Caris LeVert's knack for making the right plays is paying off for the Cavs
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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham. Being a winning player in the NBA can be quantified in several different ways. Players can be asked to lead teams in scoring, be a primary facilitator, handle the opposition’s toughest challenge, or find ways to do the little things that may go unnoticed.
It’s rare for all of that to be asked of one player on a given night in the NBA. That type of duty is reserved for the elite of the elite.
There are many players throughout the league that may be asked to do some combination of those things throughout the season, but often, players are most successful when they’re able to have a set role and grow to be comfortable in it.
For the Cleveland Cavaliers, there has been anything but a set role for swingman Caris LeVert throughout his second season with the team. At times he’s been asked to carry a heavier burden in the scoring column, particularly on nights when All-Star guards Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland haven’t been available. Most of the time, LeVert is matched up with one of the opponents’ best perimeter players on the defensive end. In Wednesday night’s loss to Philadelphia, LeVert spent much of his time defending former NBA MVP James Harden.
What LeVert has been asked to do for the team has frequently changed. He’s been in and out of the starting lineup, been a de-facto backup point guard, and key defender. While all that has frequently changed, his penchant for doing the little things that may go unnoticed or underappreciated by the general viewer has been consistent.
“I mean, I don't know if you can,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff responded when asked how to quantify the little things LeVert does to help the team. “But I know how much we appreciate it and I know how much his teammates appreciate it. And I think that's what his aim is. His aim is to strictly help. And it's not always easy. And for a guy who's been a primary scorer the majority of his career, it's even more difficult.”
Those winning plays show up frequently for LeVert. Sometimes it’s his passing, sometimes it’s his scoring, other times it’s his defense. Those things all change, but doing the little things and making the correct play constantly is who LeVert has been all season long.
His shooting numbers have been up and down all season, which may make it so fans are frustrated with LeVert’s play, instead yearning for a consistent, knockdown 3-point shooter. In February, LeVert made only 21.7 percent of his 3-pointers, by far his worst mark in any month of the season. While that part of his game was down, his assist numbers increased, and he posted the lowest defensive rating he has had in any full month of the season.
Even when things aren’t ideal, as the fit of LeVert’s skillset overall may not be, he’s consistently found a way to make a positive impact on the team on both ends of the floor.
“That's just the type of dude he is where all he wants to do is be a part of the team and help the team win and he's been willing to do whatever it takes,” Bickerstaff said. “The thing that I think has been most impressive is he's been a mainstay on all of our defensive stuff. His activity, he's willingness to take assignments, that's never wavered no matter what his offensive role has been. So, he's been able to hang his hat on that and then find the spots and pick and choose on offense as well.”
There’s no questioning that the Cavs are a better team when LeVert is making shots at a decent rate. When he’s clicking on all cylinders offensively it greatly increases the chance of the Cavs winning on a night when either Mitchell or Garland isn’t at their best. With the playoffs beginning in less than a month, having LeVert playing his best would obviously be optimal for the team.
LeVert is quietly having the best month of his season so far. Since the calendar flipped to March, he’s averaging 14 points per game along with four assists and 4.1 rebounds while shooting 47.6 percent from 3-point range. This month, the Cavs have been much better with LeVert on the floor than off it. In the 249 minutes that he’s played this month, they have outscored opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions and have been outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions in the 140 minutes he’s been on the bench.
The only regular member of the rotation for the Cavs that has a bigger disparity between being on the court and off it is Garland. LeVert’s impact may not always been clear, but it has consistently been there.
“That's how I was taught to play the game. It's win or lose, you know what I mean?” LeVert said. “Individual performance is one thing, but I mean we all play to win the game and I feel like this team kind of embodies that. So, they make it easy. Everyone's out there to win. It's not just me. So, I feel like my role has been very different throughout the season. Starting, not starting, coming off the bench, being a defensive stopper, being a spark. But I think throughout all of that, I think the main thing is just make winning plays.”