Point guard is the most important position in the league. Good floor generals control every aspect of an NBA game; they define winners and losers each night. The Cleveland Cavaliers have invested in lead guards over the past two drafts, but does either fit the position? They have to score, find teammates, and defend opposing ball handlers every night. No playoff team is deficient at the position. Have the Cavs found their leader?
Darius Garland’s game shows signs. The process has been slow; the rust he accumulated from not playing basketball for a year was clear over the first two months of the season. Unsure of himself and inefficient, Garland too often has been passive with the ball and hesitant to shoot open jumpers. He’s played an apologetic style, wanting only to stay out of the way to his teammates happy. The uneasiness is wearing away, however, buoyed by a growing confidence in his shot. Before Thanksgiving, Garland shot 34% from 3 on 4 attempts per game. Since then he’s at 39% on 5.5 shots from behind the arc. Garland’s NBA ready skill was shooting; Cavs operatives marveled at the pre-draft clinic he put on in Los Angeles from deep. His form is more consistent, and he’s getting shots on the rim quicker than earlier in the season.
His vision shows flashes. He’ll mix in a 5 or 6 assist game bunched around 1 or 2 dish contests. Garland will always shoot well; his playmaking will make or break him in this league. If he can hand out 7-8 assists per game he’ll become a potential All-Star. Against Charlotte last week, Garland had 8 assists and 1 turnover. The Cavs lost by 3, yet Garland was the only starter with a positive plus/minus at +17.
Garland sharing the floor with good defensive players has been beneficial for the Cavs. Though they’ve played only 14 minutes together, the Garland/Exum/Porter/Nance/Henson lineup has shown promise, outscoring opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. The Garland/Henson pairing is being outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions in 130 minutes, the best net two man combination for the rookie. Not great, but it proves he’s better with a plus defender on the floor with him. The Cavs have two competent defenders in Dante Exum and John Henson. Allowing Garland to play minutes with those two will take pressure off defensively and give him more control on offense.
Though still early in both players’ careers, these numbers point to a need to stagger more of his and Collin Sexton’s minutes. Sexton is great in transition and has improved on defense. He’s a valuable NBA player. Sexton’s focus is on scoring. That’s fine; there’s a spot for him and his skill set on this team. Garland has a higher ceiling, however, and fits better with a broader range of players. In time, Sexton will be more valuable off the bench in the Jordan Clarkson role. The lead guard on a playoff team cannot be as one-dimensional offensively as Sexton. Too many Cavs’ possessions consist of Sexton dribbling the duration of the shot clock, the only player to touch the ball. He doesn’t purposely ignore his teammates, but he isn’t hunting them or identifying mismatches, either. The Kevin Love blow up from Saturday night resulted from Sexton being oblivious to Love’s mismatch in the post against Chris Paul. John Beilein took responsibility, but Sexton is the culprit here.
Garland’s skill set includes a wider range of talents. He sees the floor better and seeks his teammates. He’s a better shooter and is just as capable of getting to the rim in the half-court. Are they franchise changers? It’s too early, but both can grow into valuable pieces on a good team. This is the test for the higher ups in the franchise. Can they develop the talented young players they’ve drafted and set complementary pieces around them?
What’s What Around the League
1.The buzz for Michael Porter Jr. started over the summer, when reports from Denver raved about the Nuggets’ 2018 1st round draft pick. Back surgery caused him to miss the 2018-2019 season, but insiders claimed he would break out in 2019. Then nothing. He received 9 DNPs during Denver’s first 21 games and averaged 8 minutes per when he stepped on the floor. Something has changed over the past week, however. In the Nuggets’ last four games, Porter is averaging 20 minutes, 15.5 points, and is shooting 74% from the field, 50% from 3. A 25 point outburst in Indiana last Thursday on 11-12 from the floor has made the league take notice. Is this the Michael Porter we’ve been waiting for? If so, Denver is a title contender. Nikola Jokic has rounded into shape over the last month and looks like the Joker of old. They’ve won 17 of 24 and sit just 3 games below the Lakers in the West. If this Porter continues to show through May, the West becomes a three team race.
2. Zach LaVine is an NBA scorer. He averages 23 a game and has improved his 3-point shot throughout his career, from 34% as a rookie to 39% this year on 8 attempts per. But…… man, he just isn’t a smart, winning player. Down two against Utah with 30 seconds left and a full shot clock, LaVine buried his head and attacked the basket, only to find Rudy Gobert waiting for him at the rim. Next possession, down 4, LaVine takes an abhorrent step back 3. No chance, game over. LaVine is polarizing. His scoring and increased efficiency give some hope, yet he isn’t improving on defense. The Bulls are 9 points better on that end when he sits. Add it up and you have a losing player who the Bulls owe 39 million to in 2021 and 2022.
3. Ja Morant puts asses in seats.
4. A win Thursday at home against Memphis snapped an 8 game losing streak for Sacramento. The Kings are the latest example why it’s foolhardy to trust poor ownership, no matter the talent level. While De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley have missed extended time because of injury, dysfunction in the Kings’ organization remains the primary culprit of their continued losing. Dewayne Dedmon, a nice free agent pickup over the summer, has fallen out of Luke Walton’s rotation and requested a trade through the media, resulting in a $50,000 fine. Buddy Hield complained last week about trust issues creating problems in the locker room. This coincided with a horrid 7 game stretch for Hield in which he shot 26% from 3. The Kings have the most talent on their roster since the Chris Webber days. If Fox can stay healthy, they’ll have a shot to make a run at the last playoff spot in the West, but the sniping and losing culture in Sacramento seems too strong to overcome.
5. It’s a make or miss league, and no one epitomizes that more than Mike Scott. The 76er bench is more beholden to Scott to score than it should be, and they’re vulnerable to the unpredictability of his 3-point shot. He’s shooting 35% on the season from deep, a respectable number, yet isn’t reliable game to game. In 12 contests he’s made zero threes; in 12 others, he’s shot 50% or better from behind the arc. Philly’s offense can’t get consistency from anywhere. A steady Scott would be a huge boost in the playoffs but, like everyone else on this roster, he’s impossible to predict.
6. The Rockets are fascinating to watch. Their energy and effort level leaves Mike D’Antoni wanting many nights, then James Harden starts cooking, and the show begins. A step-back 3 over an excellent defender in Al Horford, net. Guarded one-on-one by possible All-Defensive selection Ben Simmons, an easy blow by and layup. Jason Richardson’s up next, a long, quick, capable defender in his own right. Another layup. And another step-back dagger. Harden is one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA, and he carved an outstanding defensive team in Philly with ease on his way to 44. The Rockets aren’t always fun to watch, but sitting back and enjoying a dialed-in Harden is.
7. It’s a minute detail, but why is getting someone to in-bound the basketball after a made basket such a chore? If the point guard is the first one to the ball, forget about it. He’ll motion for a teammate to do the task instead of throwing the ball in play and calling for it back. Big men are busy trying to get back on offense. Wing guys are sprinting to position themselves in the corners. Good transition teams seem to have a better plan of action for this overlooked play, realizing they can take advantage of a sleepy opponent 3-4 times a game. Have a plan to start the offense as quickly as possible is all.
8. There isn’t a number that can define how important Marcus Smart is to winning. His shooting numbers are bad: 37% overall, 32% from 3. 11.5 points a game is fine, as are his 4.7 assists. His on/off numbers are even bad; Boston is 5.4 points better offensively and 1.1 better defensively when he’s on the bench. If there’s a loose ball, however, Smart gets it. Need a big stop on defense? Smart is there with a steal or a drawn charge. He’ll clang ill-advised 3’s off the back of the rim most of the night until he drains one with less than a minute left. The little things are an abstract measurement meant to describe the indescribable, and Smart is a little things poster child. Here, the numbers lie. You need Marcus Smart on your team.
9. What in Sam Hell is this guy doing?
10. Steven Adams is a bull, a one man road grader. Dig into the hustle stats; his name litters the leaderboards. He’s ninth in loose balls recovered per 36 minutes. Fourth in screens set, fifth in screen assists. He gums up opposing offenses, sitting fifth in contested twos per game (NBA.com). Oklahoma City has surprised this year and sits 7th in the West, comfortably in playoff position. Would they consider trading Adams, however? His contract is huge (25 mil this year, 27 mil next), and his timeline doesn’t match with the franchises’. A salary match makes a trade difficult, but if OKC moves him, watch Boston. Thin on the front line, playoff match-ups with Giannis, Joel Embiid and Al Horford, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, and Bam Adebayo loom. The Celtics are close, a threat to make the Finals, but size is lacking. A wall of a screen setter and elite rebounder could be the piece they need to push them deep into the playoffs.