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