The Cavs 2020-2021 season has come to a close, somewhat mercifully, and the shadow of a historically important offseason creeps nearer. The team’s front office has a myriad of franchise altering decisions to make, both in the upcoming draft and in handing out new contracts for a couple of their young cornerstones.
At this moment, four players comprise the nervous center of a team looking to compete for a playoff spot next season: Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro and Jarrett Allen. Larry Nance Jr. is around, too, but at age 28, he’s on a bit of a condensed timeline, so we’ll leave him just outside the core.
As the Cavs move forward and attempt to sniff the playoffs for the first time since LeBron’s departure in 2018, let’s break down where each player stands, the good and the bad, as the team moves into a crucial 2021-2022 season.
Let’s begin with the most polarizing player on the Cavs roster, and let’s begin here: What Sexton is doing offensively at just 22 years of age is fairly unprecedented. He has become the definition of a walking bucket, able to score whenever he so desires, all while continually improving his shot profile. He’s rocketed his points per 100 shot attempts up from a dismal 102.6 as a rookie to a sparkling 115.5 in year three, a number that ranks in the 71st percentile for combo guards, per Cleaning The Glass. He shot 50 percent from two and 38 percent from three while hitting 81 percent of his free throws this season. He’s cut way down on the dreaded long midrange jumper he took 381 times as a rookie, slashing that number to just 122 attempts in year three. He possesses the type of acceleration off the dribble that lets him blow by any defender in a one-on-one scenario, and he’s worked to strengthen his body to drive through and absorb contact at the rim. Sometimes Sexton is moving at such a speed on his way to the hoop that defenders become frozen in place.
The glimmer of what he could become happened in an overtime win against the Brooklyn Nets in late January, when Sexton went off for 42 points, a performance that included dotting the eyes of both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant with clutch threes. He was legitimately unstoppable that night.
Unfortunately, we never really saw a complete takeover from Sexton like that again. The biggest question and criticism of Sexton are one in the same: will he ever be more than just a scorer? Can he make enough high-level passing reads to be trusted as the Cavs secondary ball handler and creator in the minutes Darius Garland is on the bench? The Cavs brass need to decided whether or not they want to offer the no. 8 draft pick in the 2018 draft a max contract or not, and these questions continue to linger. So far, the answer has been no.
In the minutes without his running mate, Sexton led the Cavs to just a 103.7 offensive rating. That’s only a tick better than when Garland leads the charge without Sexton (104.3), but the biggest difference comes in the playmaking category. We can use assist-to-usage ratio to look at how often Sexton and Garland dish out an assist relative to how much they have the ball in their hands. When Sexton runs the offense without Garland, his ratio sits at .90, a number that would nestle him between Theo Madelon and Reggie Jackson. When Garland takes the reins, his ratio rockets to 1.33, which would put him in the 70th percentile amongst point guards sandwiched between James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Not bad company.
Sexton has bumped his assists per game up, but many of them are of the relatively simple variety: a handoff to Kevin Love who pulls up for 3, a dump into the post to Jarrett Allen who makes a move before scoring, etc. The stuff you want to see more of, like the clip below, is too far and few between.
Sexton’s speed gives him the ability to blow by his first defender and force the defense into rotation. Here, Sexton keeps his head up on the drive and kicks it out to a wide open Dean Wade for three. These sort of reads, where Sexton finds an open shooter off a drive or out of the pick and roll, simply don’t happen enough.
Sexton’s defense also remains a major disappointment. He’s no longer one of the worst defenders in the NBA like he was as a rookie, but opponents still shoot four percentage points better than their average when guarded by Sexton. By most advanced metrics, Sexton is a pretty big net negative on the defensive side of the ball.
Darius Garland went from “uhhhh can this dude even play?” as a rookie to bonafide building block in his sophomore season. Garland finished with a 48/40/85 line, pushed his assists per game up from 3.9 to 6.1 and quickly morphed into the Cavs primary creator on offense. Garland’s court vision could, at times, make you gasp.
Garland’s ability to manipulate a defense with his handle opens up everything for the Cavs offense. In the pick and roll with Jarrett Allen, Garland can poke and prod long enough to draw the roll defender in just enough before executing a lob for an easy two. His hesitation dribble can collapse a defense and open up the outside for shooters. And when Garland wants to score himself, his handle can unlock that too.
Even more encouraging? Garland can take direction. After attempting just 3.4 threes per game in the month of January, the Cavs coaching staff was practically begging him to pull from deep more often. In the month of April, Garland took 6.5 a game, still not enough, but a significant improvement.
With another offseason under his belt and a (hopefully) elite offensive wing alongside him next season, Garland has positioned himself as the engine to make the Cavs go for the foreseeable future.
While Garland took a huge leap in his second season, there’s plenty to clean up on the offensive end. Namely: cutting down on attempting difficult floaters. In Jackson Frank’s terrific piece on Garland’s growth from earlier this season, he correctly points out that Garland can treat his floater “like a fastball instead of a curveball.” The floater is a fine thing to have in your repertoire, but Garland can still use it as a crutch on possessions where he shows some indecisiveness. It’s a difficult shot type, and Garland doesn’t shoot a high percentage on it.
Garland also has a tendency to drive too deep into the paint without a window to get the ball to a teammate, sometimes throwing it into a crowd under the basket or on the wing in the slim hopes a teammate ends up with it. Garland believes in his own wizardry to a fault on possessions like this:
Hailed as a plus defender whose offense would take time to develop, Isaac Okoro fit his pre-draft scouting report nearly to a T.
Defensively, all signs point to Okoro morphing into a really good perimeter defender. He already knows how to navigate and fight through screens, and his one-on-one defense is as good as you could hope for from a rookie. Okoro faced the eighth-toughest average defensive assignment in the LEAGUE in year one, guarding everyone from Devin Booker to Ben Simmons to Steph Curry. It wasn’t always pretty, but when it was clicking, it led to moments like this:
We knew Okoro would be raw offensively, but just how raw was a bit of a surprise. There were games early on when it felt like the Cavs were playing four-on-five on one end of the court because of Okoro’s limitations. He’d frequently drive to the rim with no plan of what to do once he got there, often simply tossing the ball in the vicinity of the basket and hoping it went in. Okoro shot just 52 percent at the rim on the season, which ranked in the 31st percentile for wings, per Cleaning The Glass. Not good!
His outside shot remains a major work in progress, too. He shot 29.1 percent from deep as a rookie, a number worse than Hamidou Diallo, a player whose career thus far has been one giant “If only he could shoot!” If Okoro wants to push his ceiling as high as it can go, he’s is going to have to get into the mid-30s on three-pointers.
There are some encouraging signs, though, especially over the last month of the season. Okoro actually shot 36 percent from the corner on threes, and from April 15th on bumped his field goal percentage at the rim up to 58 percent. Still not good, but at least approaching passable!
The Cavs also played at one of the slowest paces in the NBA, limiting Okoro’s opportunities in transition where he absolutely thrives. It’s more than reasonable to expect more chances on the break for Okoro next season, and an all around offensive jump as well.
Allen has been as advertised ever since the Cavs snared him as part of the three team trade that eventually sent James Harden to Brooklyn. Allen is an elite pick and roll partner for Darius Garland, a great screen setter and a dominant rebounder. He’s a lob threat on the roll at all times, and he Garland developed some really strong chemistry with their two-man game in a short amount of time. Allen shot 63.4 percent on field goals as the roll man in the PnR, per NBA Stats, and averaged a robust 1.16 points per possession.
He made an instant impact defensively, too, with opponents shooting 2.6 percent worse than their average on field goals that Allen defended, per NBA Stats. He’s only 23 years old and should be a double-double machine going forward.
While Allen is elite at what he does offensively, he remains incredibly limited on that end. He’s unable to create his own shot if the ball is thrown to him in the post, and his jumper is a work in progress: he shot just 43 percent from midrange in 50 games with the Cavs. It also remains to be seen if Allen can stretch his game out past the three point line. He did shoot 35 percent from beyond, but only attempted 17 threes all season. Allen is a restricted free agent this offseason, which means the Cavs have the ability to match any offer he gets from another team. But how much the team wants to shell out for a big man that’s this limited offensively is more complex than it appears.
And even though Allen is a top tier rebounder, he can go through stretches in which he is too easily moved out of the way for crucial rebounds. His sinewy frame can only absorb so much contact, and Allen would do well to add on a few more pounds of muscle going into next season. He can be moody on the court, too, and that can occasionally affect his effort level.