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What we learned about the Cavaliers this season: 2020-21

May the odds be ever in our favor.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The season has finally come to an end after a brutal 1 – 14 stretch to close it out. Injuries overshadowed this season as the Cavs were never able to established sustained momentum. Despite the inconsistent lineups, the young core of Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, and Jarrett Allen showed promising signs individually and collectively.

Here’s some of what we learned this season.

Injuries killed this team.

The Cavs most used five-man lineup (Garland/Sexton/Okoro/Nance/Allen) played only 141 minutes and 10 total games together. The current projected starting lineup for next season of Garland, Sexton, Okoro, Love, and Allen played only 7 games and 85 minutes together. Somehow that was still the team’s third most used lineup. This lack of consistent lineups makes it incredibly difficult to evaluate what you have and what you need around your young players going into a pivotal offseason.

Injuries wiped out the veterans on this team the most as Larry Nance Jr., Kevin Love, Taurean Prince, and Matthew Dellavedova were limited to 35 games or less this season. Having all four of those vets miss over half the season forced the Cavs into playing G-league and end of the roster players significant minutes while also forcing the young core into carrying the entire load on both ends. This is one of the biggest reason why the Cavs were 28th in overall net rating.

Winning basketball games is hard. It’s especially so when you can’t count on the same guys to be out there every night. The best ability is availability. Not many Cavaliers were available night in and night out and the results bare that out.

The Cavs need more out of their veterans

Young teams are going to be extremely high variance. One night, Sexton and Garland are going to look great. The next, not so much. That’s normal and part of the growing processes for young players. That’s why it’s almost impossible to rely solely on young guys to carry a team. The Cavs were forced to live and die by the play of their backcourt most nights because of the lack of support from the veterans.

The veterans were hit hardest in injuries, but even when they were playing, they weren’t always great. Love put together his worst season as a professional as he finished the season with next to a career low in points (12.2) and a career low in rebounding (7.4) in the limited games he played. Love also struggled to find his shot as he finished with his second worst true shooting percentage (55.6%) since coming over from Minnesota.

Larry Nance Jr.’s season was somewhat of a mixed bag. His defense was exceptional to start the season as he fit perfectly alongside Andre Drummond on the defensive end (105.5 defensive rating in 445 minutes together) at the start of the season. However, Nance wasn’t able to replicate that same defensive ceiling with Allen. The team struggled on that end when Allen and Nance shared the floor (111.0 defensive rating in 347 minutes) and they appeared to have overlapping skills on the offensive end (101.3 offensive rating).

Nance’s good play on the defensive end was overshadowed by his stagnant offensive game and his fit with some of the young players. Nance simultaneously does too much and not enough on the offensive end. He is a capable ball handler and secondary playmaker as he averaged a solid 3.1 assists per game. However, he falls into the trap of trying to do too much in that department as he averaged a career high in turnovers (1.6) which almost counterbalance his incredible number of steals he got on the other end (1.7). Furthermore, it’s becoming more and more clear that Nance isn’t comfortable shooting the three ball enough to provide spacing. Nance shot a respectable 36.0% from deep, but is still only attempting 3.3 attempts per game. His dip in shooting percentage from the line this season (61.2%) could also indicate that he might not be someone who can consistently hit from distance.

Nance, like almost everyone else on the team, has fit seamlessly alongside Garland. However, the same can’t be said about his fit alongside Sexton and Allen. Sexton and Nance haven’t found a way to easily coexist. At times, it feels like their personalities and playing styles still clash as Nance seems to not fully trust Sexton with the ball. The fit with Allen isn’t perfect as both players are best used in similar spots on the offensive end. A full offseason together could help iron out the differences in Allen and Nance’s game.

The Cavs also needed more out of Cedi Osman this season. The bench desperately needed shooting and someone who could provide energy and secondary playmaking which Osman wasn’t able to deliver until the closing weeks. Osman had his worst shooting season as he finished with .374/.306/.800 shooting splits and an effective field goal percentage of 45.8%. This is in stark contrast with the 38.3% shooting from distance on 4.9 attempts a game he averaged last season.

Osman’s usefulness is almost entirely dependent on his shooting. He’s solid in a lot of areas but isn’t great at anything when his outside shot isn’t falling. Getting back to the player he was in 2019-20 would go a long way in stabilizing a bench unit which was a trouble spot all season.

Young teams like the Hawks and Hornets were able to make it into the playoffs and play-in because they were able to surround their young players with veteran free agents like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and Terry Rozier. A similar path to making that jump is unlikely for the Cavs next season. The Cavs aren’t in a position to add meaningful veterans in free agency outside of the midlevel exception due to their current cap situation.

If Cleveland is going to make a similar jump next season, it will be because Love, Nance, and Osman are able to stay healthy and play up to their standards. If they can’t, the Cavs’ position in the standings most likely won’t improve significantly in 2021-22.

Isaac Okoro has the skills to be special.

Okoro was as good as advertised on the defensive end. The rookie drew the top perimeter defensive assignment every night and did as good as you could expect from someone his age. He showed incredible instincts, speed, and strength on that end which should only improve as he matures.

Conversely, his offensive game was about as rough as advertised. He has good athleticism for his age, but doesn’t have the ball handling or skills to make the most of his athleticism despite showing flashes of being a good finisher around the rim.

Okoro’s defense already makes him a rotation piece on most teams. His ability to influence the game on that end is very impressive. Moderate improvements on the offensive end could catapult him into a different tier of prospects.

The areas he struggles with most on the offensive end are maybe the most fixable. His handle and shot being the two glaring weaknesses. Suring up both will go a long way in determining his overall ceiling. It’ll be interesting to see how he looks next season after he has a full off-season to develop.

Collin Sexton continues to improve.

The third-year guard led the team in scoring (24.3) while boasting the third best true shooting percentage on the team (57.3%) behind only centers Jarrett Allen and Isaiah Hartenstein.

Sexton’s growth this season wasn’t limited to just shooting. He averaged 1.4 more assists this season than he did last (4.4 assists), had a better assist to turnover ratio (1.57 compared to the 1.22 of the previous campaign), and was able to get to the line with much more regularity as his free throw rate (.347 this season compared to .246 last) and free throw attempts per game (6.4 compared to 4.1) both showed sizeable increases. Sexton showed improvement in almost every aspect of his game compared to the previous season.

Sexton is far from a perfect prospect, but he is probably better than many are willing to acknowledge. The things he struggles with most are glaringly obvious and problematic if you want him to be the lead ball handler of your team.

With that said, it’s painstakingly clear that trying to place limits on who Sexton is or could become as a player is foolish. The improvements he’s shown year over year are remarkable and should be celebrated.

Sexton’s future fit with this team is admittedly murky. It’s hard, but not impossible, to build a winning backcourt around two 6’1” guards. That makes any conversation about a future contract extension or what the Cavs should do in the draft difficult. With that aside, Sexton appears to be doing everything in his power to become the best version of himself year after year which is all you can ask of him. I’m excited to see how he can continue to improve over the next several years no matter what his role is in this league.

Darius Garland is the real deal.

Garland flashed all the skills of a future all-NBA point guard this season. He finished his sophomore campaign averaging 17.4 points with .451/.395/.848 shooting splits while averaging 6.1 assists. Garland took his play to another level in the 26 games he played after the all-star break. During that stretch, Garland averaged 18.8 points and 6.3 assists with a 57.0 true shooting percentage and a 2.01 assist to turnover ratio.

Garland was arguably the most valuable Cavalier this season by having a direct impact on winning. The Cavs were 3.6 points per 100 possessions better with Garland on the floor than they were with him off. Garland’s impact is magnified if you look at the games after the all-star break through the last game he started on April 30th. In that stretch, the Cavs were 6.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on than they were with him off.

Garland’s ability to manipulate defenses to get open quality looks for his teammates and himself is why he is so valuable. This shows up most in his ability to generate looks at the rim. A staggering 55.4% of Garland’s assist lead to field goals at the rim.

The most encouraging part of Garland’s game is that it should only get better as his shot profile does. The second-year guard was still hesitant at times to pull it from deep despite shooting 39.5% from three and 35.7% on pull-up threes. He put up only 4.9 attempts from deep a game which was down slightly from the 5.0 he attempted last season.

Garland’s range has the potential to open up all aspects of his game including his playmaking. We saw at times, most notably his 37-point performance in San Antonio, that when he’s pulling from three early and often defenders are forced to closeout hard which open up alleys for him to get to the basket. Averaging 7 or more three-point attempts per game is a realistic goal that he should focus on next season.

The offseason is critical to say the least.

The Cavs were bad this season, but I don’t believe it is a cause for concern overall. Rebuilding is a lengthy process dependent on lottery luck and how quickly the prospects can develop into winning players. The Cavs haven’t had lottery luck so far this rebuild and are doing about as well as you could expect for a team drafting 8th, 5th, and 5th overall. Without lottery luck, the rebuild could continue at least a couple more seasons.

This offseason is crucial for the rebuild. While the Cavs will continue to be bad, they likely won’t be tied for the fourth worst record next season. It’s important that the Cavs nail this draft pick as it will likely be their last best chance at grabbing a franchise changing guy.

The Cavs are in a weird spot with their salary cap. They’ll be forced to lock Jarrett Allen into their future plans this offseason as he will be a restricted free agent. The same will be true for Sexton next offseason and Garland the one after that. Koby Altman will need to figure out if these are the guys the team should be building around sooner rather than later.

I believe that the Cavs should invest in Garland, Okoro, Sexton, and Allen in that order. I believe that they can be the core of a competitive team in the Eastern Conference as they develop and the roster is fleshed out with veterans that compliment that core. However, it’s difficult to picture that core as a championship team unless a few of those core players take leaps that we currently don’t anticipate which is certainly possible.

This is the most crucial draft in this rebuild. Adding a guy who fits around that core could take the potential of this team to another level. Conversely, missing on this pick will limit the ceiling of this team and will likely force the Cavs to supplement the roster with what will likely be lower lottery picks in the coming seasons.

This off-season could make or break the rebuild and ultimately Koby Altman’s career as a general manager. The absurd thing is that it will mostly come down to whether the Cavs get lucky in the lottery. Either way, it should be a very interesting offseason.

Thank you for reading along this season. I appreciate all of the kind comments I’ve received along the way. I can’t wait to do it again next season. Here’s to hoping the ping-pong balls fall our way next month. Go Cavs!