When the Cleveland Cavaliers re-signed Ricky Rubio and eventually traded for Donovan Mitchell over the summer, Caris LeVert felt like the odd man out. LeVert, a traditional score-first wingman, needs the ball in his hands more often than not to succeed. Adding Mitchell, one of the best players in the league that sometimes needs the ball in his hands to succeed, muddied that a lot. Re-signing Rubio, a pass-first point guard that, you guessed it, sometimes needs the ball in his hands to succeed, made it muddier. Finally, Darius Garland, who is like Mitchell and Rubio, already on the roster made the vision for LeVert on the roster incredibly opaque.
With that said, you’re probably wondering why this preconceived issue is exclusive to LeVert and not every player already mentioned, right? Simply put, it’s the fact that Mitchell, Garland and Rubio can function without the ball in their hands and have found harmony with each other on the floor. For LeVert, meanwhile, it’s a bit trickier. Yes, there have been instances of LeVert having success without being the primary ball handler. There have even been moments where it clicked this season for LeVert and the Cavaliers. But, it was clear early on that LeVert was a clunky fit for Cleveland and it was fair to question if he fits with the long-term vision the Cavaliers were building.
To be fair to LeVert, he has been asked to do much more than he’s usually comfortable with on a night-to-night basis. He would still get opportunities to operate the offense around his scoring. But, he has also been asked to defend the opponent’s best perimeter player. He’s also been asked to fit in with the trio of dominant ballhandlers ahead of him all while he’s in the starting lineup, coming off the bench or even not playing some nights. There’s a lot of volatility there and can naturally lead to some unsteadiness in LeVert’s production.
LeVert’s situation isn’t entirely unique to him – he’s in the same boat as all of Cleveland’s roleplayers. But, as the Cavaliers continue on their path to the playoffs, something interesting has emerged. LeVert has become a chameleon within Cleveland’s rotations, blending in to fit any situation while separating himself from the rest of the roleplayers on the roster. Any given night, he’s shouldered the load of what’s asked of him, leading to what matters most for the Cavaliers at this time: winning.
“Individual performance is one thing but we all play to win the game,” said LeVert. “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. I feel like my role has always been kind of different throughout the season. Starting. Not starting. Coming off the bench. Being a defensive stopper. Being a spark. I think through all of that the main thing is to just make winning plays.”
LeVert’s situation is unique in that even though he has seven seasons’ worth of experience under his belt, he’s still evolving as a player. In late November, LeVert approached Bickerstaff coming off the bench despite being named Cleveland’s starting small forward. Since, at his core, he is a score-first guard and all parties agreed that it would be better for LeVert to get more scoring opportunities as the team’s sixth man. But, several weeks after Rubio returned to the floor as a reserve, LeVert is finally starting to show how malleable he’s become as a player and, in turn, the aforementioned evolution.
To witness LeVert’s near-decade evolution, you must watch the Cavaliers in real-time. More often than not, LeVert is closing games as a defensive stopper, despite coming off the bench. He’s showing comfort as a three-point shooter and, more recently, is actively looking to move the ball when his shot isn’t there. Levert’s also third in assists, fifth in scoring, fifth in scoring, fifth in rebounds, fifth in steals and fifth in minutes per game. Instead of remaining static, LeVert has become dynamic for the Cavaliers and, again, it’s resulting in Cleveland winning more often than not.
“He’s raised his level and his role has become a little more consistent,” said Cavaliers superstar Donovan Mitchell. “He works in the gym every day and you’re seeing him make the shots he’s working on. We all trust him and know to get him in his spots and get him the ball.
“Defensively, he’s been playing well too. I think that’s something I didn’t even realize about his game until I got here. So, you’re now seeing it. It’s not always easy coming from a situation where you’re not really knowing what to expect every night. So, what he’s doing, especially at this part of the season, I give him credit. He’s able to lock in and give us a spark.”
This is all while LeVert acts as Cleveland’s sixth man. More impressively, it’s also when LeVert is in a contract year. On any given night, LeVert could be selfish and disrupt the flow of things all while chasing points and individual statistics to maximize his potential earnings this summer. Instead, LeVert does the little things that result in wins that tend to be underappreciated by most. That is, of course, if you’re not a part of the Cavaliers organization.
“You can’t say enough about a person like that,” said Bickerstaff. “We know the pressures that contract years bring. We know these guys have a short window to wait and make as much money as they possibly can. But, we’re extremely fortunate to have the type of people that we have here and it’s all of them, right? It’s the young guys, too. Young guys typically don’t win because they’re more worried about themselves and their contract rather than the team. But, Caris leads our group in that way, where we all know what’s at stake for him but he hasn’t made a selfish play yet. Everybody leads in different ways and that’s just his way of showing just how important this team is to him and everybody in a locker room.”
The trust that Bickerstaff, the coaching staff, Mitchell and the Cavaliers have empowered LeVert to be himself all while trying to figure out his fit on the court. That trust led to a runway for LeVert to become a winning player which is something Cleveland needs more of as they try to stake their claim come playoff time. LeVert has the skillset to be a player that could decide a game or a series in the playoffs and that is a dangerous weapon to have in your corner if you’re the Cavaliers.
It’s also a relief that through the trials and tribulations of trying to balance winning and player development, Cleveland has had their most reliable bench option emerge in LeVert. That’s why when this summer comes around, the Cavaliers should sign LeVert to an extension and keep him as their key difference-maker off the bench. It seems it’s already headed that alone considering Cleveland held onto LeVert through the trade deadline. But, considering how much he’s grown this season and has adapted to fit everything the Cavaliers need from their sixth man, it’s time to award that play.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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