WASHINGTON — Cavs swingman Caris LeVert — the second unit linchpin and fifth-leading scorer — logged just three minutes in the second half of Wednesday’s harder-than-expected 114-106 win over the rebuilding Wizards.
If ever there was a sign that Cleveland should stand pat at Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, LeVert’s Wednesday night workload serves as the flashing beacon.
Sources tell cleveland.com that LeVert didn’t suffer an injury and wasn’t held back because of an imminent trade. His play didn’t warrant being benched either. There wasn’t any noteworthy reason for LeVert receiving his lowest minute total this season, finishing with four points and five assists in 13 minutes. It’s just Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff trying to figure out this new full-strength reality now that core pieces Darius Garland and Evan Mobley are being reintegrated and at least 10 players have earned an opportunity to be in the every-night rotation. There will be growing pains for Bickerstaff.
“It’s not easy. Night by night, we have difficult decisions to make,” Bickerstaff said. “The hope is and what I expect is guys understand that we are just trying to do whatever it takes to help the team win. Some nights it’s going to be different than others. Not easy on the guys. These guys are competitive, and they want to be on the floor. But it speaks to their character and their commitment to one another that if it’s a certain guys’ night, we’re going to let him go and see what happens. Sometimes for the greater good you have to do what’s best for the team. I believe our guys will always do that.”
Bickerstaff is admittedly most comfortable with an eight- or nine-man rotation. He has begrudgingly expanded because of how the end-of-rotation pieces have played over the last six weeks — a turnaround stretch that initially coincided with Garland and Mobley being sidelined and others getting a bigger opportunity.
Now that the Cavs are finally (essentially) at full strength, Bickerstaff is having a tough time balancing the books, especially with so many like-sized players fighting for minutes at the same position.
On Wednesday night, each member of the starting lineup played at least 25 minutes. Donovan Mitchell got a team-high 38 while Jarrett Allen received 37.
Thanks to his always stout defense, swingman Isaac Okoro has become a mainstay off the bench, logging 28 minutes against the Wizards, the most of any reserve.
The other four — LeVert, Georges Niang, Sam Merrill and Dean Wade — all came in below the 20-minute threshold.
Merrill, a January revelation who has added a different dimension to this suddenly dynamic offense, has yet to hit the 20-minute mark since Garland came back. It’s clear Merrill’s playing time will be game-flow related and matchup-dependent, with Bickerstaff not wanting to use the prolific bomber against bigger, longer, athletic opponents.
That partially explains the five minutes of action he got in the first two quarters against the Wizards. But with Bickerstaff feeling like Cleveland needed more spacing, shooting, movement and a general offensive boost, he turned to Merrill late in the game, giving him some of LeVert’s usual fourth-quarter workload.
Each lineup decision creates a ripple effect — even though it worked Wednesday, with the Cavs outscoring Washington by seven points in Merrill’s nine minutes.
If Bickerstaff already can’t play guys as much as he would like or as much as they deserve, how would a newbie acquisition fit? If a vitally important player like LeVert can only get 13 minutes during a Feb. 7 game against the hapless Wizards on the first night of a back-to-back, what kind of role would be available to rumored targets Royce O’Neale, Dorian Finney-Smith, Lonnie Walker IV, John Konchar or Saddiq Bey, among others — unless the Cavs jettison some back-end rotation players?
And then comes another question: Would it be worthwhile to use some of their assets — and they don’t have many to begin with — on a low-minute player whose role will likely fluctuate and could alter the status quo?
The current roster logjam is just one of the many reasons there is a growing belief that the Cavs are not expected to be active with the 3 p.m. trade deadline inching closer. Any deal would probably be viewed as a “lateral move.”
Well, that, and many feel there’s already enough on this roster to compete — as evidenced by their second place standing in the Eastern Conference, 15-1 record over the last 16 games and 20-4 mark since Dec. 16.
“I don’t speak in absolutes, but I don’t think there is a reason to change,” Bickerstaff said Wednesday night, less than 24 hours before the deadline. “Who knows? Crazy things have happened, but where we’ve built and where we’ve gotten to, there’s not a lot of reason to disrupt that.”
“I think we’re in good shape,” added All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell. “I don’t think anybody in the locker room is thinking about it. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it outside of other teams. I think that speaks volumes to what we have going on here. I think we are in good shape. I think we all think that and feel that, and we have a lot to accomplish with this group.”
Garland, who played just his fifth game following a six-week absence while recovering from a fractured jaw that led to an all-liquid diet and limited basketball activity, echoed Mitchell’s sentiments.
“I think we’re in a really good spot,” Garland told cleveland.com. “Think we’re only getting better. Think we have some more improvement to make. Haven’t had everybody healthy and still don’t have everybody healthy with guys trying to get back into the swing of things. I don’t think there’s a ceiling for us because I think we are that good, that talented and that connected.
“We have enough guys to do what we want to do.”
In this case, maybe even more than enough given Wednesday’s minute allocation.
What the Cavs need most is time, reps and experience — all ways to enhance their continuity, chemistry and on-court performance. They can’t acquire more playoff readiness for Allen, Garland and Mobley — three variables who may determine the team’s postseason fate. There is no trade deadline answer to whether Bickerstaff learned from the team’s playoff ouster against New York and will be a better tactician and in-game manager during this upcoming springtime crucible.
Insurance policies can be valuable. Added depth isn’t the worst idea. But it’s hard to say the Cavs need something or someone that’s not already in that locker room, especially considering the underwhelming targets.
“We have finally found our identity, who we are and what we can be,” Mitchell said. “We’re not the same team as last year. We play differently and have different guys. It takes time. Now, we are starting to figure it out and it’s a credit to everybody. Checking egos at the door. All of us have found our identity with that and we’re continuing to play the way we want to play. Everyone came in with the right intentions, it was just a matter of how.”
That ties into Garland, who has mostly struggled since returning and is trying to adapt to a new style while being on a minute restriction.
“I’m just trying to get back into the swing of things,” Garland told cleveland.com. “Been out for a month and a half and it’s been really tough. I know it’s tough on coach to try to squeeze me in but also play the guys who have been really hooping.”
So, what’s the toughest part?
“Trying to fit in,” Garland admitted. “These guys have been rolling for the last two months and I’m missing shots I normally make, being careless with the ball. It’s stuff that I have to own.”
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At one point Wednesday night as the sloppiness increased, shots kept caroming off the rim and frustration built, Mitchell pulled Garland aside, grabbed his protégé by the shoulder and offered encouragement while also holding the youngster accountable for his miscues.
“It’s just a matter of getting your basketball rhythm back,” Mitchell said of Garland’s re-acclimation period. “It’s not like he’s not capable. Being able to have that relationship where we can talk about that in game, on the floor, is the biggest thing. I have no doubt he is going to continue to find it and he will be right when we need him.”
Garland not only played 28 minutes Wednesday night, tied for the most since his lengthy layoff, but he closed the game, re-entering at the 3:19 mark of the fourth quarter and showing some flashes of his pre-injury form. In all, Garland tallied 13 points, including eight in the decisive fourth quarter and six in the final minutes.
“It meant a lot,” Bickerstaff said. “He wants to play. He wants to be on the floor. He wants to help us win. And we’re trying our best down that stretch to get him in, not leave him out too long and then get him back. When games are competitive and tight, he wants to play even more. He is just finding his way.”
But Garland being back and getting crunch-time minutes will come at the expense of someone else. It changes the calculus. That’s the situation Cleveland is in moving forward. Any new addition could complicate that even more. It is why the players in the locker room prefer to keep this roster intact and see how far it can go.
“It’s tomorrow?” Mitchell replied when asked about the looming deadline. “I think the fact I didn’t know that speaks volumes.”
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