The Cleveland Cavaliers are stocked with young guards following the 2019 NBA Draft—their first since LeBron James bolted for Los Angeles.
With the fifth pick on Thursday night, the Cavs plucked Darius Garland from Vanderbilt, a shooting and playmaking point guard that was one of the few names discussed as an elite scorer. Later in the night, the Cavaliers traded a hefty sum to move to the 30th selection, where they took a flier on Kevin Porter Jr., a talented but troubled guard from USC.
Drafting two guards with lottery talent would normally leave fans in Cleveland rejoicing about the future. However, when placed in the context of last year’s draft headlined by their selecting point guard Collin Sexton, the question needs to be asked: Can the Cavaliers really make this many ball-dominant guards work?
New head coach John Beilein has been amenable to multiple guard fronts as a head coach at the University of Michigan, and I’ve already written extensively about the fit of Beilein’s offense at the NBA level.
The main two-guard motion he runs is predicated around having simultaneous cutters that leads to different two-man actions:
The ability of dual scoring threats within this offense prevents defensive gameplans from keying in on personnel after multiple cuts. But it is an offense predicated on cutting and passing more than quick ball screens or multiple screens on one possession. Neither Garland nor Sexton are fantastic finishers, particularly off of cuts.
Beilein did give a glimpse through the looking glass on Friday at Garland’s introductory press conference, mentioning the way his offenses at Michigan worked back in 2013 when the Wolverines made a run to the National Championship game.
“It is truly a two-guard front,” Beilein remarked at the presser. “It opens the floor so much for everyone because you can put people in the corners. The court’s open and it really allows the guards to have so much more freedom. That’s the traditional way it is, whether it was back at Michigan, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway back there or Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, it was just sort of this open court that really allowed them to have a lot of freedom.”
Over the last ten years at Michigan, Beilein’s teams had a fairly balanced facilitation load in terms of assists. Six of the ten years, the top two assist leaders were separated by two or fewer dimes per game:
Yet, assists are only part of the picture.
Combine scoring and passing and we’re looking to confirm that if two equal threats exist within the Michigan offense, would they both garner respectable and equitable output?
The results are indicative of an even more balanced system between two lead guards:
Each of the last six seasons—since lottery pick Trey Burke was first manning the point—Michigan has seen around five points or fewer per game separating their top two guards. Some teams were even more balanced when players like Caris LeVert or Charles Matthews (at the wing) was able to give the Wolverines a third option.
The bottom line: Beilein isn’t blowing smoke when he says his team really does not rely on one point guard.
Garland and Sexton, or one with Porter Jr., can certainly coexist. A facilitating wing like Cedi Osman, who can also create, would add another dimension to the offense. Beilein’s done it before and will attempt to do it again, so long as both lottery picks are willing to accept a lesser role of the offense.
In theory, Garland and Sexton play off each other well. Garland was an expert shooter at Vanderbilt: His three-point range and accuracy were the strongest parts of his limited tenure there. Meanwhile, Sexton surprised greatly during his first professional season, shooting 40.2 percent from deep. The shared ability to stretch NBA defenses will allow both to operate with space and compliment each other well.
Despite featuring multiple players in a motion-esque system, the two-guard offense can be easily predicated on whoever initiates the plays. At least in true motion, the initiator of the action will usually make a pass, cut through the lane and get the ball back before receiving a side ball screen. Offense is predicated on structured cutters, with deliberate movement that leads into a pick-and-roll for that initiator the vast majority of the time.
Two-guard is only balanced in a few ways: If the initiator is frequently changed or if the coach calls up some sets to level the balance.
Unfortunately, Garland only played five games at Vanderbilt and was fairly inconsistent in ball screens. His team, a group that did not win an SEC game after his year ended, was poor around him, distorting the realism of how he’d perform in NBA spacing.
Sexton, on the other hand, is a purely average passer out of the pick-and-roll. He can deliver some strikes to teammates waiting on the weak side, but he’s far better at playing a two-man game in the middle of the floor with his screener. He has a tendency to over-dribble as he gets closer to the rim and lacks highlight-caliber vision.
Nonetheless, he can continue improving his decision-making via the pace he has off the bounce and his ability to put pressure on the rim at full-speed. He showed glimpses of making great feeds to both the weak side and the throwback out of the pick-and-roll as a rookie:
The Cavaliers ran a lot of Pistol offense in his first season, so Sexton saw glimpses of empty-side ball screens and corner-filled side ball screens. Those are both staples of the Princeton offense that Beilein brings to Cleveland. But many of the other results from Sexton’s rookie campaign can be thrown out the window.
One area the Cavaliers can exploit is through Larry Nance Jr., one of the league’s most gifted passers off the short roll. Playing Nance at the 5, and utilizing him as a screener, could be key to utilizing the role-playing shooters and maximizing the spacing that two shooting point guards provide.
Side ball screens that finish the two-guard motion sets are frequent, and shooters like Garland and Sexton are certain to draw aggressive hedges from defenses that do not want to switch. That shooting prowess opens up Nance for the short roll.
And if the drafting of Dylan Windler is any indication, the Cavs plan on surrounding him with as many corner-shooting wings as possible.
Seriously, if there is one player who has not gotten enough publicity for his passing ability in this league, it may be Nance:
Garland and Sexton may never become high-level passers but can do their job by scoring and shooting. Defenses that respect their outside shooting, both in pick-and-roll and away from it, open up lanes for others to make plays. A 5-man that can make plays for others as a smart passer in these situations is a necessity.
The short roll for Nance is only available as a means of offense versus certain types of ball screen defenses. Drop coverage can shorten the window for a pocket pass to the roller, and switching negates the need for any sort of hedge. That means Nance’s most valuable skill is only applicable against certain opponents.
Beilein is also able to dial up some plays to utilize one shooter and to throw the defensive focus away from the initiator. One old action from several years ago sees the initiator come off a stagger for a three-pointer while another guard stands weakside and comes off a pick-and-roll with a designed slip. It leverages one guard as a shooter:
If there is one thing we have learned from the countless iterations of dual creators, it’s that the offensive outputs tend to be high while the defense is the area that can struggle.
Neither Garland nor Sexton are particularly high-level defenders, at least at this stage of their careers. In order for the Cavaliers to become true contenders in the future, they will need both to become at least average defenders or be blanketed by elite ones.
The offense will be built on these two moving, regardless of what the franchise does long-term with Kevin Love. Both are fantastic scorers and shooters out of the pick-and-roll, and they consistently make threes at a high rate off it.
Their synergistic fit as creators—for each other and for their teammates—will unlock their potential to thrive in unison.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.