The Cleveland Cavaliers may have been one of the feel-good stories of the NBA regular season but, after a disappointing finish to the season, they must move on to figuring out how to take the next step.
Keeping their lottery pick helps the situation, maybe. Seeing massive growth from Darius Garland was essential. Evan Mobley and Jarret Allen not only work well together but are a dynamic defensive duo. That is all well and good, but there is a very important, potentially difficult decision looming. After missing most of last season with a knee injury, Collin Sexton is due for a contract extension. So is the person they acquired to try and replace his production, Caris LeVert.
LeVert was mostly a disappointment in his time with the Cavs. When he did play, he was mostly a ball stopper - possessions often ended with him putting up a shot. His effective field goal percentage of 48.1 was tied for a career-low and he was uncharacteristically poor shooting at the rim (59%, his lowest since 2019-20) per Cleaning the Glass. The Cavs were -2.5 points per 100 possessions with LeVert on the floor, while the Pacers were +2.9 with him on the floor just a few months prior. In fact, nearly all of his shooting numbers were down after the move from Indiana, including a career-low 31% on three-pointers.
To be fair, the near-immediate foot injury he suffered after the trade did not allow him to get enough time to mesh with his new teammates — not a great outcome for a team that desperately needed some scoring. When the Cavaliers were gasping for air at the end of the season, LeVert failed to come in and do the thing he was traded for: score the basketball. Collin Sexton, prior to his injury, was able to do just that, with a worse supporting cast around him.
The Cavaliers have an interesting decision to make. Sexton says he wants to stay in Cleveland, for what it’s worth. LeVert said that wants to stay in Cleveland too.
Unfortunately, the Cavs saw LeVert’s two major negatives: lack of efficiency and poor durability. Sexton may be coming off a major knee injury, but he is younger and has a clean bill of health coming into the season. LeVert is more than likely going to be on the roster to start the season, but he will be on an expiring contract ($18.7 million) and would certainly have some interest around the league albeit with a less than stellar return..
Sexton only played in 11 games and 140 possessions with Garland, Markkanen, Mobley, and Allen. That lineup was a +2.1 with a defense in the 97th percentile per Cleaning the Glass. The same lineup except with Dean Wade over Lauri (76 possessions) was a +8.8 with a dramatically better offense. Encouraging, but not a lot of data to go off of. The defensive brilliance of Mobley and Allen together glues most lineups together and are versatile enough to flip onto the perimeter when needed.
Comparing Sexton and LeVert is difficult, but the best route could be to look at LeVert in 2021-2022 and Sexton in 2020-2021 because they both appeared in roughly 60 games (58 for LeVert, 60 for Sexton), averaged more than 30 minutes per game (30.7 for LeVert, 35.3 for Sexton), and had relatively comparable usage rates (28.4 for LeVert, 29.6 for Sexton.
Sexton averaged 24.4 points per game versus LeVert’s 17 on roughly four more shot attempts per game. Their assists, steals, and rebounds per game were nearly identical for both players. One key difference, which may be mitigated with Sexton playing more off-ball, is the turnover numbers. Sexton averaged about one extra turnover per game than LeVert, though the former had to carry significantly more of the offensive burden than the latter. Displayed visually, Sexton was actually better across the board in pretty much every major shooting category:
If the Cavaliers move forward and give a big extension to Sexton, that sets the core in stone. He figures to be inked into the shooting guard role, alongside Garland. Isaac Okoro is probably better suited to play the two than the three, but defense is necessary if Garland and Sexton share the court, and Okoro is a hound on that front. Okoro’s offense is a concern, though he improved his three-point shooting from 28.9% as a rookie to 35.3% in year two. Still, he is not a reliable scoring option right now. Regardless of who the Cavs commit to between Sexton or LeVert, they really need one of them, Okoro, or Mobley to take a step forward when it comes to outside shooting. Given the ages of those players, I would not bet on LeVert being able to do that at this stage in his career. He is what he is.
The best course of action may be to just swallow the pill of the LeVert trade and move on, allowing the front office to give Sexton an extension. The two sides discussed a deal prior to last season but failed to come to an agreement. The Cavs should be motivated to get it done now, especially seeing firsthand that Sexton would have solved several of the offense’s deficiencies. He brings speed and athleticism with a similar shot profile to LeVert, while being four years younger and with a more favorable injury history.
The finances of it all will be tough to manage, and the Cavaliers are quickly going to be expensive with impending extensions for Garland and Mobley. Love comes off the books after the upcoming season but, that space will be filled almost instantly. Between Garland, Mobley, Allen, Markannen, Sexton, and/or LeVert, the front office will be having to do some nifty cap gymnastics to keep the renaissance moving.
Moving Markannen could be on the table, but his ability to stretch the floor is imperative barring moves to bring in other shooters. Love as an expiring contract was once something the front office could not wait for, but his comeback season and effectiveness off the bench perhaps change the calculus. Trading LeVert is also a possibility, but the Cavaliers would almost certainly be selling low on him and will not recoup what they gave up. It will be a blemish, but not one Cleveland cannot recover from. The hard truth is that there will not be enough room to keep everyone, so some tough decisions will have to be made. The first one is already here.