CLEVELAND, Ohio — Caris LeVert’s midseason arrival from Indiana raised expectations. It was supposed to be the needed jolt for a contending team getting buried beneath an intolerable pile of injuries that threatened to derail such a special year.
In hindsight, that trade — Ricky Rubio and multiple future draft picks, including the lottery-protected 2022 first-rounder that the Cavs keep — feels like false hope.
LeVert didn’t live up to the acclaim. Some of the letdown was his own doing. Some circumstances outside of his control.
Either way, the struggles lead to an unexpected question, one that seemed predetermined in February: Do the Cavs even want to entertain contract extension talks with LeVert?
“This is where I want to be,” LeVert said when the topic of his future came up Saturday afternoon during an end-of-season Zoom call. “They know that. The front office knows that. My teammates know that. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that contract extension, but I know where my heart is, I know where I want to be. We’ll see what happens going forward.”
For LeVert, playing on his third team in six years, that desire to stay is layered. It starts with people in the organization — front office, coaching staff, teammates, trainers, everyone. There’s also excitement surrounding Cleveland’s bright future. With three pillars to build around — All-Stars Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, and potential Rookie of the Year Evan Mobley — plus a 22-win increase from the season prior, there’s a widespread belief this past season wasn’t a fluke even though it didn’t end with a coveted playoff appearance.
“I think it meets everything,” LeVert continued. “As a player you want to play with guys who are extremely talented, obviously a good team and then good guys off the court. This is where I want to be. I definitely want to call this spot home. I don’t think anyone likes moving around, especially every couple of months. We’ll see what happens.”
The idea of re-upping LeVert is logical. Did the Cavs really deal that much draft capital, possibly even a first-round pick, to let him leave in free agency next summer? Despite his lengthy injury history (60 or fewer games in every season except 2017-18), a tendency to overdribble and hijack possessions, pedestrian numbers in 19 regular-season games and postseason inconsistency, LeVert is in the prime of his career. He’s also a proven scorer and capable, long-limbed defender that seems like a quality locker room fit.
The Cavs can find plenty of reasons they never got the real LeVert.
After playing four games immediately following the trade, and being referred to as the “missing piece” by Garland, LeVert stepped on a teammate’s foot in the first post-All-Star break get-together. That sprained foot kept him out for nearly a month. Midseason arrivals are challenging enough. That setback worsened his acclimation process. It took longer to learn the system, tendencies and verbiage. The same went for his teammates — where LeVert liked the ball, spacing, communication, strengths, weaknesses.
Believing LeVert will make a bigger impact next season is justifiable. I have guaranteed it.
“You will definitely see a different me and I can’t wait for that,” LeVert said. “I know this summer will be huge for everyone, but huge for myself as well. It’s a lot that I want to kind of tackle and get started on, so I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Internally, the Cavs had been wanting to see how LeVert would look in what could be a future starting five, playing alongside Garland, Mobley, Allen and Lauri Markkanen. Due to a variety of unknown factors, it took until the final game of the season.
That quintet played 24 total minutes in Friday’s 107-101 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. They had a blistering 119.6 offensive rating and stellar 102.2 rating on defense. An extremely small sample size against a generous defense, with those five on the floor together, the Cavs shot 53.8% from the field and 41.2% from 3-point range. They outscored the Hawks by eight points.
Pretty intriguing, right? Add it to the what-could’ve-been list.
“Injuries are part of the game. You never want to blame anything on that. But I think that definitely, down the stretch, I think the timing of the injuries kind of messed with the chemistry a little bit, as well as me coming in three quarters of the way through the season,” LeVert said. “The trade deadline, I think used to be closer to halfway but now it’s kind of at the end of the season. It was definitely a lot of things combined, but I think that all in all, the experience will help us going forward.
“You get more comfortable with people in general the longer that you’re around them and you feel more like yourself and you play more like yourself. So I think like you said, the human element of it, you can’t really do anything about that, but just be around the group and I think just for me diving into those relationships this summer, being around the guys a lot while still working on my game, I think it will be huge.”
The final two months were supposed to give the front office an opportunity for an honest evaluation of LeVert — a window into his fit. It didn’t get that chance. But LeVert’s under contract for next season (at about $18.8 million), so there’s technically no reason to rush into an extension — unless both sides are completely comfortable. The Cavs could also entertain trade opportunities — although that feels like selling low.
Collin Sexton’s restricted free agency makes this conversation a bit more complex. Sexton played just 11 games before suffering a season-ending torn meniscus. He continues to rehab following November surgery and vows to be full go by the start of training camp. Sexton is the incumbent starting 2 guard. LeVert plays the same position. The styles are similar. While LeVert could play small forward, something coach JB Bickerstaff toyed with, the Cavs seem committed to the three-big frontcourt, which means Lauri Markkanen remaining the 3.
Can Cleveland go into 2022-23 with LeVert and Sexton? Does LeVert’s presence impact the Sexton negotiations and vice versa? Would one be happy coming off the bench?
In 19 appearances, LeVert averaged 13.6 points — the lowest since his second year in the league. His foot was less than 100% for some of those games, not having the same explosive first step that’s critical to his success.
None of this is easy to process.
“Obviously people didn’t see our best, but I think that will light a fire under us and make us go that much harder this summer because we know we should still be playing right now,” LeVert said. “We’re good enough to still be playing right now. I think every day in our workouts, that will light a fire under us and just make us want it that much more for next year.
“I think we were a really good team this season. But if everyone keeps growing and keeps building in the same direction, and we stay together, I think the sky’s the limit for this group.”
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