You can come to Ohio, Kid Cudi says, and you can see how it feels. That’s an old reference, as Dat New New is now more than 10 years old (old), but when Cleveland’s favorite rapper released Man on the Moon III in the waning days of 2020, it sent me down an Ohio-shaped rabbit hole that ultimately led me to his suggestion. Come to Ohio. Feel it.
So I did. Last week I fired up Man on the Moon I and caught three Cavs games to get a sense of what basketball on the banks of Lake Erie feels like these days. (I freely admit that being able to catch a double-dip of the Brooklyn Nets while doing this definitely helped make the medicine go down.) Having paid a virtual visit, I can say that the prevailing texture of Ohio basketball is this: Oldschool. Slow. More than a little grimy.
Still want more? Well crank the Cudi and crack a Christmas Ale, friends. It’s time for some Buckeye state basketball.
Day ‘n’ Nite ‘n the Paint
The Cavaliers, who are currently 7th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 8-9, are a weird watch. They’re still in the top 10 for defensive efficiency even after catching both barrels from the Nets and then giving up 141 (!) to the Celtics and 115 to the Lakers in a LeBron homecoming game. Cleveland doesn’t shoot threes (29th in the league on 3PA) or hit them (26th). They don’t push pace (one of just five NBA teams that average fewer than 100 possessions per game) or attempt free throws (17th in FTA), which is good news because as a team they’re only converting 70% of their freebies, the lowest rate in the Association. Less than 14% of their points come from the line and only 15% of their offense is generated on the break. The bottom line is that none of what they do with the ball in their hands is terribly potent, as Cleveland only grades better than the toothless Timberwolves in offensive efficiency.
To the extent that the Cavs can hurt teams, they do it in a manner that is unsophisticated and familiar: get the ball to the middle of the floor and smash from there. Of their 104.5 points per game, 53.4 of them come out of the paint. Missed shots are occasionally their best offensive set, as they’re in the top four in both offensive boards per game and offensive rebound rate. The Cavs scored a whopping 70 points in the key against Brooklyn.
Drummond’s fit in this kind of offense makes conventional sense. A plodding, back-to-the-basket big, Drums is turning in a fairly standard year at this point. The 18.7/14.6/2.7/1.4/1.4 line isn’t atypical from what he’s done in years past, though the FG% has dipped and that has suppressed his value some. He’s converting 48.4% of his shots in 2020-21, which is down from last year’s 53.3% and his career rate of 53.9%
The fact that Drummond’s shot diet hasn’t changed all that much provides reason to believe that he’ll rebound over the rest of the season. Dre arrived in Cleveland last year with a point to prove about his 3-point capabilities and managed to launch almost two attempts per in his eight games as a Cavalier. After connecting on just 28.6% of them, the 3-ball has been shelved this season. He’s seeing an increase in overall FGA — a career-high 15.9 — so he’s being afforded plenty of opportunities to goose that FG% back up closer to his career marks. As that number floats back up, so will his value. The FT% is as heinous as ever, but we knew that going in.
What surprised me was how frequently the big man was tasked with initiating the offense. There isn’t a ton of firepower in Cleveland, particularly when Sexton is off the floor, so it’s not unusual to see the big man operate at the top of the key and drop in bounce passes to cutters. Drummond is a skilled enough passer to execute this. Though he’s not going to make anyone forget about Nikola Jokic, Drummond’s assist rate of 15.2% is a career-best for him, and it’s possible that there’s a modest improvement in Dre dimes from what we’ve seen in previous seasons.
It’s somewhat counterintuitive to think of Collin Sexton, who is carrying a career-high 46.2% from three on 4.3 attempts this year, as a player who makes his bones inside, but his competency and touch with his floater are apparent when you tune in. Sexton is attempting 3.2 shots per game from the 5-9 foot range and converts on 50% of them. The only guards finding better success from that range on a similar volume of attempts are Luka Doncic (53.8% on 3.3 attempts per game) and Kyrie Irving (56.3% on 2.9.) Sexton’s got an elite floater in his bag.
The threat of Sexton getting to his spots in the key is compounded by his sweet touch from deep. Closeout hard on the guy who is having his best year from 3 and you open yourself up to the havoc he causes in the lane. Leave him open and watch him bury you. Brooklyn got a taste of how potent Sexton can be from beyond the arc in their first matchup when he canned five of his 11 triples and scored 20 straight points for the Cavs in the 4th quarter and overtime. It was a big win for The Land and the highlights are good fun.
Watching Sexton go at Irving in Cleveland was a delight, as both he and Kai have fantastic balance and body control. Sexton is more than capable of knifing through the first layer of defense, and once he’s inside there’s plenty of explosiveness to get the cup. 52.3% of his points come in the paint. The usage rate has crested 27% and he’s enjoying career-bests in assists and steals. The dimes are up but the assist-to-turnover number is down. It kills me to say this, but he’s having the season I wanted out of De’Aaron Fox. Of everyone on the Cavs roster, he’s the one I wish I had more shares of.
Simple As…Needing Another Guard
Darius Garland is an important player for Cleveland, and not just because you can’t have Sexland without him. There’s a real dearth of competent ball handlers on the roster, as evidenced by the Cavs turning to Daymean Dotson for stretches while Garland missed the better part of January (if such a thing exists) with a shoulder injury. There were plenty of signs of rust when Garland returned this week, even by Ohio standards. Garland’s jittery quickness allowed him to turn the corner and drop some dimes to newcomer Jarrett Allen, but he also coughed it up when he couldn’t shake Reggie Perry with a crossover. There’s work to do yet, as his shot is still a bit crunchy. In three games since returning he’s made just 10 of his 32 field goals. The book on him is that he’s a good shooter. Patience is this suggestion here.
Coach JB Bickerstaff has been staggering Garland’s minutes with Sexton since he’s come back and I’m curious how much that will stick going forward. He seems to be somewhat damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, as I’m sure JB would like to put enough firepower to hang in games by playing Sexland, but there’s not a ton of good answers available to question ‘who runs the second unit?’
One solution that Cleveland occasionally resorts to is Cedi Osman, who is quietly turning in the best season of his career. A capable three-point shooter, Osman is launching at a prolific rate (7.4 attempts) while still chipping in 3.5-ish boards and dimes. Cedi moves well without the ball and found himself on the receiving end of a few Dre dimes with his back cutting against Brooklyn. The FG% is less than ideal, but his 30 MPG is rock solid. If you’re playing in one of 65% of Y! leagues where he isn’t rostered and in need of triples, he’s worth a look, as he’s producing at a top-100ish rate.
The Pursuit of Happiness, Playing Time, and the Pill
Jarrett Allen came over from Brooklyn in the Harden deal and showed out against the team that moved him. While still blocked by a veteran center, Allen is inching ever-closer to getting the opportunity he needs to truly flourish. The minutes played in Cleveland are about the same as they were in Brooklyn, but there’s certainly more opportunity for him when he’s on the floor wearing wine and gold. In his first three games with the Cavs, Allen upped his FGA from 5.4 to 8.7 and his point totals have increased as a result (up to 14.3 from 11.2.)
He’s still waiting on the path to clear, but the buzz around the team is that they’re thrilled to have Allen aboard. In an absolute heist, Cleveland only had to give up a Dante Exum and a Cleveland Rocks bumper sticker to get him. Not that you were planning on parting with him any time soon, but this is when you need to know when to hold ‘em. Maybe Drums or Kevin Love (or both) are moved out of his way by year’s end, but even if not, Allen’s game is as appealing as it’s ever been.
Last week I got a question about trading for Larry Nance Jr., which prompted me to take a deeper dive. I knew he was producing an extremely fantasy-friendly line in the first quarter of the season, particularly his steals numbers, but I didn’t have an appreciation of how effectively he plays the passing lanes until watching with my own eyes. He’s got excellent instincts defensively, and his length somehow seems to catch teams by surprise. If the Cavs broadcast crew is to be believed, he leads the league in deflections. Some players make an impact on the defensive end with physicality and athleticism, while others think the game and anticipate action. Larry Nance does both. He’s currently numero uno in steals per game, as his 2.3 mark puts him ahead of OG Anunoby (2.1) and Kawhi Leonard (2.0). Given the way Bickerstaff has built this defense, I wouldn’t expect that number to slip too much. I wish I could say the same thing about the 42% of 3s he’s connecting on this season. The 2020-21 3P% has improved 7% over last year and is 9 points higher than his career number. He’s capable and is being asked to fire more than ever (3.6 3PA, up from last year’s 2.8), but I’d expect this to fall off some.
Finally, I can see the long-term appeal of Isaac Okoro, but he’s not going to help all that much this year. At 6’5” and physical, it’s not hard to see why the Cavs would look for the just-now 20-year-old to be a stopper in the future. He’s frequently tasked with the toughest guard, finding himself on Kyrie Irving or James Harden with regularity in the double-dip against the Nets. He’s averaging 1.3 steals per game this year, so you can see how he fits into the 3-and-D template. He walked into the NBA with the athleticism to hang, but the 3 is completely vacant. Okoro departed from Auburn after spending one season shooting 29% from three. The additional distance of the NBA line has not helped, as he’s still languishing below the 30% mark. The offensive game is too unpolished to be much of a factor this year, despite the heavy minutes (almost 36!) he pulls down.
Thanks for hangin’.