVale McGee: B-
Remember what I said about not considering Andre Drummond’s season a complete failure? Well, JaVale McGee has a little bit to do with that too. Jackson Flickinger pointed out that, while Drummond’s usage rate is obscenely high for someone of his standing, McGee’s usage rate is also obscenely high for someone of his standing (23.5, third-highest(!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) of anyone still on the team). Those being so high indicates it could be a scheme thing—but on the other hand, ‘normal’ has to be near or at the bottom of the list of words one might use to describe Drummond or McGee’s center play, so maybe these two are just extreme outliers.
Difference in opportunity aside—McGee plays significantly fewer minutes than Drummond did—McGee’s penchant for hijacking the offense hasn’t been as endemic as Drummond’s. Sure, JaVale still has old-JaVale moments from time to time, but plays like this are closer to the reality of McGee’s nightly contributions. (I guess I didn’t really have much hard evidence for this. Here’s some: McGee is shooting nearly 12 percentage points better than Drummond at the rim. His hops and go-go-gadget arm arms make him a more dangerous lob threat/finisher than Drummond. Data!)
Dylan Windler: C-
The weirdest thing happened recently. Dylan Windler, who’s struggled to shoot all year, connected on all nine of his triples across two games against the Hawks and Rockets. And wouldn’t you know it, the Cavs’ offense woke up and helped them break out of a double-digit losing streak!
That’s the good news. The bad news is that, outside of those two games, Windler is shooting 25.9 percent from deep and hasn’t made more than two triples in one night. It shouldn’t be particularly surprising that Windler has struggled to find and maintain a rhythm this season. This is the first extended stretch of organized basketball he’s played in well over a year, and he’s been asked to reintegrate himself and find his shooting stroke in sporadic minutes on the NBA offense equivalent to purple ketchup.
But the good news is that there’s more good news! Thanks partly to his hesitancy to shoot, Windler has demonstrated a surprisingly sharp eye for drive-and-kicks, which will serve him even better if and when he rediscovers his touch for good. Should that happen, he has the makings of a low-usage shooter who can supercharge an offense by commanding attention off-ball and dishing a dime or two when the opportunity arises.
Damyean Dotson: C-
With Matthew Dellavedova having a cartoonish run of awful injury luck, the third guard role has been Damyean Dotson’s to lose. Dotson ran with it early in the season, posting just over 8 points per game in ~22 minutes per night through the end of January. But over the Cavaliers’ 4–1 stretch to finish out the season’s first half, Dotson logged under 10 minutes in all but one game (he did play well in that one: 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting, 4 assists, 3 rebounds in 19 minutes).
The problem is that Dotson forgot to bring his stroke to Cleveland. A career 35-percent shooter, Dotson is having an abysmal season from every location beyond the arc save for the corner (where he’s at a still-below-average 38 percent). Another auspicious number: 63 percent of Dotson’s makes have been assisted. That’s...not how it’s supposed to work for a second-unit guard. Of course, it’s probably unwise to expect much more from a player who’s only making $2 million per season. But early in the year, that contract was trending toward steal territory; now, it looks about right for someone shaping up to be at the bottom of the rotation.
Dean Wade: B
The Cavs broke the glass and inserted Wade as an emergency starter against the Atlanta Hawks on February 23. It was a last resort in every sense; until that point, Wade was only seeing a tick over 8 minutes of action per night. But as it turns out, having a power forward who’s actually a power forward helps! The Cavs won four of five games with Wade starting, and Wade acquitted himself nicely: he set single-game career-highs in points (17 against the Pacers), rebounds (12 against the 76ers), and found bottom on 11 of his 19 triples over that stretch. The timing couldn’t have been much better, either, as the Cavs had until February 24 to either guarantee Wade’s salary or cut him. Guess who’s a Cavalier for the rest of the season?
Don’t get it twisted: this is a temporary role. Larry Nance Jr. and Kevin Love will both leapfrog Wade once they’re ready to get back on the court. But we grade on a curve around these parts, for a guy who came to Cleveland on a two-way contract, Wade being an end-of-the-bench floor-spacer who can step in for spot-start duty without getting blown to smithereens is a solid outcome.
Lamar Stevens: B
Once again, the curve comes in handy. Lamar Stevens is an undrafted rookie with a game-winning dunk to his name. That earns him a passing grade by itself!
Luckily, that’s not all he has to his name. Although he’s not a shooter (only two made threes all season) Stevens has dug himself a niche as an undersized power forward. He has a knack for sneaking in for offensive rebounds, and he has enough size (6-foot-6, 230 pounds) and quickness to stick tight to even some of the NBA’s premier wings.
The same caveats as Dean Wade apply here too. Stevens isn’t going to become a foundational piece of the team moving forward, or even necessarily stay in the rotation. But another undrafted free agent providing literally anything should be considered a success, and Stevens has been something resembling an NBA player this year.