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Despite fluid role, Caris LeVert stays bought in with Cavaliers

Despite fluid role, Caris LeVert stays bought in with Cavaliers

For the vast majority of his career, Caris LeVert has been a high-usage player. With the ball in his hands, he puts pressure on defenses primarily as a downhill scorer and distributor. His unorthodox methods and pull-up abilities make him one of the most efficient isolation threats in the NBA.

This season, however, the Cleveland Cavaliers have asked much more of LeVert, who’s bringing a different kind of value that can’t be quantified: sacrifice and adaptability.

“The biggest challenge would probably be trying to adjust game-by-game depending on who's playing, matchups on the other side. Sometimes I've played the 4, I've never done that in life before,” LeVert told Basketball News following the Cavs’ win over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night. “So just playing different positions, just staying ready for different roles. 

“It's been pretty tough, but I think on the flip side, we're a super talented team. We're obviously on the winning side of things more times than not, so it's definitely fun to be on that side of it 'cause I've been on the other side of it too, where guys aren't necessarily playing to win and playing for stats. Here, it's completely different, so I think that's definitely been a plus."

Instead of moving him at the trade deadline as some expected due to his expiring $18.8 million contract, Cavs president Koby Altman and his front office held onto LeVert. Altman made it known publicly how much he appreciates the 28-year-old’s contributions and dedication to the team’s vision, even going as far as sharing the franchise’s interest in a potential contract extension this summer. 

“The thing that really speaks to me is, and I'm a softy for this, but guys that really want to be here,” Altman said last week. “Guys that show up every day to work, that have a great attitude, that whatever their role is — and he had to take a substantial step back, be a sixth-man type when he could be starting in the NBA on a lot of different teams — and being like, 'I want to make this work. I want to be here.' That's meaningful to me, that's meaningful to this organization and it's a big reason why he's here."

Asked about sticking around after the 3 p.m. buzzer sounded, LeVert was just glad not to be on the move for the third straight deadline.

“It's cool to, I guess, have a home for the rest of the season, not have to pack up and go somewhere else,” LeVert admitted. “I've done that the past two seasons. It's very stressful to do that and hectic, so it's cool to be with this group and finish the season out and see how far we can go. 

“The vibes are pretty high. Winning does that. You know, you win a lot of games... we're around each other, sh**, more than we are with our families. So obviously, you're gonna get really close to a group when you win a lot of games.”

Since his arrival a year ago, multiple members of the Cavs told Basketball News that LeVert has bought in with the organization, so much that he changed his diet and "was in the best shape of his life."

"Especially with his role changing so much, last year and this year, he's the same person every day," said one Cavs source.

On the current campaign, LeVert’s usage rate has dipped to 20.6% overall, per Cleaning The Glass — his lowest since he was a rookie with the Brooklyn Nets. According to NBA.com, he is fourth on the team in touches per game (49.9) and fifth in average dribbles per touch (3.07). In previous stops in Indiana and Brooklyn, those numbers were higher on average — especially before the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving era.

Even with that fact, he is one of four Cavs creating ~10 points per game off assists and third on the squad with 6.9 potential assists per game, which is one of the many reasons Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has spoken so highly of LeVert’s willingness to put the team first over everything else since he came into the fold.

“The first conversation we had when we traded for him, he told me, ‘Do whatever you need to do with me because I'm very adaptable,’” Bickerstaff said in early November. “And understanding himself, and not having an unrealistic picture of who he is allows him to do that and do it comfortably because a lot of people can’t. If you ask a guy to be different on a night-by-night basis, that's extremely difficult. And I think Caris, again, has showed that he can do it and I think he's only gonna get better at it.”

In addition to making the right plays on offense while Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell (and now, a returned Ricky Rubio) operate in the half-court, the Cavs have tasked the 28-year-old with more defensive responsibility as well.

“I knew as soon as we made the trade for Donovan, it was gonna be a different type of role for me. But I've always kinda been a player to do it all,” LeVert explained. “I think just this year, it's been a lot different just because I'm not necessarily on the ball as much. So the other parts of my game are gonna show a little bit more.

“It's something that is definitely uncomfortable at times just because I've always kinda just been that (go-to scoring option). That's been my role on a lot of teams. So I just try to put it all on the defensive end of the ball, make the effort plays, make the energy plays and try to win. Make winning plays.”

Specifically, Bickerstaff has pointed out how LeVert’s ability to get through screens allows Cleveland to avoid putting two on the ball. He’s deflecting passes, staying in front of his man near the perimeter and keeping the Cavs’ towering duo of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley closer to the basket.

“It’s huge, because although you have those big guys back there to support you, you don't want to put those big guys under duress all the time,” Bickerstaff said of LeVert’s impact on that end. “That (contribution), you know, allows the rest of your defense to just be in place. So, when shots go up, now you're in rebounding position and you can be better at finishing possessions.”

“I've always played defense, but I think when you're asked to do more on the offensive side of the ball, you kind of slack on that end sometimes,” LeVert added. “I think, with here, my role's not necessarily to score. It's more so to be a Swiss Army knife, do it all. It's more onus on my defense, so naturally, I'm just more locked in on that end.”

At the beginning of the season, he was a starter for the first 14 games of the campaign — first at small forward, then at shooting guard and even once as a point guard before eventually moving back to the 3. 

Then, it was ultimately determined that LeVert could do his best work off the bench, and he’s been a fixture of the second unit ever since (as long as the Cavs have been healthy).

“It was an easy conversation because Caris is easy to talk to and because of his willingness to do whatever to help the team. He reiterated to me that he was just all in. That literally came out of his mouth,” Bickerstaff said in late November when the change was made. “It was like, ‘Whatever you need me to do to help the team win and be better, that’s what I want to do.’ He is more comfortable with the ball in his hand. He was sacrificing a ton playing that kind of third position with those two guards and then obviously we throw it to Evan and JA, so his strength needs to be a rhythm that happens through the game. 

“It’s unfair to him to not allow him to catch a rhythm and then be on the floor at the end of games when we need him, and now, he has no rhythm and when the ball does find him, he’s disjointed. It’s a combination of doing what’s best for him but then when that’s our finishing lineup, he’s got a rhythm, he feels comfortable and he’s touched the ball and has had an impact. That’s what we’re looking for. Will it happen overnight? No. But we will continue to work at it and think it will work.”

Fast-forward from Nov. 18 to mid-February and the All-Star break, and LeVert’s numbers have been steadily similar to his season-long averages. He’s produced 11.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists over 41 games, making 42.0% of his overall field goals including a 34.9% clip from deep.

Even wilder, LeVert has attempted just 11 shots total over his last three contests heading into the All-Star break. That's the least volume he's seen in literally five years over a three-game stretch.

“I think for me, it's all about rhythm. When you take one a game, the percentages are gonna look a little off, same with your threes,” LeVert said. “When I play starter minutes, the attempts are there. Coming off the bench, it's a little bit different. If you make your first one, then the percentages look good. If you miss your first one, you may miss one each half, you're 0-for-2. If you go 0-for-2 for three straight games, the percentages look a little different. So, I try not to think too much about that and just go out there and hoop.”

There will come a time when the Cavs are going to need LeVert to revert to his ball-dominant self in certain situations. Altman believes having him as a ready-to-go spot starter is a luxury, and noted that in the postseason, there has to be someone who's able to break down his man one-on-one when Garland and/or Mitchell need to breathe a bit. 

"He can step right in and we won't miss a beat," said another member of the franchise.

LeVert's also able to catch the ball with momentum and make things happen when all three are on the floor together.

“Really lethal,” Garland said of LeVert earlier this season. “Because when me and Donovan are up top, there's not a lot that you can do with us, I believe. And then you've got to help a lot, which means Caris is open a lot more. We have a lot more opportunities for catch-and-shoots, attacking on closeouts – which he does best – getting to the rim, getting to that floater.”

“I consider him like Jordan Clarkson because he can get going at any time,” Mitchell said after a Dec. 2 win over Orlando. 

Once a point guard at Pickerington Central High School in the Columbus area before hitting a growth spurt, LeVert has always been able to deliver an on-target pocket pass, as well as a crafty wraparound after a drive to the bucket.

“I've always kinda had that. I've always been pretty good at reading the floor on drives. And I have great chemistry with JA playing three, four years together in Brooklyn. We used to do that a lot,” LeVert said with a laugh.

He’s picked up where he left off with his former Nets teammate in Allen, who's the only player to receive at least 50 assists from LeVert. Next on the list is Mobley, whom LeVert has dimed to 43 times.

LeVert hasn’t been perfect. There have been moments of ill-advised decisions on offense with turnovers in traffic and on defense such as fouling three-point shooters at inopportune times, for example.

Yet, there will be moments like a near-comeback effort in Philadelphia that unfairly get glossed over, where LeVert gets his hand on a ball or pressures his man to the point where a teammate gets a steal, or he slides to help on a defensive rotation when somebody needs it, or he makes a pass leading to a pass that leads to an assist, or he tips a loose ball up to himself and lobs it up for a teammate in transition.

When you look at the entire body of work and LeVert's activity, Cleveland would not be a top-four team in the East without him.

What's asked of him may differ every game, but he always makes sure to bring his best.

"I think just coming in and providing a spark,” LeVert said when asked how he can best help the Cavs the rest of the way. “That may be offensively, that may be defensively, that may be loose balls, that may be moving the ball and making sure we get a good shot every time. But I think that's been made clear, that's pretty much my role on this team. So just team-[first].”

“[There’s] just a resiliency. Things always haven't gone his way and things haven't been easy or perfect for him. But he's never once tucked his tail, he's never put his head down and had bad body language or been disruptive to his teammates or any of those things,” Bickerstaff said. “He's just continued to work and continue to try to help the team. And we appreciate that. As a coach, you appreciate a guy who doesn't let his own problems or successes get in the way of the team and that's who Caris is.

"All he cares about is trying to do what's right for the team and help as much he can.”

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