Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com. You can find him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham.
When the Cavaliers arrive at the playoffs, things are going to look slightly different than they have before. Starters will play more minutes, the game will slow down, and the already tight rotation of Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff my shrink even more.
Right now, the Cavaliers are playing between eight and 10 guys on a regular basis. The five starters are set in stone with Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen. Caris LeVert is a fixture on a nightly basis as the team’s sixth man, and Ricky Rubio is too, provided it’s not a game he’s held out of as part of his injury management plan.
After that, things are a little less clear. Dean Wade plays on a nightly basis, but is minutes have ranged from anywhere between 27 minutes and five or fewer since his return from injury in late January. There are nights when Cedi Osman will play 27 minutes and have a big impact on the outcome of the game and then other nights where he won’t leave the bench. Danny Green is still working his way into being a member of the team and hasn’t played many meaningful minutes in the four games he’s been available, and Lamar Stevens can go weeks without playing when it matters and then play 15 minutes on other nights.
When the playoffs arrive, there isn’t room for all of those guys to see the floor. While Mitchell, Garland, Mobley, and Allen all average at least 33 minutes per game right now, it’s fair to presume those numbers will go up by 3-to-5 minutes per game when the playoffs arrive. That means Mitchell and Garland should be playing close to 40 minutes in playoff games, while Mobley and Allen are closer to 38. This means there’s less time for reserves to be on the court.Dean Wade
Wade has the skillset the Cavs need in this spot. He’s a fine defender and a good shooter from the outside. The problem lately has been that he isn’t taking as many shots as he should be. Since returning from injury, Wade is only attempting 2.6 3-pointers per game in just under 18 minutes played.
When he’s on the floor, Wade needs to be able to space the floor with his outside shot. That’s not to say it’s a waste of time for him to be on the floor if he’s not doing that, but he’s also not maximizing his time on the floor.
While the Cavs have had Wade – which has been limited to just 34 games this year because of injuries – they’ve been good, going 23-11 when he plays. There are certain lineups where Wade has had a big impact. For instance, when he’s on the floor with the four core starters or Garland, Mitchell, Mobley, and Allen, the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 22.3 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com. The issue there is that it’s only spent 19 minutes together across six games.
The lineup that Wade has spent the most time alongside is when he’s on the floor with Mitchell, LeVert, Mobley, and Allen. That group has played 54 minutes together across seven games this season and outscored opponents by 23.6 points per 100 possessions. However, all 54 of those minutes came prior to Wade’s shoulder and ankle injuries that cost him seven weeks.
When Wade is on the floor, good things generally happen for the Cavs. In the last 17 games since Wade has returned, the Cavs have outscored their opponents by 35 points when he’s been on the floor.
If Bickerstaff wants his team to play bigger, Wade is going to be the first option. While he’s out there, the more he shoots from the outside, the more successful those lineups will be.Cedi Osman
Osman is the most volatile player of this group. There are nights when his shooting can win the Cavs a game and there’s other nights where he costs the Cavs with poor defense or cannot find his way onto the floor.
The thing that is going to happen when Osman is out there is he will shoot the basketball when he has it. That’s not always good, it’s not always bad, but it’s always going to happen. Osman attempts seven 3-pointers per 36 minutes, which ranks only behind Mitchell on the team (Kevin Love hoisted 8.6 per 36 minutes in his time in Cleveland this season and Green is at nine attempts per 36 minutes but has only played in three games).
He does provide the floor spacing the Cavs need off the bench, but sometimes that spacing isn’t worth what he may cost the team on the other end of the floor. There are times where Osman does something great on one and follows it up with something detrimental on the other side of the floor. It’s all part of the experience of giving him big minutes.
For as much as Green has accomplished in his long NBA career, he remains a bit of an unknown in a Cavaliers uniform. So far, he’s played in three games with the team, and only played meaningful minutes in one of those. Green missed the majority of this season, while on the Memphis Grizzlies, as he was recovering from a torn ACL sustained in the playoffs last year while he was with the Philadelphia 76ers.
What Green has left to contribute isn’t known because of his condition. Sure, it was always going to take him a bit of time to get up to speed in terms of how the Cavs operate on the court, but the Cavs wouldn’t have signed him if they didn’t think he could contribute, either.
In theory, Green is everything the Cavs could want from a role player. He’s one of the more accomplished 3-point shooters of all-time, having made the ninth-most 3-pointers in NBA playoff history. He’s also been a strong defender throughout his career.
Whether or not he can still do that following this ACL injury is something that has yet to be seen. If he can, Green is an easy answer into the rotation. If he can’t those minutes will likely go to Osman instead.
Of the players listed here, Stevens may provide the most defensively but certainly has a limited upside offensively. He certainly has the toughness the Cavs want, but opponents in the playoffs likely won’t think twice about whether they should be running to the corner to contest him taking a 3-pointer.
Stevens may be best served in a five-to-seven-minute “break glass in case of emergency” type of role. He can create havoc at times and bring a boosted level of energy. Seeing him on the court for anything bigger than that probably wouldn’t be a great thing for the Cavs in the playoffs.
Overall, it would be a surprise to see the rotation in the playoffs go past nine guys, and it may only be eight if Green isn’t able to contribute in the necessary ways.