Playoff basketball is back in the Land as the Cleveland Cavaliers take on the New York Knicks in round one of the 2023 NBA Playoffs. But which Cavaliers belong on the floor in this highly anticipated matchup?
The core four of Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley will be expected to play heavy minutes. It’s safe to assume Isaac Okoro will join them in the starting lineup — if he is available to play.
After that? It’s unclear.
Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has experimented with his second unit all season. It was a constant mix-and-match affair on the back end of the rotation. Ricky Rubio, Cedi Osman, Lamar Stevens, Dean Wade, Danny Green, Robin Lopez, Raul Neto and Danny Green have all played and gone in and out of getting regular minutes.
The Cavs bench played the fifth fewest minutes this season, finishing 30th in points per 100 possessions on the fourth-worst field goal percentage. Their lack of firepower required Bickerstaff to work on a tight leash. Cleveland’s depth is a giant question mark in a series against a well-rounded team like the Knicks. Who, by the way, have a deep bench.
With the bulk of the weight resting on the starter’s shoulders, who can be trusted to spring off the Cleveland bench in round one?
Caris LeVert will be in the rotation
The Cavs’ only silver bullet on the bench has come in the form of Caris LeVert, who has cemented himself as Cleveland’s sixth man. He has accepted every challenge asked of him, shifting his game from being a mid-range-oriented scorer to a more prototypical three-and-d wing.
LeVert had attempted 130+ field goals from 10-16 feet in each of his last three seasons, before dropping that number to just 86 this year. Rather than being a square peg in a round hole, LeVert ditched his go-to shot and became more of a floor spacer. He drilled a career-high 127 three-pointers this season on a career-high 39.2% clip.
This was not an easy transition for LeVert — breaking bad habits rarely is. But even after shooting just 30.8% from deep in December, LeVert survived the trade deadline and hit his stride, averaging 12.5 points on 50/46/74 shooting splits during the final stretch of the season.
His efficient scoring comes during a season where LeVert has been at his best defensively. He’s fit alongside the rest of the Cavaliers as a serviceable point-of-attack defender, recording a steal in 13 straight games for the first time in his career.
LeVert’s two-way play has become integral to Cleveland’s second unit and there is no doubt he will be relied upon during round one.
Dean Wade and Cedi Osman will be x-factors
Mitchell, Garland and LeVert will most likely eat the bulk of Cleveland’s backcourt minutes. (Mitchell and Garland seem likely to play 40-plus minutes a night.) As for the wing, it’s less certain who will receive consistent minutes.
Dean Wade in the running to start at the three to start the year. He’s the closest thing to a traditional spot-up shooter on the wing and his defensive contributions are more reliable than his counterparts. This hypothetical version of Wade never truly took shape, though with injuries and cold spells taking him out of the rotation entirely for a stretch in March.
Wade received his fair share of DNPs before finally getting another chance in the final week of the season. His time off seemed to help Wade hit the rest button, returning with more confidence and clipping 7-18 (38.9%) of his three-point attempts to close the season. He also hauled in 4.0 rebounds per game during this stretch, reminding Cleveland of his value on the glass.
In a series where rebounding has taken center stage, Wade could be an x-factor. The Knicks rank second in offensive rebounding while the Cavaliers placed 29th in defensive rebound percentage after the All-Star break. The battle of the glass could decide the series and an above-average rebounder at the wing could tip the scales for Cleveland.
The looming question is Wade’s assertiveness. He has a tendency to disappear on the floor, turning down shots and straying away from attacking the basket. If Wade wants to stay in the rotation, he’ll have to continue unloading the chamber when his number is called.
Turning down shots won’t be a problem for Cedi Osman. Anyone who has watched Osman play over the years understands the disparity in shooting he can provide on any given night. At times he is a train wreck, and other times, he’s leading a one-man Cavalanche behind his three-point bombs.
The Cavaliers have struggled to find shooting outside of their two guards for most of the year. Cleveland finished the year 16th in threes per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, New York placed 6th in three-pointers per 100 possessions after the All-Star break. This series could turn into a shootout at any point and Cedi could be a difference-maker.
Osman shot 37.2% from deep this season but is still as unpredictable as ever. A hot stretch from Osman could open things up for Cleveland and give New York trouble. The opposite would likely send Osman straight to Bickerstaff’s. And that’s assuming Bickerstaff trusts him defensively.
Lamar Stevens is an energy booster
Winning in the playoffs requires some creativity. In a potentially long series against the Knicks, throwing a curve ball by inserting Lamar Stevens into the lineup could give Cleveland a jolt of energy.
Stevens is the embodiment of the junkyard dog mentality his team boasts. He makes the most of every opportunity, such as his career-high 6 offensive rebounds in just 17 minutes against the Boston Celtics earlier this year.
The Knicks are a tough, physical basketball team. Steven's 6’6”, 230-pound build will make him useful in spot minutes for the Cavs. He does not have the same three-point shooting or playmaking as other members of the bench — but he has heart, and that can be all it takes to shift the momentum of a playoff game.
Will Ricky Rubio stick?
The Cavaliers re-signed Ricky Rubio this offseason due to the valiant production he provided them last season. Rubio averaged 13.1 points and 6.6 assists as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate before an ACL injury cut his season short.
Cleveland hoped for a full recovery that would slot Rubio back into the lineup with enough time to ramp up for the playoffs. While the latter is true, with Rubio making his debut in January, the ramp-up process has not gone as planned.
Rubio is posting just 5.2 points per game on 34.3% shooting from the floor, the third-worst in the entire NBA (minimum 175 field goal attempts). His vanishing jump shot has made Rubio a liability for a team that already struggles for bench points.
The veteran guard’s bread-and-butter is his playmaking. Rubio still posts one of the best assist percentages in the NBA but his talent is losing value next to LeVert, who is providing Cleveland’s bench with enough shot creation and playmaking of his own.
Rubio will likely receive a chance at proving his worth in the playoffs given his status as Cleveland’s oldest rotation player (Robin Lopez and Danny Green excluded). But with his offensive limitations and shakey mobility on defense, Rubio could find himself on the bench for most of this series.
Danny Green brings emergency offense
Green, a three-time NBA champion, is in his 14th NBA season and fresh off a torn ACL in last year’s playoffs. He’s an aging vet but he still has all of the skills Cleveland needs on the bench.
In the Cavs’ second to last game of the year, Green entered the lineup and drilled 5-of-9 three-point attempts against the Orlando Magic. While his mobility is a major cause for concern on defense — there is no question Green can still shoot the lights out.
With high-powered guards such as Jalen Brunson and Immanuel Quickley on the other end of the aisle, it feels like a long shot that Green will be able to hang defensively for long stretches in this series at the point of attack. However, a quick burst of three-point shooting when it’s needed most makes Green an interesting tool for J.B. Bickerstaff. I’d be surprised if Green was not deployed in case of emergency at some point in the playoffs.
Raul Neto can be the unsung hero
The back end of the rotation rarely gets the credit it deserves in the NBA. Raul Neto has been the definition of a role player, occasionally stepping into the lineup and holding his own each time.
Neto shot a career-high 51.8% from the floor this season, serving as a trustworthy decision-maker when the team needed him. He has scrapped and fought on the defensive end, too, making him everything you want from a third-string guard.
The Cavaliers should not plan on straying too far from Garland, Mitchell and LeVert in the backcourt. But staggering those three means giving spot minutes to Rubio and potentially, Neto. If and when his opportunity comes, Neto could easily establish himself as a more dependable backup than Rubio at this point in his career.
Robin Lopez is on the outside looking in
Aside from bringing immaculate vibes as a standout teammate, Robin Lopez has not brought much value to the court. Sure, he is still a seven-footer who can set bone-crushing screens, grab rebounds and contest shots in the paint... but that is only when he is not being left in the dust by quicker opponents.
Lopez’s ability to slide his feet and stay in front at the NBA level has quickly dissipated. His on/off numbers are the thing of nightmares with Cleveland drastically outperforming in any lineup that doesn’t feature the lumbering 35-year-old vet. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Cavaliers are -18.9 points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the court, the worst of any roster player to total more than 100 minutes this season.
With Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley handling the paint, Lopez is unlikely to see the floor during this series. If Lopez makes his way to the scorer's table, something has either gone drastically wrong or fantastically great for Cleveland — as the game is almost certainly out of reach one way or another.