- Published: Mar. 20, 2023, 5:01 a.m.
By Chris Fedor, cleveland.com
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Caris LeVert knows what time it is.
It’s the time of year when the basketball-playing world becomes synonymous with madness. High school state championships. NCAA Tournaments. And soon, NBA Playoffs. It’s what Levert’s missed the last three years. It’s what he has been craving since his arrival from Indiana last year. What he’s been preparing for since the offseason, hoping to peak -- physically and mentally -- when the games matter most.
“I’m just trying to be more locked in,” LeVert said. “Playoff time coming and I know what that entails. I’ve been there a couple times, so I’m just trying to put myself in that mindset. My teammates give me a lot of confidence each and every night to just be myself, so they make it easy on me.
“I feel pretty sharp. My handle feels sharp. My jump shot feels pretty sharp. My conditioning feels up to par. I’ve kind of kicked it into playoff mode.”
In the face of constant scrutiny pertaining to his Cavs
fit and with rumors swirling about whether he would be traded ahead of the deadline, LeVert had a miserable February.
He averaged just 6.8 points on 40.7% from the field and 21.7% from 3-point range to go with 5.0 assists and 3.8 rebounds in 25.1 minutes. He scored double figures in just three of nine games. Twice he failed to make a basket. Those struggles led to even more chatter about whether Cleveland’s front office erred in not using his expiring contract to upgrade the roster.
But streaky LeVert has temporarily silenced the doubters with a turnaround month.
In nine March games, LeVert is averaging 14.1 points on 49.5% from the field and 46.7% from 3-point range to go with 4.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals. Providing a much-needed scoring boost of the bench, LeVert has tallied double figures in seven of nine games -- all while offering pesky defense, helping the Cavs to a 6-3 record this month, which has allowed them to keep holding off the hard-charging Knicks for the Eastern Conference’s fourth spot.
“It’s just a willingness to do whatever is necessary,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of LeVert. “You never have to worry about what Caris is going to do, what he’s going to bring, how hard he’s going to play, and how he’s going to impact winning. A lot of the things he does, they don’t put them in stat sheets, but his teammates feel it and they watch him sacrifice. They go out and do more because of his willingness to sacrifice.”
The Cavs acquired LeVert from Indiana in a midseason deal last February, hoping he would help them capture a playoff berth for the first time since the 2017-18 season. Upon his arrival, new teammate Darius Garland even referred to LeVert as the “missing piece” -- a perfect blend of scoring and playmaking to help lighten Garland’s load.
But for a variety of reasons, including a nagging foot injury a few weeks following the trade, the move didn’t work as planned.
After two disappointing, injury-filled months where LeVert never felt like himself following that trade, he looked in the mirror and questioned everything.
His diet. His workout routine. His conditioning regimen. His playing weight. He set out on a quest to become the best version of himself.
Those day-to-day changes, combined with renewed health, led to a transformative summer. Then, thanks to a standout training camp and preseason, LeVert was named the starting small forward, beating out five others in a fierce battle.
That only lasted a few weeks.
In mid-November, following a loss in Milwaukee that led to a lengthy heart-to-heart in the visitor’s locker room, LeVert and Bickerstaff mutually agreed a move to the bench was best. It would give him more freedom. It would keep him from hijacking offensive possessions designed for Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley or Jarrett Allen -- the four mainstays in the starting lineup. It would provide a little more roster balance and second-unit stability. That was the thinking anyway.
Few players have been asked to adapt more than LeVert.
“He’s one of the guys that goes unsung at times,” Bickerstaff said recently. “He’s been willing to take a different role for this team than who he’s been in the past. He defends multiple positions for us. He’ll rebound. He takes challenges. He just wants to help the team win.”
LeVert has played every position but center this season. He’s been a starter and reserve. He’s played on the ball and off. He’s closed some games and watched others. He’s played with the dynamic backcourt and without.
This diverse role isn’t one that’s best suited for him. He’s been asked to do stuff he’s never done before. With a ball-dominant style, he’s used to having more responsibility on the offensive end. This is the second-lowest usage rate of his career. He’s only averaged fewer shots and points once before -- his rookie campaign in Brooklyn.
“That’s how I was taught to play the game. It’s win or lose, you know what I mean? Individual performance is one thing, but I mean we all play to win the game and I feel like this team kind of embodies that. It’s not just me,” LeVert said. “I feel like my role has been very different throughout the season. But I think throughout all of that, the main thing is just make winning plays.”
An erratic, sometimes-maddening player by nature, LeVert’s season-long production has been wildly inconsistent. It fluctuates month-to-month, night-to-night and even possession-to-possession. Despite struggling around the rim, averaging the second-lowest two-point percentage of his career, LeVert is second on the team in 3-point efficiency -- a fascinating dichotomy for a guy not known as a bomber.
After months of trying to figure out where he fits -- or if he even does in the current construct of the team -- LeVert has finally settled in. He looks comfortable. He’s found a niche. Just not as the score-first, high-usage guard that Cleveland acquired from Indiana last year -- the reputation he’s always carried.
“He’s doing everything,” Bickerstaff said. “His defense has been superb. Offensively, not just shots going in but playmaking and creating for others. He’s taken steps and that’s the fun part about it. He’s one of our older players but that doesn’t mean he can’t continue to get better and I think what we’ve seen is a really, really well-rounded version of Caris. He’s obviously had some ups and downs, but he’s never let it get the best of him.”
“He’s raised his level,” Mitchell said of LeVert. “I think his role is a little more consistent now, which is easier to find a groove. He works. He’s in the gym every day. We all trust giving him the ball, putting him in the spots. And then defensively he is playing well too. That’s something I didn’t even realize about his game until I got here. You’re seeing it. Not always easy coming from a situation where you’re not really knowing what to expect every night to come in and do what he’s doing, especially at this part of the season, got to give him credit. He gives us a spark.”
So, how does Bickerstaff define LeVert’s nightly impact?
“I don’t know if you can,” Bickerstaff said. “But I know how much we appreciate it and I know how much his teammates appreciate it. For a guy who’s been a primary scorer the majority of his career, it’s even more difficult. That’s just the type of dude he is. He’s been willing to do whatever it takes.”
Of all five-man lineups to log more than 100 minutes this season, LeVert appears in Cleveland’s two most productive.
The Garland-Mitchell-LeVert-Mobley-Allen quintet -- the original starting five that was labeled a “death lineup” by one coach prior to the year -- has the team’s best net rating, outscoring opponents by 12.9 points per 100 possessions.
The Garland-LeVert-Isaac Okoro-Mobley-Allen fivesome comes in second with an 8.7 net rating.
LeVert is also second on the team in total deflections, trailing just the 7-foot Mobley, and third in steals. He’s guarded, among others, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, LeBron James, Anthony Edwards, Paul George, Tyler Herro and Bradley Beal.
In a potential first-round series against the Knicks, LeVert will likely check RJ Barrett and Jalen Brunson. Perhaps even Josh Hart at different points.
“We know that he can start on any team, but he’s taken a role that he’s started to get adjusted to and he’s really excelling in it,” Garland said of LeVert. “We love to see that from him.”
The 28-year-old swingman is also one of the few players on the roster with playoff experience -- even though the Nets were eliminated in the first round each of those two years. Given that wisdom and the trust he’s earned from Bickerstaff, LeVert will be a key component of the team’s postseason run.
And he’s ready for it. No matter what that involves.
“I think a lot of people look at me as just a scorer and someone who creates shots for himself. But I’ve always prided myself on being a complete player,” LeVert said. “If you watch me, I think you will see that.”