The Cleveland Cavaliers’ trade for Caris LeVert seems like a sensible enough deal from the outset. The Cavs are perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the NBA, running toward the top of the Eastern Conference behind All-Star guard Darius Garland, center Jarrett Allen, and rookie stud Evan Mobley. The Cavs are led by a top-3 defense, but their offense ranks just No. 18 in the NBA, and it’s been consistently falling down the rankings since Ricky Rubio tore his ACL.
On the day Rubio suffered his injury, the Cavs were 12th in the league in offensive rating. They’re No. 21 since. Rubio had provided a necessary injection of playmaking to Cleveland in his first year with the team and was a vital part of their turnaround. Without him, it felt like Garland was the team’s only shot creator. Enter LeVert, who will immediately give Cleveland’s offense some extra juice off the bounce in the halfcourt.
In return for LeVert, the Indiana Pacers received the Cavs’ 2022 first round draft pick (lottery protected), a second round pick originally owned by the Houston Rockets, another future second, and Rubio’s expiring contract. This is probably the start of the significant reshuffling for the Pacers.
Here are some things that stand out about this trade from both sides.
Caris LeVert gives the Cavs some needed offensive punch
The Cavs are going for it. That’s the first thing this trade symbolizes.
After defeating the Pacers on Sunday night, Cleveland now sits at 33-21 overall. They’re currently No. 4 in the East, but they’re only a half-game out of first. The Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Milwaukee Bucks are the teams barely in front of them, while the Philadelphia 76ers are just a half-game behind the Cavs.
There’s a real opportunity in the East this year with so much dysfunction around the Nets, and a short offseason catching up to the reigning champs in Milwaukee. No one expected the Cavs to have a shot at a deep playoff run this year, but now that they’re here, finding an immediate upgrade at their most obvious shortcoming at the cost of a late first and early second round pick tracks as a worthy gamble.
Cleveland’s offense simply didn’t have anyone outside of Garland who could drive the ball to the basket after the season-ending knee injuries to Rubio and Collin Sexton. That’s where LeVert can help.
The Cavs rank No. 21 in the league in drives per game right now. LeVert is one of the better drivers in the league, currently ranking No. 10 overall in drives. The Cavs are No. 27 in rim attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass. LeVert gets to the basket on 28 percent of his possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, and also takes 36 percent of his shots in the short mid-range area.
LeVert usually has enough burst and craft to beat the first line of the opposing defense with the ball in his hands and force rotations. Cleveland really needed someone else with that skill set.
Where LeVert can really help is his ability to anchor lineups as the primary creator when Garland goes to the bench. Right now, the Cavs are -4.6 points per 100 possessions without Garland on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. When Garland and LeVert are in the game at the same time, Cleveland needs to get LeVert to buy into being more of an off-ball movement shooter and secondary creator.
LeVert seemed to play a lot of hero ball during his time with the Pacers this season. The great Caitlin Cooper of Indy Cornrows said “LeVert had been extremely separatist from the offense this season and never quite seemed on the same page w/ how Carlisle prefers to play.” Here’s one example:
This is the epitome of the LeVert experience this season. Makes the zero-pass shot, but has no interest in running the offense as intended.— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) February 3, 2022
Note the reactions from Duarte and Carlisle when he keeps on what should've been a wing hand-off followed by a ball screen. pic.twitter.com/Y0JfHXsig9
LeVert has always been a good scorer, but his ascension has been held back a bit by a shaky three-point shot. He’s a 33.4 percent three-point shooter for his career, and he’s a bit below that this season. The biggest reason LeVert’s percentage is that low is because he struggles to make pull-up threes. LeVert is making 28.8 percent of his pull-up threes on three attempts per game this season. Meanwhile, he’s made 38.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes on 1.8 attempts per game.
Playing with Garland will be an adjustment for LeVert, because he was almost exclusively operating with the ball in his hands in Indiana. Almost exactly 40 percent of LeVert’s plays this year came as a pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy Sports, and he converted those opportunities at a rate that ranked in the 82nd percentile of the league. LeVert is also a solid playmaker when he wants to be, posting a career assist rate of 23.1 percent.
The mission for LeVert is to cook with the ball in his hands when Garland is off the floor, but become more of an off-ball threat when both players are on the floor together.
Cavaliers grade in LeVert trade: B+
LeVert is the right sort of player to target for the Cavs, but there are reasons to be skeptical of the fit, too.
LeVert has mostly been an inefficient scorer throughout his career with 53 percent true shooting. He doesn’t get to the line a ton — he’s No. 118 in the NBA in free throw rate this season — and too often it feels like he predetermines what he’s going to do instead of reacting to what he’s seeing from the defense.
He’s going to get paid soon, too. LeVert is under contract for one more season after this one making $18 million per year. Then he’ll be entering his age-29 season as a free agent looking to cash in for one more big deal. Is this the end of Sexton’s time in Cleveland with the scoring guard headed into restricted free agency? If so, choosing LeVert over Sexton is feels questionable, though maybe the Cavs can pick up something in a trade for Sexton, ideally a 3-and-D wing.
LeVert is the sort of player who leaves you wanting more, but the talent is there. Now he’s reuniting with former Nets teammate in his home state of Ohio. Playing on a good team near his hometown of Columbus with a new contract on the line is plenty of motivation for LeVert to turn into the best version of himself in Cleveland.
The Pacers start their rebuild
Indiana is just 19-36 this season. Unfortunately the Pacers just haven’t been fully healthy all year, and at this point they’ve accepted they aren’t going anywhere.
The team’s best players, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, have been in trade rumors all season, LeVert was an obvious candidate to go, too, because he’s good enough to help a contender, and he likely wasn’t someone Indiana planned to sign long-term.
Cleveland’s first rounder should be in the mid-20s this year. The Rockets’ second round should fall in the very early 30s. It might not seem like an incredible return at first glance, but getting two shots at players in in the same tier is a nice little way to start a rebuild. If the Pacers even hit on one of those picks, it would be a big help long-term. Now they have two extra chances, in addition to their own first round pick, which is currently slated to be No. 5 right now.
Pacers grade: B+
Maybe LeVert could have fetched a better first round pick this offseason, but locking in two picks in the 25-35 range is a solid haul. This feels like the starting point of a Pacers rebuild.