Checking in on The Cavs’ ‘Portland East’ Experiment

In the 2013 NBA draft, fresh off Damian Lillard’s Rookie of the Year campaign, the Portland Trail Blazers used the ninth-overall pick to take CJ McCollum, an undersized two-guard from Lehigh. There were concerns about the guards’ fit at the time, and with McCollum only managing 6.3 points per game through his first two seasons, it looked as though Portland’s attempt at a dynamic duo had fallen flat.

A half-decade later, Lillard and McCollum have grown into arguably the NBA’s premier pair of backcourt assassins. Their collective resumé includes a run to the Western Conference Finals, an immortal run of destruction to steal an unlikely playoff berth, and at least one series-clinching shot by each. There were growing pains, to be sure, and the Blazers have yet to crack the championship code for good, but their star backcourt has lifted them to contender status for the foreseeable future.

Across the map, the Cleveland Cavaliers look to be following the same trail the Trail Blazers blazed. Like Portland, the Cavs used top-10 selections on offensively gifted guards in back-to-back years, taking Collin Sexton eighth overall in 2018 and Darius Garland fifth in 2019. And while it’s still unclear whether SexLand will work out quite as well as its name, year one of the Cavs’ ‘Portland East’ experiment provided reasons to believe they can replicate the formula—even if you have to squint to make them out.

The Two Guards

Between the two of them, Sexton and Garland possess many of the traits that make Lillard and McCollum such a lethal duo—they’re just allocated a bit differently. Sexton mounts vertical attacks with Lillard-like power and ferocity, but his sophisticated finishing ability and around-the-world shot profile line up more closely with McCollum.

Garland handles a shifty and precise ball like McCollum, but has shown signs of Lillard’s propensity to generate space with cross-continent pull-up missiles.

Sexton should slot into something resembling McCollum’s secondary role. Sexton isn’t the technician McCollum is, but he’s an expert finisher from just about anywhere on the floor. This season, Sexton shot with above-average efficiency from every area of the floor save for the rim. He’s developed an elite three-point shot, converting at just under 40 percent (though his low release might not always function properly off the dribble), he rarely turns the ball over (80th percentile in turnover percentage), and he’s built a solid in-between game on the strength of a delicate floater that belies his brutish style.

Here’s the thing: Sexton’s struggles at the rim have made that floater something of an evolutionary necessity. When he wasn’t getting his shit meteor-smashed, (which happened more to him than any other player,) he shot just 57 percent at the basket, which put him in the 47th percentile (Cleaning the Glass) among guards.

Much of this stems from his astonishingly low capacity for passing basketballs. It’s perhaps the most on-brand development in basketball history that Sexton is probably known best as the dude who damn near won a game going three-on-five. His assist numbers (bottom-five percentiles in assist percentage and assist-to-usage ratio) and occupy similar territory as players like Kris Dunn, Jarrett Culver, and Luguentz Dort, whose job descriptions read “please don’t murder our offense.” Even raising his passing numbers from “unbelievably bad” to “standard-variety bad” could unlock new levels for both himself and the Cavs’ offense.

That leaves Garland as the Cavs’ Lillard-lite. Kevin O’Connor listed Lillard as one of Garland’s best-case comparisons, but his rookie season went, umm, less swimmingly than Lillard’s. Garland struggled hard and often in his first professional go-round: he was a statistically bad shooter (47.2 effective field goal percentage) and distributor (though he was better than Sexton), and was in the bottom-ten percentile-wise for committing turnovers. Not great, Bob! (I never watched Mad Men.)

Projecting positivity for Garland moving forward requires a little faith and a hefty investment in the ol’ IswearIknowwhatI’mtalkingabout eye test. Coming out of Vanderbilt, Garland’s most promising trait was his outside shooting. For all his struggles scoring inside the arc, that held up: Garland largely matched Lillard’s rookie-year outside-shooting performance, and we’ve already seen his willingness to emulate Logo Lillard.

Move the slider RIGHT for Lillard’s rookie numbers, LEFT for Garland’s.

Garland also displayed solid passing vision and instincts that belie his modest assist numbers:

Oh, and also: Lillard played four years in college. Garland played five games. He may have gotten atomic wedgied on a near-nightly basis, but a full offseason (and then some) of mass-cultivation and studying defenses should lead to a beefier, more on-target Lillard impersonator.

(Watch The Playgrounder’s in-depth breakdown of Darius Garland’s rookie season here.)

Filling Out the Roster

The Blazers have spent years cycling through three-and-D wings, but most of them lacked the shooting and/or playmaking to keep Portland’s offense from collapsing in on itself (Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless, Evan Turner), got vaporized on defense by bigger, faster wings (Gary Trent Jr., Carmelo Anthony), or are Mario Hezonja (Mario Hezonja). The Cavs will need to fare better in finding two-way players to alleviate some of the pressure on its backcourt.

Thus far, they’re light on in-house solutions. Kevin Porter Jr. is a good athlete and showed some promise on offense, but at 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds, is prone to getting steamrolled by the LeBron/Kawhi/Harden-type monsters that patrol the wing. Cedi Osman (6-foot-7, 230 pounds) has solid size and speed and a soft shooting stroke, but those individual components have yet to coalesce into a legit three-and-D wing.

Watch the Playgrounder’s review of Kevin Porter Jr.’s rookie season.

Playmaking bigs like Nikola Jokic and Bam Adebayo dominated the 2020 playoffs, and Portland employs one of the better ones in the league in Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic’s ability to anchor a defense while providing supplementary playmaking on offense, and with neither Sexton nor Garland looking like a top-tier floor general, the Cavs need as much secondary distribution as they can get. When he’s not injured or fouling everything in sight, Zach Collins is a solid two-way player who should keep improving. Beyond those two mainstays, Portland has rotated in board-dominant rotation bigs such as Hassan Whiteside and Enes Kanter with moderate success.

Portland’s frontcourt might be harder to replicate. Timberwolves-era Kevin Love was something of a prototype to Nikola Jokic as a frontcourt player who could be an (exceedingly large) offensive fulcrum, but their similarities carry over to their poor defense. (Also, he’s spent the last year wailing basketballs at teammates and begging the Cavs to let him leave.) Andre Drummond is more Whiteside than Nurkic, . Tristan Thompson is a solid passer and defender and a rebounding menace, but he handles and shoots like a 200-pound sixth-grader. Larry Nance Jr. might (should?) be the only long-term Cavalier in the current rotation.

The Blueprint

Millions of years from now, when new lifeforms inhabit earth and discover basketball, they’ll study the Blazers’ 2016 offseason as an exercise in avoiding financial ruin. The Cavs should follow suit and hold onto their cap space, at least until they have something resembling a future playoff team. That likely means shooting for a net-zero on any Love trade, letting Drummond bounce next offseason, and building through the draft.

The good news is that in Sexton and Garland, Cleveland might already have its backcourt in place. KPJ, Osman, and Nance Jr. are also solid complementary pieces whose timelines mesh with the two guards’. And with the fifth pick in the upcoming draft, the Cavs have a lot of options to opportunity to fortify their roster. Isaac Okoro could be the wing defender the Cavs desperately need. He also projects as a capable distributor, an imperative alongside one of the most assist-averse guards in the Association. Should they look to the interior, Onyeka Okongwu fits into the Adebayo/Draymond Green-type role that’s on the upswing in today’s NBA.

The bad news is that the Cavs are still trying to climb out of the radioactive wasteland LeBron James left behind; four years of we-absolutely-cannot-lose-this-year moves left the roster barren of young talent. So for now, the main priority should be cultivating a healthy and sustainable environment (something multi-billion dollar organizations are notoriously dedicated to) (😕) where young players can grow. The Cavs don’t have many material assets for now, but they appear to have a plan moving forward and a roadmap to follow—that’s more than they could say the last time LeBron left.

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