Expectations were high for Darius Garland coming into the 2022-23 season. Following an All-Star campaign and spearheading the young Cavs to the brink of the postseason, it was clear that Garland was blossoming into not only a formidable point guard in the NBA but a true star.
There are a few caveats to his season. The first is that the addition of Donovan Mitchell forced the Cavs, especially Garland, to adapt. As a result, there were some growing pains as the new backcourt attempted to mesh. The NBA is not so plug-and-play as people think (ask the Big Three Nets, Mavericks post-Kyrie Irving, and Suns pots-Kevin Durant), and the Cavs were no different.
The second is that teams had more film on Garland and had to pay more attention to him as a result. The shooting, elite ball-handling, and budding playmaking capabilities meant teams had to sometimes throw an additional defender at him. Garland was double-teamed on average 13.4 possessions per game, or 25.5% of the time per NBA CourtOptix, both good for 18th-highest in the league. By comparison, Mitchell was not in the top-20, so teams homed in on Garland. The third caveat is that the spacing was a consistent concern for the Cavs all season long. With three non-shooters on the floor this season, the backcourt housed the only reliable shooting threats. That put a lot of pressure on Mitchell and Garland to space the offense every night.
That is not to say that Garland had a disappointing season, unlike those three teams. He still averaged 21.6 points and 7.8 assists per game while shooting the exact same 46.2% from the field with the exact same 53.6% eFG. He even shot better from three-point territory, up to 41% from 38.3% in 2021-22. So why did things still look different this year compared to last? It comes back to adjustments with Mitchell on the floor. Garland exhibited three key changes year-over-year offensively that are worth considering: he took fewer shot attempts at the rim (-3%), fewer three-point attempts (-3%), and more mid-range attempts (+5%) per Cleaning the Glass.
Fewer three-pointers could be a result of several things, but the fact of the matter is that Garland is one of the two best shooters on the roster. He needs to be taking more threes when given the opportunity. The Cavaliers as a team did not generate an exorbitant number of threes, so when one of the best shooters on the roster can get a good look, he needs to take it. The addition of Mitchell meant Garland would lose some shots, but threes should not have been the odd one out.
In that clip, Garland breaks down his defender with the shot clock winding down and gets an open look for three but passes to Evan Mobley instead which resulted in a miss. The Cavaliers were middle of the road in terms of three-pointers attempted, and near the bottom third in the league for corner threes and non-corner threes attempted per Cleaning the Glass. With such little spacing available, Garland cannot be passing up three-point attempts – especially with the shot clock winding down.
Garland taking fewer shots at the rim could have been due to several factors as well. Playing more off-ball while Mitchell handled the rock coupled with some eye and facial injuries probably made Garland think twice before speeding to the rack. His field goal percentage at the rim (57%) was the same as the year before. That put Garland in the 35th percentile among point guards, per Cleaning the Glass. That is only a smidge above the much-maligned Killian Hayes and a smidge below journeyman Ish Smith. However, as with the three-pointers, spacing remains an issue. More shooting threats on the floor mean fewer bodies in the paint and fewer opportunities for Garland to be traversing into flailing arms. A more consistent shooter at the three would have probably cleared the runway for more looks at the rim.
Mid-range shots still reside in a strange place in the NBA lexicon. Some players take them with great efficiency, others are on the other end of the spectrum. Garland is a good shooter in general, so I do not necessarily mind him taking mid-range shots but given his three-point shooting being better one would like to see those shots take some higher priority over middies.
The biggest thing to be seen from the shot charts is in the corners. Isaac Okoro occupied most of the corners for three-pointers, but Garland was shooting 41% from those spots last season. That also presents the problem with Okoro, as his only real threatening shooting spot is that corner, though Garland is certainly more efficient from there. It would have been nice to see the Cavs pump that a bit more, especially given the lack of consistent shooting on the roster. Though the response to that is “Then what do you do with Okoro if he is not in the corner” and to that end…I will let someone else respond.
This review may sound critical of Garland, but it really isn’t. The fact he kept up his All-Star pace, for the most part, while adding a player of Mitchell’s caliber is impressive. Most players would have taken noticeable steps back in terms of production with the addition of a dominating offensive force. But Garland was able to keep up the scoring, improve his three-point shooting, and limit his turnovers (down to 12.2% from 14.5% last season per Cleaning the Glass). His assist numbers took a hit, but it makes sense given the fact Mitchell is also an effective playmaker. Garland was oftentimes the only playmaker on the floor in 2021-22, and the offense cratered without him. This past season he was able to play a lead and complementary role and excelled at both. The offense was a net positive whether he was on the floor with (+8.9 points per 100 possessions) or without (+6.3 points per 100 possessions) Mitchell.
The perceived poor playoff showing will certainly linger for Cavs fans, but it was not as bad as people want to believe. Garland did take a slight hit in shooting (-1% at the rim, -2% at midrange, and -2% from three per Cleaning the Glass), but the concerning area was in turnovers. Garland had the highest turnover rate out of all playoff point guards at 16.1%, and it certainly looked it during those five games against the New York Knicks. His assist numbers also took a big hit in the postseason, but the Cavs' offense left a lot to be desired.
Maybe the evolution for Garland in this backcourt is to be more aggressive as a scorer. Whether the Cavs go into next season with the same lack of spacing or not, it will be imperative that Garland is more willing to take pull-ups and catch-and-shoot threes. Getting to the rim will also come with additional spacing, as defenders will be drawn more out toward the perimeter. But while the poor playoff showing will likely be what people remember the most about this Cavs team, it should not be forgotten that Garland was still quite good during the regular season and maintained an All-Star caliber pace despite the addition of a superstar in the starting lineup.