It was an interesting first half of the season. The Cavs currently have the second-worst net rating in the league but are only two games out of a play-in spot. All of this was done with Kevin Love playing as many games for the Cavs as Yogi Ferrell did this season.
Here’s what we learned from this up and down season.
Larry Nance Jr. is the most valuable Cavalier on the roster.
Nance’s box score numbers are underwhelming for someone you’d consider to be the most valuable player on an NBA team. He is averaging just 9.3 points, 6.8 boards, and 3.2 assists per game with a league average true shooting percentage.
The on/off numbers paint a different picture. The Cavs have a -2.4 net rating with Nance on the floor and a -10.4 net rating when he is off. In short, the Cavs are 8 points per 100 possessions better with Nance on than they are with him off. This is a common trend as they were 5.5 points per 100 possessions better with Nance last season and 1.7 points better in ’18-19.
Nance’s ability to fill multiple roles on offense and defense is why he is so valuable. He can cover multiple positions, provide secondary playmaking, rebound, attack the basket, and can shoot at an above average level. There aren’t many players who can fill all of those roles at that level with his size. There’s a reason why he’s the most coveted player on the roster. Every team could use a Larry Nance Jr.
You can build a good defense with Darius Garland and Collin Sexton.
Any team starting two guards under 6’ 2” is already behind the 8 ball on defense. Despite that, the Cavs got off to a good start this season because of their defense which included Garland and Sexton.
Larry Nance Jr. and Andre Drummond were most responsible for their good defense through the first month. Both players did a great job of getting into passing lanes and forcing turnovers. They did this, while also protecting the rim at a high level. The defense fell off dramatically when Nance was injured and Drummond’s effort level declined. However, the formula for having a good or passable defense with this backcourt is there.
Jarrett Allen is the center of the future.
The center position was a question mark coming into the season. Andre Drummond had an opportunity to claim that position long-term, but Koby Altman and company decided to go in another direction.
Allen has been phenomenal since coming over from Brooklyn. He’s averaging 16.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game on 69.5% shooting in games he’s started.
While those numbers are good, the most encouraging sign has been his ability to play with Garland and Sexton. Allen’s size and rim protection fit ideally with the undersized backcourt. On the other end, the guards have done a good job of utilizing Allen’s vertical spacing to generate easy offense. In their last six games, the three-man unit of Garland, Sexton, and Allen have posted a 5.7 net rating. I’m excited to see how this unit looks when Nance or Love return to the lineup.
The Cavs have gotten good minutes from undrafted players.
Player development is generally judged by how good organizations are at developing their lottery picks. While that is the most important part of player development, it is also important for teams to find ways to win on the margins. I wouldn’t say the Cavs are winning on the margins, but it is encouraging that the Cavs are getting solid minutes out of two undrafted players.
Dean Wade and Lamar Stevens have been pleasant surprises so far. Wade has performed well after stepping into the starting lineup as he’s averaging 9.4 points and 6.2 boards while posting an 83.7 true shooting percentage and 12.8 net rating in the five games he started.
Stevens, on the other hand, has been a solid bench player by providing reliable perimeter defense and has shown flashes of being a decent bench scorer. Stevens has the ability to stick around in this league if he improves his jumper as he’s shooting just 11.8% from distance.
Good organizations find ways to win on the margins by developing second round and undrafted players. The Cavs haven’t had much success in those areas the last two decades. That could be starting to change.
Darius Garland is a starting caliber point guard.
Garland had a rough rookie season. He looked completely over his head on both ends of the floor and had a tough time finding any consistency. As a result, he finished with 17 or more points in only 9 of the 59 games he played last season. This season, he’s averaging 17 points, 6 assists, and 1.3 steals on .451/.409/.833 shooting splits in games he’s started. That’s a drastic improvement.
Garland still has plenty of room to grow. He often hesitates to pull the trigger from distance as he’s attempting less threes per game this season than he did last. Garland also struggles to initiate contact and get to the free throw line despite improved finishing at the rim (46.8% last season and 56.8% this season). Improvements in getting to the line and shooting from distance with more regularity will see his below average true shooting percentage (52.4%) rise.
The most encouraging thing about Garland is that his downsides are in areas that were perceived strengths coming into the league. He’s proven to be an incredible passer and has the technique and skills to be a good defender despite his frame.
Garland has arguably the highest ceiling of anyone on the current roster. The Cavs could have a star level player if he reaches his potential as an outside shooter and he continues to show steady improvement in his playmaking and defense.
Collin Sexton is the real deal.
Sexton has improved every area of his game for the second season in a row. He has upped his scoring and efficiency while also becoming a better playmaker despite moving more to an off-ball role. The third-year guard’s increased efficiency and points is due to his ability to get to the line with more regularity and an uptick in willingness to pass out of drives to the basket.
It’s impossible to put a ceiling on the type of player Sexton can become. Growth isn’t linear. It’s hard to envision him continuing to improve at this rate. However, if you would’ve asked me during his rookie season what the absolute best outcome for Sexton is, I probably would’ve said something slightly worse what he’s shown this season. He’s already exceeded most people’s expectations for him. I’d bet on him continuing to do that.