For every team, there is that one guy who comes in, works hard, and does his job with no complaints. Guys that don’t care about what they’re going to get on their next contract or how much playing time they get. Guys that don’t stuff the stat sheet with 30-point triple-doubles, but have an impact that goes beyond the box score. These types of players are extremely valuable in the league.
The average NBA fan might not know the impact a guy like Lamar Stevens has had on the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Cavs are not here without him. They don’t get a top four seed, win 50 games, end a five-year playoff drought, or have a junkyard dog mentality without Stevens. He is the inspiration and embodiment of the Cavs new-found mantra. He has helped turn this franchise from slouches to budding contenders in the Eastern Conference.
Stevens was the culture changer for this iteration of the Cavs, and he will be missed.
Stevens came into the league with a chip on his shoulder. He was undrafted out of Penn State, despite being a two-time All-Big Ten player and had to claw his way into the NBA. The Cavs signed him to a two-way contract in 2020 and Stevens did not look back. He quickly became known for his tenacious work ethic and his relentless defense. This earned him a multi-year contract in 2021. He brought his underdog mentality with him and spread it throughout the Cavs’ locker room.
When the Cavs were going through their rough patch in 2019-20 and 2020-21 where they won 19 and 22 games, respectively, the team was viewed as a laughing stock. Even after they acquired Jarrett Allen in early 2021 and then drafted Evan Mobley out of USC in June of 2021, the Cavs were still not getting their respect. Stevens felt strongly about this, and as a result, he started to bark like a dog at practices, on the sidelines during games, and after wins as well. With his help, the Cavaliers embraced the underdog mentality and it did wonders.
During the 2021-2022 season, the Cavs doubled their win total and fell one game short of reaching the playoffs. They were no longer viewed as slouches. Stevens felt that the team had something to prove, and they played like that during every game. He changed the culture around a dormant franchise that needed a jolt.
When the Cavs acquired Max Strus in a sign-and-trade with the Miami Heat, that meant saying goodbye to Stevens and Cedi Osman, who had his share of moments with the Cavs over his six seasons with them, as well. In a three-team deal that also involved the San Antonio Spurs, Strus went to the Cavs, Osman, Stevens and a second-round pick went to the Spurs, and a second-round pick went to the Heat.
Strus was reportedly the Cavs’ top free agency target, and his shooting ability should unlock a new dimension to an offense that crashed and burned during the playoffs. Even if the Cavs found a way to keep Osman and Stevens, Strus and Niang are just better fits for the roster and would take minutes away from them. They are bonafide snipers that fill a huge need for the Cavs, as their lack of shooters led to their embarrassing first round exit to the New York Knicks. Losing a player like Stevens is hard, but this will make the Cavaliers better.
Having a player like Stevens is valuable in today’s NBA, though. He could care less about his stats. He just wants to win and do whatever it takes to be a great teammate. He will be missed in Cleveland, but luckily the team is well-positioned to carry on the junkyard mentality he brought to them.
Stevens will have a similar impact on the Spurs, and maybe he can help them “Let ‘Em Know,” like he did with the Cavs.