This week was a mixed bag. The Cavs were blown out in embarrassing fashion to less than stellar teams in the Sacramento Kings and injury plagued Los Angeles Lakers. They also had solid performances in a win over the Chicago Bulls and suffered a last second loss to the Kings in the Harrison Barnes revenge game.
Here’s what we learned from another up and down week.
Collin Sexton continues to be clutch.
The Cavs aren’t a good team but have done surprisingly well in the clutch despite their last second loss in Sacramento. Young teams generally struggle in clutch situations, but this team doesn’t as they’re now 10-6 in games that enter clutch time (a game that has a point differential of five or less in the last five minutes of play).
Part of that is due to Sexton’s incredible scoring in the clutch. He has had a knack for hitting game tying and go-ahead shots this season with clutch shots over the Pistons, Hawks, and Nets. He added to that this week with what appeared to be a game winning layup over the Kings in the final second.
Sexton is currently eighth in the league in clutch points per game with 4.3. He has the second highest field goal percentage among that group (55.0%) trailing only Damian Lillard (56.7%).
Scoring in the clutch often comes down to being able to execute in the half court while generally not being able to get the benefit of the doubt with the whistle. Sexton has been able to do that this season by relying on his outside shot and ability to finish at the rim. It’s encouraging to see the third-year guard take a leap in this area.
The Cavs’ bench situation continues to be rough.
The Cavs are currently 28th in the league in bench scoring with 31.5 points per game. Unsurprisingly, they are also 29th in bench efficiency with a 48.8 effective field goal percentage for the various units.
There are many reasons why the bench has been and continues to be disappointing. Kevin Love being out of the starting lineup hurts the overall production of the starters, but it more so hurts the bench as Larry Nance Jr. is forced into the starting lineup and away from his ideal role. The Cavs have also had little production from Cedi Osman and Dylan Windler who were slated to be the best scorers off the bench.
Coach Bickerstaff appears to be mixing things up as he opted to use Dean Wade, Brodric Thomas, and Lamar Stevens in place of Cedi Osman and Dylan Windler in Saturday’s loss to Sacramento. It’s good to see the Cavs get useful minutes out of undrafted young players, but it’s more concerning that they aren’t able to get solid minutes out of guys who we thought would be key contributors off the bench for years to come.
It’s tough to win in the NBA when you’re two best players are under 23 years old and both 6’ 1”. It’s even tougher when you are getting little to no production from your bench.
The discourse around Collin Sexton and Darius Garland is weird.
The Cavs and Darius Garland looked good in their win over Chicago with Sexton out of the lineup. Garland was able to display a more assertive side to his game as he finished with 22 points on 4 of 6 shooting from deep and 9 assists. The second-year guard was also a game high +14.
After a good game like that, it’s natural to wonder if being paired with Sexton is holding Garland back overall. However, jumping to conclusions after one good or bad game isn’t wise when trying to evaluate young players who are still trying to find their footing in the league.
The numbers point to both Garland and Sexton being better on the offensive end when paired together. The Cavs are scoring an average of 104.2 points per 100 possessions (offensive rating) with both Garland and Sexton on the floor. That rating drops to 102.5 when Sexton is on the floor without Garland. It drops even further to 101.8 when Garland is on and Sexton is off.
This increase shows up with individual numbers as well. Sexton has a 54.5 effective field goal percentage with Garland on and a 49.8 effective field goal percentage with him off. Garland has a 50.0 effective field goal percentage with Sexton on and a 49.5 effective field goal percentage with him off. Garland is also shooting 42.0% from distance with Sexton on and 34.6% from three with him off. These numbers all point to this pairing playing better together offensively than they do apart.
These numbers aren’t surprising when you watch and think about the pair’s offensive game. Garland is a good distributor who can bend defenses with his ability to shoot and manipulate defenses with his shifty dribbling. He’s also shown flashes of being a great playmaker who can help initiate offensive sets, but has shown hesitancy in being an aggressive scorer who can carry bulk of the scoring. Conversely, Sexton has shown that he can carry the scoring load efficiently but will most likely never be someone who can be the primary initiator due to his lack of playmaking vision.
Both have shown that they can cover up each other’s blind spots on that end. If they progress as Koby Altman and company hope, they can become a dynamic scoring backcourt who could spearhead a good and efficient offense once their game matures.
With that said, there are still reasons to be hesitant about the pairing long term. The pairing has had a tough time on the defensive end this year as the team has posted a dreadful 113.2 defensive rating when both share the floor. However, we saw that it is possible to have good team defense with these two at the beginning of the season thanks to the Larry Nance Jr. and Andre Drummond frontcourt. The four man lineup of Garland/Sexton/Nance/Drummond posted a 103.6 defensive rating in the 10 games they played together.
Any team that features both Garland and Sexton in the backcourt will require length and roster concessions in other positions to make it work. Those things aren’t inherently deal breakers if you are getting good to great offensive production out of this pair which they unsurprisingly aren’t getting now as evidenced by their 104.2 offensive rating.
While growth isn’t linear, it’s safe to say that neither player is the best version of themselves and will likely not reach their full potential within the next two to four seasons. It takes players, especially undersized guards, a while to adjust in this league. Because of that, the offensive upside of the pairing is not going to be evident on a nightly basis. However, the defensive downside is more glaring now than it would likely be in two to four seasons when both have hopefully developed on that end.
We won’t know if this pairing works or doesn’t work until years down the road. Unfortunately for the Cavs, they will need to decide about this pairing sooner rather than later. I believe that we’ve seen enough on the offensive end to believe that this pairing can work long-term, but any long-term pairing will require roster concessions at the other three positions to make up the lack of length in the backcourt. This offseason and upcoming draft will give us a hint of what direction the organization is leaning.