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The Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff hopes hinge on their bench

The Core Four is really good, but the bench is pivotal to making it out of the first round.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers seemed like a surefire team to make a move at the NBA trade deadline. Bolstered with the expiring contract of Caris LeVert and some other fringe salaries like Cedi Osman and Dylan Windler, the front office appeared poised to find some bench depth for a playoff run. Instead, the Cavs doubled down on what they had — and even thinned the bench a little more.

But as the season escapes the doldrums of January and February and teams look toward playoff seeding, the stakes start to get raised. Rotations are tightened. Coaches establish floor combinations. Games between two teams at the top of their respective conferences are more like chess matches, with tactical substitutions.

The problem is the Cavs are a little behind in the class of contenders in that regard. In 75% of their games, Cleveland can blitz their opponent and win with sheer talent. In the other 25%, the starters are pushed more and the bench becomes a big factor. In the playoffs, the Cavs are going to be playing that 25% every game. But they are no closer to figuring out the bench rotation than they were at the trade deadline, and possibly since the beginning of the season. That may come back to haunt them.

When the Cavs extended Dean Wade in September on a three-year $18.5 million deal, it was a sign that he was going to be a meaningful rotation piece. When the Cavs kept LeVert and his $18.8 million past the deadline, it was a sign that the team felt comfortable with what he provided. When the Cavs bought out Kevin Love and allowed him to go to another Eastern Conference contender, it was a sign that the front office was content with their bench shooting and veteran leadership. But those signs appear a bit misguided.

In his last ten games, Wade is shooting 13.3% from three and 21.7% overall. It does not matter that he has active hands and can scoop up some rebounds, that is unplayable. The Celtics left Wade wide open in the clip below and he just thudded his shot attempt off the backboard.

The problem is the Cavs need to start seeing improvement quickly. While the defense with him on the court is strong (90th percentile per Cleaning the Glass), the offense leaves much to be desired. Wade is primarily a three-point shooter, but when he is not hitting, he offers little else. He’s shooting 15% on just 15 mid-range shot attempts and has only attempted 29 shots at the rim. Wade is also passing up shots, including a wide-open layup against the Celtics. The confidence is lacking, and maybe the shoulder is still bothering him, but right now there is no way the Cavs can continue to give Wade meaningful minutes. Danny Green has more value right now as a shooter than Wade and should be higher in the pecking order.

While Wade has struggled, Cedi Osman has fluctuated from rotation mainstay to out of the picture. He only scored double-digit points twice in the month of February but did shoot 37% from deep (only 38% overall). Osman also has the – wait for it – best +/- on the roster at +4.9 per Cleaning the Glass. He can drive to the basket, get out in transition, and has a quick trigger. He was outstanding on a nationally-televised game against the Memphis Grizzlies, demonstrating the offensive skillset the Cavs need more consistently.

Osman is shooting 44% on corner three-points this season, one spot above Jayson Tatum per Cleaning the Glass. Here he demonstrates the quick trigger.

No hesitation from Osman, as he just needs a smidge of daylight off the pass from Ricky Rubio. Osman has twice as many three-point shot attempts as Wade in their last ten games, which already gives him some value. The issue is defense, and Cedi is a net negative on that end. He may not be able to survive in a playoff series because of that. But when teams are bombing away from three, and the Cavs are 26th in opposing three-point field goal percentage, Osman could help. Especially if Wade is not going to shoot.

Speaking of Rubio, he has not seemed quite right this season. Coming off a major knee injury and being on the wrong side of 30 years old is tough, but the Cavs were banking on him being closer to what he was last season. He’s in the first percentile for guards in points per shot attempt and effective field goal percentage — right next to TyTy Washington who is dead last in both per Cleaning the Glass. His three-point percentage overall has cratered (30%), as has his efficiency at the rim (again in the first percentile). It is clear his burst is not there, he is not getting to the rim as often, and the offense is -7.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Given the age and injury history, there is a distinct possibility Rubio is just not going to be what he was last season.

Lamar Stevens is the personification of the Junkyard Dog, and boy it is challenging to not see the benefit of that. The problem is his shooting is never going to be consistent, and the Cavs need that. His most valuable skillset is rebounding, defense, and effort toward the little things. Against Boston, Stevens willed the Cavs back into it by playing tough and fighting for rebounds on a night when they looked like zombies. He had eight boards in 17 minutes of game time and included some big offensive rebounds.

There is something about Stevens that is tough to ignore. He has the fifth-best rebounding percentage on the team per Cleaning the Glass, which is valuable given that the Cavs are surprisingly not great at it despite having two excellent big men. That is definitely worth something, but Stevens needs to have shooting and creation next to him on the floor. Right now, you have to be playing Stevens over Wade purely because he can provide something on the floor. In the playoffs, Stevens has more value than Wade or Cedi assuming they are not hitting from deep.

Caris LeVert is the wild card off the bench. The Cavs are not as efficient with him on the court (-5.3 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning the Glass), though lately, he has been better defensively in sticking with guys and navigating screens. He is just difficult to build lineups around given his lack of an outside shot and inefficiencies everywhere else, but he does provide some playmaking and the occasional scoring outburst. Perhaps putting LeVert in the starting lineup, where he can be hidden a little easier defensively and the superstar backcourt can spread the offense, is the way to go. But that is mostly kicking the can down the road, as Isaac Okoro off the bench still presents problems. Not moving on from LeVert for someone like Tim Hardaway Jr., which seemed like a possibility, appears like the wrong decision right now. At least Hardaway does a thing (outside shooting) pretty well. That would have been valuable on this roster and made lineup-building a little easier.

The Cavs really need more from their bench this season, and most definitely next season when the stakes are raised. Barring some 180-degree turns from the names mentioned above, the Cavs bench will likely be what it is — a bit of a misfit group that does not quite fit together. It might be the reality of this season, and the Cavs' playoff run this year is going to be dictated by the bench’s ability to keep up. Right now, I think there is plenty of reason to be pessimistic about their immediate ceiling.