The Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled to find a fifth person to go along with the core four of Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen.
Lauri Markkanen was the perfect fit for the Cavs. His streaky but solid performance last season combined with his ascension when surrounded with pieces that fit his game with the Utah Jazz illustrate how difficult it can be to coexist offensively with two non-shooting bigs and a smaller guard who struggles to finish in the paint. The Cavs also needed someone who could provide versatility to cover up for the smaller backcourt while spending the majority of the time guarding the opponent’s best wings which frees up the front court to rove off-ball and protect the rim.
Markkanen provided that last season as lineups with him, Allen, Mobley and Garland produced an 11.4 net rating (net rating is a measure of a team’s point differential per 100 possessions while a certain player/lineup is on the floor). The trio without Markkanen only produced a net rating of 0.3.
The challenge of finding proper pieces to work with any combination of the starters becomes harder when you throw Mitchell into the mix. The wings must now cover up the defensive mistakes of two smaller guards while playing even more off-ball with the addition of another gifted high-usage scorer. Essentially, the Cavs need someone who can do more with even less.
J.B. Bickerstaff has experimented with three different starting lineups in the eight games the quartet has started while not finding success with any group. Caris LeVert, Isaac Okoro and Lamar Stephens have spent time rotating in and out of the starting lineup. Lineups with LeVert are the only ones to get a large enough sample size to draw any sort of conclusions from. The Cavs have posted a -4.3 net rating, a 105.4 offensive rating and a 109.7 defensive rating with LeVert as the fifth starter in 222 possessions.
It’s expected that Dean Wade jumps into the starting lineup when healthy, but the Cavs do need to find rotation wings to play with members of the quartet, even if they aren’t starting, and provide solid minutes off the bench. The Cavs simply haven’t been able to have that outside of Kevin Love.
Cleveland’s bench is currently averaging 28.4 points per game which is good for 28th in the league. Most of those points can be attributed to Love who is averaging 11.1 points as a reserve. The rest of the bench/rotating starters have produced the below numbers.
Individual lineup data can be difficult to draw definitive conclusions from. There are many different factors that go into it as the individual player is only one of ten on the floor affecting team performance. That said, it can be useful when used in context to show how a player’s skillset fits with what the rest of the team needs.
Wade’s performance jumps out immediately. He hasn’t played much due to injuries or logged any minutes with the starting four, but his skillset jumps out as something the Cavs need. He can provide useful off-ball scoring while providing solid defense and rebounding. It’ll be interesting to see how that skill set fits with the starters once he returns. Theoretically, Wade should be a perfect fit.
Osman’s on/off numbers also jump off the table. The offense has been 19 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. His ability to space the floor while moving off-ball is one of the biggest reasons why that is the case. Osman is shooting 38.8% from distance this season with 15.8% of his makes coming unassisted which puts him in the 72nd percentile among wings. This shows that Osman is comfortable with catch-and-shoot and unassisted threes when the opportunity presents itself.
The defense is always the red flag with Osman and is why he can’t be considered for a role over 25 minutes per game. Though he’s providing better effort on the defensive end, Osman still has the ability to get lost off-ball (screen navigation is a big issue) as he is often too aggressive trying to create steals. The on-ball defense is even more concerning as he doesn’t use his 6’ 8” frame to his advantage as you’d hope. This is accurately reflected in opponents scoring 111.2 points per 100 possessions while he is on the floor.
That said, Osman still helps the defense in tangible ways. Cleveland has the seventh-best offense and the fifth-best defense despite being a poor transition team on both ends. Only 13.8% of the Cavs’ offensive possessions are in transition which is the 27th fewest in the league. Conversely, opponents are running 17.3% of their plays in transition which is the second-highest percentage against in the league. The Cavs are allowing 1.23 points per transition opportunity which is slightly better than the league average, but giving up that many opportunities have cost them repeatedly.
Osman’s ability to make the offense more functional helps the transition numbers on both ends. The Cavs are getting out in transition on 14.8% of offensive possessions and limiting opponents to transition opportunities to 15.6% of their possessions when Osman is on the floor. Being able to force turnovers and protect the ball is the biggest reason why that is the case.
Osman’s presence allows the Cavs to play a more functional offense. This results in fewer turnovers. The Cavs are turning the ball over in only 12.8% of their offensive possessions with him on the floor as opposed to the 15.7% they are without him. We saw numerous examples of why this is the case against the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night.
Garland and Mitchell were forced to create everything to keep the offense afloat against Charlotte. This resulted in a combined 75 points, 12 assists and 14 turnovers. Most of these turnovers came when trying to force the issue to create good looks for the bigs in a stagnant offense. An offense can get stagnant quickly when you have two non-shooting bigs and someone the defense doesn’t respect in Stevens or Okoro. Osman’s ability to move off-ball, his gravity as a shooter and his ability to provide supplemental ball handling keeps the offense flowing which helps prevent the guards from getting in ruts like this as seen in the numbers.
Osman has seen his minutes sharply decline during the Cavs’ six-game stretch of poor play. LeVert, Okoro and Stevens have soaked up Osman’s minutes despite combining to average 17.5 points while shooting 37.9% from the field in 65.2 minutes per game during this time period. None of the three players mentioned have a positive net rating. Meanwhile, Osman has registered just 14.6 minutes per game in the last six games which are down from the 23.4 he was averaging when the Cavs jumped out to an 8-1 record.
Giving Osman more minutes doesn’t solve all of the Cavs problems. But, his play over the last six contests hasn’t warranted a deduction of nearly nine minutes per game while the trio of LeVert, Okoro and Stevens have produced abhorrent offense and not made up for it with their defense.
The roster construction makes this an incredibly tough team to play the wing for. Throwing in four suboptimal fits makes figuring out combinations that work together challenging. That said, the Cavs had rotations in the first nine games that worked with Osman having his minutes closely tied to Mitchell’s which produced some incredible results (11.2 net rating with a 127.8 offensive rating in 313 possessions). Going away from that upon Garland’s return and Wade’s injuries is not a decision that passes the eye or numbers test.
The Cavs will likely be forced to make do with this current wing rotation. There are not many moves Koby Altman and company can make that would significantly improve this current group given the lack of available assets. Any move for another wing will likely be another imperfect fit which will cause a longer adjustment period for Bickerstaff to figure out what works. That doesn’t seem palatable at this point.
Osman is a streaky player who isn’t a perfect fit. But the Cavs need what he brings. How he found his way completely out of the rotation has become a perennial occurrence since Bickerstaff has taken over. Unlike previous years, the Cavs have the skills to compete at the top of the conference. That however will require the Bickerstaff to maximize the periphery of the roster to find suitable fits with the core four. It’s tough to argue that he has done that as the Cavs continue to throw away fourth quarter leads with poor offensive execution and few adjustments made.