Without veteran point guard Ricky Rubio leading the bench unit, the Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled to maintain the offensive coordination that Darius Garland has provided in the starting lineup.
The Cavaliers signed combo guard Ty Jerome this offseason as a third option in the backcourt, but since Rubio stepped away from professional basketball, Jerome has filled a larger role than initially expected. Additionally, when Garland and Jerome were both unavailable due to injury, Cleveland’s only option for a bench point guard was undrafted rookie Craig Porter, Jr. who is currently on a two-way contract.
Porter and Jerome have served well off the bench, but neither player is a true playmaker for the second unit. Jerome has averaged 1.5 assists in his first two appearances with the Cavs and is averaging .5 turnovers. Overall, Jerome has held his own. At 6-foot 5-inches, Jerome is a tall guard who can shoot from range and provide some size in an undersized backcourt.
Called up from the Cleveland Charge, Porter showed terrific confidence, but he only recorded three assists over his three appearances. Porter has not had enough time with the main roster to learn the system, and his limited availability for the Cavs as a two-way player will likely stop him from growing that connection.
Throughout the first two weeks of the season, Garland has only played 94 minutes in the three games he has played. His necessity for the Cavs offense has already become undeniable, though, with an on/off difference of +10.6 so far, per Cleaning the Glass. In his fifth NBA season, Garland has already established himself as the leader of the young contender. Cleveland plays their best basketball with somebody who can coordinate the offensive attack, but right now there is no Plan B behind Garland.
When Garland is hurt or having an off night, the Cavaliers struggle to maintain any level of consistency. After an astounding 115-104 victory against the Golden State Warriors, the Cavs followed it up with an embarrassing 120-128 loss in Oklahoma City. Cleveland gave up 17 points off of turnovers in the first quarter with Garland turning the ball over five times in the period. The Cavs ended the game with 20 turnovers, 9 of which came from Garland.
Right now, the Cavaliers’ offense can only run through Garland to achieve reliable results. Neither Mitchell nor LeVert has the level of court vision and awareness that Garland shows since both players are score-first guards. Evan Mobley and Max Strus have flashed playmaking talent this year but have not been initiating the offensive schemes.
Until the Cavs can find a trustworthy backup behind Garland, defenses can continue to break down Cleveland’s offense and force unnecessary turnovers.
Cleveland’s inconsistency and sloppy offensive play is not going to be solved miraculously by a point guard off the bench. The problems are still apparent with Garland on the floor if defenses can see through the Cavaliers’ plans. What a better backup point guard can offer, however, is another player who can read the opposing defense and help the rest of the team break through.
The backup facilitator role might be one of the most necessary players in the modern NBA. Expecting a flawless game from the starting backcourt or playmaker every night is a recipe for disaster, and the Cavaliers are learning this quickly this season.
As the team still settles into their culture, trading assets for a point guard might not be the best move. If they can land a premier backup guard such as Alex Caruso, then a trade is worth the risk. Otherwise, looking to free agency might offer some interesting options. A group of veteran guards are still available to sign, and the Cavs still have their final fifteenth roster spot open to use.
Unfortunately, there is no definite timetable for Rubio’s return, if there will be a return at all this season. Rubio is making $6.4 million this season and is still on a guaranteed roster spot, meaning the Cavaliers are missing out on both salary and roster availability due to his absence. Unless the Cavs decide to include Rubio in a trade for a different second-unit leader, that problem will likely continue throughout the course of the 2023-24 campaign.
The next step for Cleveland might be trusting in Ty Jerome to get healthy and improve as a playmaker fast. Jerome has been a dangerous shooter throughout his career and has shown flashes of playmaking, but he has never been a traditional backup point guard. The season is still young, and Jerome has time to gel.
Whether it comes through Jerome or somebody else, the Cleveland Cavaliers have to find a solution for their frustratingly unstable offense.