Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are certainly the headliners on the surprising Cavaliers. All three of them are young, core building blocks for the next several years and have shown glimpses of not only playing well, but downright dominating. That has put the Cavs in a very, very good spot.
Coming into this season, though, one of the biggest question marks was the wing position. Cedi Osman, Isaac Okoro and Lauri Markkanen were the more well-known options, though imperfect in their own ways. Osman has been the definition of hot and cold. Okoro is still raw offensively. As for Markkanen, there was fair skepticism that he’d struggled small forward for several reasons, namely defensive ineptitude and unwillingness to punish smaller matchups). And then there was Lamar Stevens.
At just over 24 years old and signed as an undrafted free agent, nobody could blame you for saying that Stevens is not part of the young core Cleveland is cooking up — even if he knows he belongs. But he has taken some real meaningful leaps from last season to become one of the core bench pieces off the bench for the playoff-bound Cavaliers.
Last year, Stevens was a defense-first sort of forward allergic to three-point shots. In fact, 85% of his offensive production came from inside the three-point arc. For the year, he took a whopping 17 three-pointers. He turned the ball over 14.5% of the time and generally did not look comfortable on offense, though truthfully the Cavs as a team were a very frustrating team with the lack of scoring punch. His main purpose was to body up on defense, which he did well with his 6’8” frame. But the offensive side of things is where Lamar needed to improve. The Cavs do not have a roster capable of making up for a net-zero on offense.
This year has been full of surprises for the Cavs, but Stevens’ growth on offense is one that gets passed over. He traded in a healthy diet of mid-range shots last year (42% of his attempts) for more threes and a few more looks at the rim. He gets to the rim 45% of the time, good for the 89th percentile for all wings in the league, and is taking 10% more threes than last year. Even if his 29.4% from deep is sub-par comparatively and below league average, it is significantly better than his 11.8% last season. Just that small change improved his effective field goal percentage and helps space the offense out. Opposing teams may not be sprinting to cover him on the perimeter, but they need to be a little more careful in slouching completely off of him on defense. But what has helped the Cavs is Stevens’ ability to take opponents off the dribble and (sparingly) create for himself.
Stevens uses his good size to punish a mismatch and get to the rim for an easy layup. One dribble from the perimeter and gets inside. In the second clip, he goes coast to coast and again uses his size to bully up to the rim and get the contact for the and-one opportunity. Teams have come to expect Garland running the pick and roll with a big and hoping that works and/or springs another shot opportunity from deep. But Stevens driving and creating a shot look is a good development for everyone.
What version of Stevens is this?! Gets to the same spot in consecutive quarters, a few dribbles, and soft-touch to drain the mid-range jumper. The ability to do, well, really anything off the dribble is valuable for the Cavs. Other than Garland and the injured Collin Sexton, there isn’t really anyone to break down a defense. Okoro is pretty raw in isolation, Allen can operate deep in the post, Markkanen is frustratingly unwilling/unable to punish smaller matchups and now injured for at least a few weeks. Mobley is still pretty reliant on others, though he has shown flashes of beating someone off the dribble, which is terrifying.
Stevens has not turned into James Harden in a few months, make no mistake about that. He has shown incremental change and better tendencies that add up over the course of a season. Getting to comfort spots and using his size to create opportunities is a welcome sight, especially with limited ball handlers on the roster. Markannen’s injury means Stevens (and the seemingly infallible Dean Wade) will be asked to do more on offense whether that be to take more outside shots or create for himself a little. He probably won’t drop a 25-piece, but he is no longer a complete non-factor on the offensive end — at a critical time where the injury-riddled Cavs are struggling a bit to put the ball in the hoop.
There is still a trade to be made, that much is sure. The Cavs are desperately in need of another ball-handler to take some pressure off of Garland. Since Ricky Rubio’s injury, the offense has turned clunky at times with too many turnovers and not enough players able to create for themselves. Lamar Stevens can’t supplement all of those deficiencies, but he won’t make it any worse. The recent stretch of good play has proved that.
(All stats are from Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted and accurate as of Jan. 31 before Cavs-Pelicans)