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What we learned about the Cleveland Cavaliers this week: Feb. 21 - 27

The Cavs somehow exit all-star break more injured than they entered it.

Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

The Cavs split their two games this week with a loss to the Detroit Pistons and a win over the Washington Wizards.

The biggest loss of the week came with the news that Darius Garland, Caris LeVert and Rajon Rondo are all injured. The Cavs will probably be playing without any of their three primary initiators for at least their next four games. This leaves recent 10-day signee Tim Frazier and two-way players Brandon Goodwin and RJ Nembhard Jr. as the only primary ball handlers on the roster.

Here’s what we learned this week.

The Cavs are in a bad place.

Koby Altman and company have built a flawed team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen and Isaac Okoro are not well rounded players. They all have specific elite skills, but obvious holes in their games. However, when they are paired with Evan Mobley — who can do a little bit of everything — and great guard play, they are an elite team. Mobley and Garland have the ability to both cover up for the other starter’s holes while amplifying their strengths. This is why the Cavs are 12-4 with that starting five and are outscoring opponents by an outstanding 13.8 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor together.

The Cavs do not have the same level of success when one of their starters is missing. Their loss is exaggerated given how much each player’s individual success depends on their fit within the rest of the starting lineup. Garland is irreplaceable due to his unique offensive skills. Losing the rest of the regular guard rotation just adds to this while also forcing players into roles they aren’t suited to perform.

The Cavs are less than the sum of their parts as currently situated. They don’t have anyone who can consistently break down defenses off the dribble or get the ball to the bigs in a position to score. Any win without NBA level guard play is a tall order no matter the opponent.

Isaac Okoro’s defense stopped the Cavs free fall.

It’s difficult to overstate how good Okoro’s defense was on Kyle Kuzma during Saturday’s win. Mobley was the primary defender on Kuzma for most of the first three quarters and had a tough time staying with Kuzma on the perimeter. As a result, Kuzma was 8 for 10 from distance after three quarters with 26 points.

That changed in the fourth when Isaac Okoro took on the primary defensive role. Kuzma finished with just 6 points in the fourth while shooting 1-3 with Okoro as the primary defender. Shutting down Kuzma was a big reason why the Wizards were held to just 2 points during the final 5 minutes of the fourth.

Defense is much harder to talk about than offense. There aren’t as many stats to measure how good of an individual or team defender someone is. Elite defense, however, will always stand out. Okoro’s defense on Kuzma in the fourth quarter transformed the game and turned a sure loss into a win. It was elite.

The Cavs path to wins without Garland is playing tough, defensive minded games. Okoro will need to continue to play elite perimeter defense like this to ensure the Cavs don’t sink too far in the standings over the next few weeks.

It’s fair to expect more out of Isaac Okoro offensively.

The Cavs need ball handlers who can attack defenses off the dribble and create for others. It’s natural to expect the starting two guard for most of the season to provide some help in those areas with the Cavs lack of healthy guards. Unfortunately, they haven’t gotten much offensive production from Okoro. The second year-guard is averaging 9 points and 1.7 assists on 47.8% shooting in the seven games he’s played without Garland since January 31st.

There was talk before the season, and specifically Summer League, of Okoro taking a more central role in the offense in an on-ball role. That simply hasn’t materialized or appear to be pursued at all. His offensive role has remained unchanged in Garland’s absence as the on-ball playmaking has mostly been handled by an aging Rondo when healthy, Brandon Goodwin and Cedi Osman.

JB Bickerstaff has done his best to keep player’s roles similar no matter who’s in the lineup which makes it no surprise that Okoro’s role hasn’t changed much. That said, it remains disappointing that the starting two-guard is not able to shoulder much if any of the offensive playmaking burden considering the amount of injuries they’re currently dealing with.

Lauri Markkanen’s fourth quarter performances are keeping the offense afloat.

Markkanen has been the Cavs best offensive player since the all-star break. His fourth quarter offense over the last two games gave the Cavs a chance to win both as he combined for 20 fourth quarter points on 46.7% shooting from the field and 50% shooting from deep. Markkanen has been the Cavs second highest fourth quarter scorer this season as he’s averaging 4.3 points while shooting 38.5% from three.

Markkanen isn’t someone who can necessarily create offense for himself. He is mostly an outside shooter who can finish inside over smaller defenders if given the ball in the right spot. As a result, 81% of his made field goals are assisted which is the highest percentage on the team among regular rotation players.

The Cavs have done a good job of giving Markannen ample opportunities to create offense in the fourth quarter and he’s making the most of it. The below play is one of my favorite examples of how the Cavs used Markannen’s outside shooting to create easy offense.

This is just a simple dribble hand-off with Allen. Markannen comes around the screen hard forcing Kuzma to come up and contest a midrange shot. Allen ducks to the rim and Markkanen is able to find him for an easy basket.

The Cavs need to continue to find ways to use Markkanen’s three point and midrange shooting (47% on long 2’s) to jumpstart the offense. It’s hard to find a silver lining with Garland out of the lineup, but it’s possible this gives Markkanen the opportunity to expand his role in an offense he hasn’t always looked comfortable in.

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