The Cleveland Cavaliers have a collection of young players that will serve of the cornerstones of their rebuild soon. How are they doing so far?
We’re only about 40 percent of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season, but for some teams, it’s pretty clear that the truly competitive portion of the year is over. When you’re 10-plus games below .500 and have four or even five teams to jump just to make it back to the No. 8 seed, it seems safe to say that a real run at something even vaguely resembling contention is off the table.
That’s a disappointment for some teams, but for others, it’s largely what was expected anyway. For the latter group, it’s important to monitor the progress of the players they identified as potentially part of the team’s next wave of contention — the 25-and-under guys that they’d ideally like to be around for multiple years, helping build a foundation for the future.
To me, the most interesting of those teams to check in on at the moment is the Cleveland Cavaliers. For my entire adult life, the Cavs have vacillated between being an inner-circle title contender and completely irrelevant in the NBA landscape — depending on whether or not LeBron James was on the roster. If LeBron is ever on the Cavs again, it’s unlikely to be during a portion of his career where his presence on the roster alone essentially guarantees contention, so the Cavs have to figure out a way to get there on their own.
With that in mind, let’s walk through the 25-and-under players on Cleveland that A) are under contract beyond this year and B) have been valued by the team as contributors this season. (We’ll identify the latter criteria as having played more than a de minimis number of minutes.) There are obviously other ways the Cavs can get themselves where they want to go in the future (i.e. next year’s draft, trading Kevin Love and/or Tristan Thompson, etc.), but this group — plus Dylan Windler, who has yet to play this season — is what they have to work with right now.
Cedi Osman seems to have settled in as a role player who could best be described as acceptable. He’s neither very good nor very bad at anything, and though he does have a below-average rebound rate for his size (and it’s been trending downward throughout his career), it’s entirely possible that’s due to playing so often alongside Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love, who do most of the rebounding for the Cavs.
Osman’s average-to-slightly-above-average 3-point shooting has held pretty steady throughout his three-year career thus far, as he hit 36.8 percent as a rookie, 34.8 percent as a sophomore and 36.4 percent this year. For a low-usage combo forward whose offensive contributions are largely limited to spot-ups, cuts and transition opportunities, that’s a clip the team can live with.
Concerningly, however, Osman has seen his at-rim finishing drop with each successive season. He’s done a decent enough job getting to the rim (at least 25 percent of his shots have come within three feet of the basket in each of his three seasons), but you definitely don’t want to see a player go from converting 76.1 percent to 60.3 to 58.3 percent of those attempts in three successive seasons.
Osman’s size (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) allows him to not get killed by big wings, but he does at times seem miscast when asked to be the primary stopper against an opponent’s best scorer. The Cavs have far bigger issues than him defensively, and he’s been better on that end this season than last, but there’s still quite a bit of room for improvement.
Collin Sexton has become the team’s leading scorer (17.9 points per game) this season, but it would be difficult to argue that he hasn’t regressed overall.
After connecting on better than 40 percent of his 3s as a rookie, Sexton’s shooting has cratered this season, with his deep conversion rate plummeting to just 27.4 percent. While his solid shooting from the line remains an encouraging sign for his ability to develop into a plus shooter eventually, it’s worth noting that he shot somewhat poorly from 3 in college (33.6 percent) and so his strong shooting during his debut season was a surprise, not the expectation.
Sexton has at least made up for the dip in his 3-point shooting by attacking the basket more often, and he is both getting into the paint and converting those looks more often than he did a year ago. The nuclear athleticism that was part of the rationale for his being a top pick shows up on occasion, but it thus far has not been enough to turn him into an efficient scorer overall, nor earn him consistent enough trips to the free-throw line to make up for his shooting performance.
Sexton has largely played off the ball after spending almost all of his time as a rookie at the point, and while it’s clear that’s a better fit for him, he also has been a considerably below-average playmaker even for an off-guard. His 13.3 percent assist rate is in line with players like Pat Connaughton, far south of even noted assist mavens like Jordan Clarkson. It’s helped that Sexton has nipped his turnover rate a bit, but a holistic view of his offense paints him as a strongly negative player.
The tough, hard-nosed defense that was supposed to be Sexton’s calling card has also largely not transferred to the NBA level. He’s a bit small (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) for a 2-guard, even in the modern NBA, and the strength advantages he had at the point don’t play as well with bigger guards he’s often tasked with defending. Sexton’s steal rate is up a bit this season, but that seems to be the only area in which he is actually contributing all that much defensively. It would be nice if he were better at cutting off opposing driving lanes, and more attentive off the ball so his rate of deflections could rise. At the moment, his 1.9 per 36 average ranks 94th out of 127 guards who have played at least 500 minutes this season.
Darius Garland‘s rookie season actually looks a whole lot like Sexton’s.
Sexton had the higher usage and free-throw rate, while Garland has taken a greater percentage of his shots from beyond the 3-point line, but beyond that, the numbers look pretty similar. It’s tough to get too enthused about his performance as a point guard given that he has been at the helm of one of the NBA’s least efficient offenses — and that his assist rate is right in line with that of Sexton, who plays off the ball far more often — but it’s also tough to get too down on him given the lack of surrounding talent and the fact that the Cavs run a significant portion of their half-court offense not through Garland, but Kevin Love.
Garland’s 37.1 percent mark on 3s is backed up by his strong shooting on his all-too-infrequent trips to the line, so if he can ever become anything other than one of the very worst interior finishers in the league, the foundation is there for him to become a pretty good scorer. He desperately needs to add size to his frame to help him finish over and/or through contact at the basket, but that’s obviously more of a long-term project than something that can be accomplished this season.
His lack of size likely means he’ll be a negative defensive presence for much of his career, but the Cavs can live with that if he becomes a an above-average shot creator for himself and others, and if he finds ways to contribute off the ball in terms of his positioning and steals.
Kevin Porter Jr.
Kevin Porter Jr.’s poor shooting from deep (31.3 percent) has been a disappointment, but he also has seemed like the young Cav who is the best fit for the current role that he’s playing. There have been a few games where everything has clicked for him and you can see the type of player Cleveland wants him to be — an off-ball sniper who makes a living beating closeouts and making nifty passes as a second-side ball-handler. He has turned it over far too often for a player who has the ball in his hands as relatively infrequently as he does, but some of that is just learning his limitations and what he can and can’t do.
He has an excellent rebound rate for his size (of the 84 players listed at 6-foot-4 or shorter, Porter’s 14.9 percent defensive rebound rate ranks eighth) and has shown an ability to get both deflections and steals. There is a ton of work to be done in terms of his focus, positioning and ability to affect shots, but there’s reason to believe he could potentially be average or slightly better on that end of the floor if it all clicks for him.