The Cavaliers’ Storybook Season Takes an Interesting Turn

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

The arrival of Caris LeVert takes Cleveland from a feel-good team to one that East contenders should be afraid of. The former Pacer is just the spice the Cavs need for the stretch run.

Darius Garland became an All-Star in part because he is friggin’ awesome, and in part because he more or less had to. The Cavaliers entered the season with three ball-handling guards in their rotation. Two of them, Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio, suffered season-ending knee injuries before the calendar flipped to 2022. Since Rubio went down, Garland has logged the third-most touches in the league, and has had the ball in his hands for more minutes per game than anybody besides James Harden.

Garland has been brilliant amid the spike in responsibility, minutes, and usage, and the Cavs have kept rolling in a storybook season that’s got them just one game shy of the no. 1 seed in the East. On a long enough timeline, though, depending so heavily on one creator is a dicey recipe for success. Case in point: With Garland missing the past four games due to a lingering back issue, Cleveland has had to turn to 35-year-old Rajon Rondo, journeyman two-way guard Brandon Goodwin, and even small forward turned emergency point guard Cedi Osman to fill the void.

Even with a healthy Garland, the Cavs desperately needed another playmaker in the backcourt—a catalyst capable of puncturing the defense, getting into the paint, and creating good looks for himself and his teammates. They found one of the best candidates likely to be available on the 2022 trade market, agreeing to a deal with the Pacers to add slashing scorer Caris LeVert for what promises to be an awfully interesting stretch run in Ohio.

The details of Sunday’s deal, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski: Cleveland gets LeVert and the Heat’s 2022 second-round pick; Indiana gets the injured Rubio—and, really, his $17.8 million expiring contract—the Cavs’ lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick, the Rockets’ 2022 second-rounder, and Utah’s second in 2027. That looks like a significantly better haul for Indiana than what Portland got from the Clippers for Norman Powell, arguably a flat-out better player than LeVert, and Robert Covington just two days prior; that’s probably because L.A. was also absorbing the final three years and $74.5 million of Powell’s salary, though, compared to Cleveland taking on just one year and $18.8 million for LeVert. (Let us also applaud the Pacers for moving LeVert immediately after he scored 42 points on 19-for-26 shooting with eight assists against the Bulls. They literally could not have sold any higher.)

For the Pacers, dealing LeVert—their second-leading scorer, at 18.7 points per game—for draft compensation and financial relief could signal the start of a much-rumored rebuilding process, shifting all eyes to the bidding for big men Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner ahead of Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline.

As much as it seemed like a coup for Indiana to move off the oft-injured Victor Oladipo and wind up with LeVert as part of last season’s four-team James Harden blockbuster deal, the hoped-for on-court fit never quite emerged. After missing two months last season following the removal of a cancerous tumor on his kidney, LeVert returned to put up numbers in Indianapolis, averaging a shade under 20 points and five assists per game in 74 games as a Pacer. The impact didn’t really match the raw numbers, though: Among 48 players with a usage rate north of 25 percent who’ve played at least 1,500 minutes over the past two seasons, LeVert ranks 45th in true shooting percentage, 43rd in box plus-minus, and 43rd in value over replacement player.

Indiana’s defense was worse with LeVert on the floor, and while its offense scored more points per possession, that sometimes came as a result of him converting tough shots he’d dribble into rather than working to generate easier ones in Rick Carlisle’s offense:

This is the epitome of the LeVert experience this season. Makes the zero-pass shot, but has no interest in running the offense as intended.Note the reactions from Duarte and Carlisle when he keeps on what should’ve been a wing hand-off followed by a ball screen.

— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) February 3, 2022

LeVert’s exit opens the door for a redistribution of his offensive responsibility to other sources as Carlisle uses the balance of a lottery-bound 19-36 season to start figuring out what he can build around in the future. (We’re probably about to see rookies Chris Duarte and Duane Washington Jr. get all the playmaking opportunities they can handle.) Swapping the $18.8 million LeVert’s owed for next season for Rubio’s expiring deal will also drop the Pacers’ salary commitment for 2022-23 to just over $93 million for 11 players, according to Spotrac—opening the door for Indiana to join the Spurs, Magic, Pistons, and Thunder in a small pool of teams with plenty of cap space this summer.

That probably won’t result in too many fireworks in free agency—the small-market Pacers don’t exactly have a track record of landing big fish—but it does provide more flexibility for a front office accustomed to retooling on the fly without bottoming out. Creative maneuvering requires a variety of ingredients; team president Kevin Pritchard and Co. have now stocked Indy’s cupboard with $26 million or so in cap space plus what’ll probably be three picks in the top 35 of the 2022 draft (the Pacers’ own selection, which will likely be the franchise’s highest pick in nearly 35 years, plus Cleveland’s likely mid-20s pick and a Houston pick that should come at the top of Round 2). Now we wait to see whether the Pacers are done shopping their wares, or if they can entice any suitors to pony up more goodies for one of their talented big men before Thursday afternoon.

For the Cavs, the swap represents a belief that this year’s team—now 33-21 with the East’s third-best point differential and no. 1 defense—really is good enough to win a conference that’s been thrown into upheaval by injury, illness, inconsistency, and forever-roiling drama in Brooklyn and Philadelphia.

Cleveland’s been crying for more dynamism and downhill movement on the ball; since Rubio’s injury, no Cleveland player besides Garland has averaged even 6.5 drives to the basket per game, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. Whatever LeVert’s warts, he certainly provides that, averaging 16.3 drives per game this season—10th most in the NBA—and shooting 50.5 percent on those plays.

LeVert doesn’t have a blazing first step, but he’s awfully crafty about getting to the cup. He loves to use change-of-pace dribbles to get to his preferred spots, and to combine a gift for deceleration in traffic with his 6-foot-6, 205-pound frame to shield off defenders; that opens the door for him to use his length to release shots from a variety of angles, and his vision to find teammates in traffic:

LeVert’s not the sort of visionary creator who’ll manifest scoring chances out of thin air, but he’s a steady playmaker who can make the right read without coughing it up: Among high-usage players, only Kristaps Porzingis, DeMar DeRozan, Anthony Davis, and Devin Booker have a lower turnover rate this season. He ranks in the 81st percentile in points produced per possession as a pick-and-roll ball handler this season, according to Synergy Sports’ game tracking; he should find plenty of opportunities to generate good looks when teaming with Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley, Lauri Markkanen, and Kevin Love in the screen game.

One potential cause for concern: While LeVert’s a good enough driver, scorer, and playmaker to lighten Garland’s burden, it remains to be seen how effective he can be working off the ball when Garland’s running the show. LeVert’s a good-but-not-great spot-up marksman, shooting just 33.9 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers on nearly 600 attempts since his rookie season in Brooklyn. He can be shifty away from the action to get himself open when he’s of a mind to do it, but that doesn’t happen as frequently as his coaches would like.

Plugging LeVert into the starting shooting guard spot over Isaac Okoro should raise the offensive ceiling of starting lineups that have barely scored at league-average rates this season. But if he and Garland struggle to find a balance together—and if LeVert’s sometimes inattentive defense leads to any slippage from Cleveland’s elite unit—then that ceiling-raising may come at the expense of dropping the floor of a team that has developed both a clear defensive identity and a fantastic rhythm.

I kind of wonder whether the best-of-both-worlds option here when everyone’s healthy might be keeping the defensive-minded Okoro locked into the starting 2 spot and giving LeVert the keys to run the second-unit offense, teaming with Love to pick-and-pop opposing reserve groups to death. Considering the Cavs just gave up three picks to get LeVert, though—combined with the fact that he walks in as Cleveland’s third-highest-paid player—I’m guessing he’ll start, with Cleveland relying on head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to figure out the best way to fit another talented piece into his first five. (Garland’s talent for moving off the ball, getting open off screens, and shooting off the catch might render any concerns about LeVert’s ball dominance moot, anyway.)

It’s possible that the Cavs aren’t done. Because LeVert actually makes $300,000 less than Rubio this season, they still have a little under $4 million in wiggle room below the luxury tax line to play with if they can find another upgrade. They have another chip to play to find it, too, if they’d like.

The arrival of the 27-year-old LeVert, who’s under contract for next season, seems like it could spell the end of the line in Cleveland for Sexton, who played just 11 games this season before tearing his meniscus. Just because Sexton’s not expected back this season, though, doesn’t necessarily preclude him from having value on the market; after all, he averaged 24.3 points and 4.4 assists per game on .573 true shooting last season—the kind of scoring efficiency and playmaking production that only Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, and Michael Jordan had ever turned in before their age-22 campaigns. Any team who acquired him at the deadline would hold his matching rights in restricted free agency this summer, and the opportunity to re-up him on a long-term deal or, if they preferred, flip him in a sign-and-trade in the offseason. Might that opportunity entice a would-be suitor thinking about next year to part with another player who could add some shooting or playmaking off the Cleveland bench?

Even if it isn’t, the Cavs’ front office will now exit the deadline feeling like they’ve done their job. They added firepower to bolster their pursuit of the top spot in the East and their chances of withstanding seven-game slugfests in April, May, and June. More importantly, they did so without losing any of their most valuable prospects, and maintaining flexibility for the long term—if LeVert’s a smash hit, the Cavs can look to extend him this offseason; if it doesn’t pan out, he and Love come off the books in 2023, giving Cleveland a ton of cap space to work with in building around Garland, Mobley, and Allen—while making a committed move to go for it right now. The Pacers, it seems, are building for the future. In Cleveland, though, it looks like the future is now.