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Dissecting Darius: What he's shown, and still has to show

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Everyone has taken their turn on the bandwagon of blame this year.

Jarrett Allen had the stain of the Knicks playoff series, and was deemed ill-fitting with Evan Mobley.

JB Bickerstaff was almost fired at one point, almost certainly after a three-game losing streak in mid-December.

Donovan Mitchell was in the crosshairs to be shipped off after injuries to Darius Garland and Mobley put doubt into the Cavs season.

Mobley had to fix his shot or else and was criticized for not taking the leap.

Now, it’s Garland’s turn.

Coming off injuries, Mobley and Garland have taken slightly different paths.

Mobley has reacclimated well thus far with five double-doubles in seven February games, and has went 8-13 from three-point range. With that, the spotlight has momentarily shifted.

Garland is having a bit of a rougher go of it with a slower start start (10-35 3P) combined with an season slow shooting start (33 3P% would be a career low) and a higher turnover rate (although his AST/TO ratio has improved since returning). Any slack typically provided eroded away with a slow start to the season. Even with only having recently returned to play and eating solid foods, the weight and focus is now firmly on Garland’s shoulders.

Statistically speaking

Let’s look at some stats on where Garland was last year, where he was pre-injury and in the nine games since his return.

Net ratings
Last year
This year
Last 9 games
Mitchell + Garland
Allen + Garland
Mobley + Garland
Mobley + Allen + Garland + Mitchell

What’s abundantly clear is even with a less than healthy Garland, the pairings work. Maybe not as well as earlier in the year or last year but they’ve been effective. It’s important to keep that in mind.

For anyone saying Mitchell and Garland don’t work, they may want to look away at their net rating increasing this year. If you drop the Pistons game, Garland's first game back, their 2-man net rating jumps to +9.7.

Last year
This year
Last 9 games
Points per shot attempt
Potential assist per game
Passes made per game

Surprisingly, while his stats are still down from last year, he’s been more productive and efficient since he returned.

His assist numbers are returning to last year levels, his turnover percentage has significantly dropped from earlier in the year and is getting to be more in line with last year, and his offensive efficiency is better than before his injury.

The two big lags still from earlier in the year and last year are his defensive rating and plus-minus which haven’t quite reverted to previous levels. Although if he can reduce the defensive rating while maintaining his offensive rating, good chance is the plus-minus will begin to creep back up.

Last year
This year
Last 9 games
% of FGA fouled on
% of FGA at Rim
% of FGA at Mid-Range
% of FGA at 3PA
Rim FG%
Mid-range FG%
Catch & Shoot 3P%

The perimeter shooting struggles have been the most noticeable drop off this year and particularly since he’s returned. His 3P% is at career low rates and is currently Eric Snow levels in catch-and-shoot situations. There is bound to be some levels of positive regression to come especially as Garland gets his legs back.

However… the rest of the picture is actually pretty good. The part to pay close attention to is the difference in shot selection over the last two seasons. He’s swapped out mid-range shots for three-point shots while managing a good rim shot frequency especially this year (68th percentile). His increased efficiency around the rim, as well as increased shot frequency, has helped pick up the slack of the lost three-point efficiency and allowed him to have career high efficiency from the field.

The focus on the perimeter shooting has taken away the highlight on all of the other positive work he’s done to date.


(Credit to @BimboColesHair for bringing these next stats to light as they paint an interesting picture.)

Last year
This year
Last 9 games
Touches per game
Avg second per touch

The focus offensively during the stretch without Mobley and Garland was on player and ball movement. The ball was moving more, the players were moving more, and the ball was sticking less. This was allowing more opportunities for other players, putting more pressure on the defense, and not allowing heavy reliance on bail-out players (Mitchell, Garland) making bail out plays.

And it worked. The Cavs offensive rating during that stretch was 120.4 (6th in the league), their assist percentage was 66.5% (8th) and their eFG% was 56.8% (12th). Previous to the stretch, their offensive rating was 111.1 (25th), assist percentage was 60.2 (20th) and eFG% was 53.9% (19th).

It all looked fantastic and the stats backed it up.

Now flip to Garland and Mobley returning. It was understood there was going to be an adjustment period to getting Garland and Mobley to play like the team played when they didn’t play as opposed to reverting back to earlier in the season when the offense struggled. Particularly for Garland who is a on-ball player. Less touches, less time on the ball and more time off the ball is an adjustment for any player particularly a point guard. But, it’s for the better of the team and offensive moving forward.

Granted the minutes per game inadequacy is not reflected in the stats, which is harder to separate in touches per game, but… look at the usage percentage, or percentage of team plays used by a player while on the floor or otherwise associated with shot creation, and its drastic drop. For comparison, Caris LeVert’s usage percentage is 24%. That means LeVert and Garland are using the same number of possessions while on the floor whereas the disparity last year (18.7% for LeVert, 26.9% for Garland) highlights the previous difference in usage.

Most notable is the average seconds per touch… look at that! Garland was trending that direction this year already but since returning is already down .8 second compared to last year. For comparison, there is a .8 second difference in seconds per touch between Mitchell and LeVert this year. So, the same difference displayed in Mitchell versus LeVert average on-ball touch this year is what Garland has managed to show pre versus post injury.

So not only is Garland using less of the plays when he’s out on the floor he’s also touching the ball for less time when given opportunities. The pass more, move more, ball-don’t-stick mantra is showing itself in Garland’s numbers.

Looking at the film

There’s the stats test and then there’s the eye test. The more effective conclusions come when you can match both up. And for the most part, what you see on film is what you see on the stat sheets.

Let’s take a look.


One thing that Garland hasn't lost is his vision, particularly for his big men. 25 of his 54 assists since returning have gone to Allen or Mobley. If you want to count Wade and Niang as "bigs" bump that number up to 37. Include Damian Jones and it's 38.

Speaking to Garland's combination of creativity, vision and dribbling is his ability to snake through the defense off pick-and-roll action. This creates conflict for defenses not knowing to commit to Garland or commit to the roll as Garland has been equally known for his float game or lob threat. Once the defense shows its cards, Garland attacks.

On the other side of that, he's been extremely adept at the short mid-range shot attempts off pick-and-roll or downhill attacks that act as an intermediary between a contested mid-range shot and avoiding shot-blockers at the rim.

While his mid-range shot frequency is down in total, and among other areas, his short mid-range (considered between 4ft-14ft) remains in-line with previous years and accounts for 30% (41% total) of his mid-range shots.

Getting Garland downhill is a recipe for success particularly for kick outs. Once he gets going, he's tough to stop with the multitude of threats he posses: stop for a mid-range, continue for a floater, throw a lob or find an open shooter.

In the nine games since his return, Garland has only assisted on four Mitchell buckets. There have been times where it has worked (see left) but a lot of the time it hasn't worked (see right). Perhaps they're not on the same rhythm offensively after coming back but a point of emphasis should be finding Mitchell more on kick-out attempts to help the offense flow better. Even still, there's a bit of your turn, my turn dynamic if a play's first option breaks down.

In transition Garland does a good job finding kick out opportunities for perimeter shots but can improve coming off pick-and-roll situations where the bigs tend to be his first looks.

One area that got a little dicey on film was turnovers in the paint. While his turnovers have been down in his return (18 in nine games compared to 60 in 19 November and December games), there's an opportunity for improvement inside the key. Part of it could be timing, but oftentimes there's a bit of indecision, risk and waiting too long that can put Garland in difficult positions to pass out of.

An opportunity Garland needs to follows through on is punishing defenders going under. It occurred more often than you would think and too often in his return has the play been unsuccessful. Right read, good shot, just not the outcome. Keep punishing guys going under.

As detailed in the lead-in, the three-point shot is lagging behind. Most often the misses over the nine games were front of rim shots. Typically for that, it's a legs issue. But, there's also data before the injury that his shooting wasn't up to par either.

If the coaching staff is going to use Garland differently, there are some opportunities to do so effectively and they've started to scratch the surface of what that looks like.

Reducing Garland's touches, time per touch and placing him off the ball more doesn't mean he can't be a threat. In fact, he can be just as much of a threat. Utilize actions that get him moving to create space for a shot, and create stressful situations for the defense. How much do you help on off-ball screens? Do you trail and risk Garland getting an open look? If you trail, it also allows Garland to come off and get downhill. Do you overplay help, like you see with Steph Curry, and risk a slip action with the bigs?

All this movement and gravity is currently utilized by the Cavs with Sam Merrill. It's effective and has a ripple effect on the defense. Use Garland more in these ways will not only keep Garland in the action but keep defenses engaged.

One wrinkle JB Bickerstaff seems to enjoy is running horns action with Garland as the initiator and Mitchell and a big stationed at the elbows. You'll see one option the Cavs run here.

The other option they run at least once a game is a pick-and-roll to the bigs side with Mitchell following behind on an up screen for the big to free-up the roller while also popping up to the three-point line for a kick out look. Teams have defended this well with respect to Mitchell but it's also been a missed read by Garland once he gets downhill.

If he's not in the action, Garland can also use his gravity to create spacing. It's much in the same way Max Strus has done with his presence, and why the team is so much more effective while he's on the floor. A threat is just as effective as an attempt.

However, Garland has to remain engaged in the action. There's inconsistencies in what his off-ball movement and readiness looks like. Too often, for my liking at least, he was at depths that render him useless as a threat. Catching the ball in these spots will do no good.

OSpotup copy.jpegOSpotup.jpeg

If you're going to do it: Move as the ball moves, sink to positioning conducive for a pass, and get your hands and feet shot ready. Garland can and should feast off these attempts with Mitchell on the floor much in the same Wade, Merrill and Okoro did when Garland was out.

Finally, these are the plays you're paying Garland for. Only so many players can make these plays.

When people talk about Mitchell and Garland can't work, show them this. You need a relief valve in crunch time moments and in the playoffs to create and make plays like these. It cannot be put all on the shoulders of one player. The best teams have more than one crunch time option. The Cavs have two in Mitchell and Garland that can create shots for themselves and others.


Here's where things take a turn a bit.

Garland's defensive rating is in-line with where it's been throughout his career but Garland's defensive net rating is far higher (112.1) in his return than previous. The thing is, it hasn't been that way in the past. It's been nearly four points lower as recent as last year, and his defensive rating in the playoffs was 107.1.

You can point to the lack of physical stature or positional size but defense is mostly about effort. Look no further than Merrill. Not the quickest, not the biggest and can get beat laterally but it doesn't stop him from being passable enough defensively where they can't hunt him.

With Garland, the effort comes and goes too often. It's there at times and gets you excited but then it goes and gets you disappointed. When the effort is present, there's no reason he can't be a passable or net neutral defender.

Part of maturation as a player is not allowing a previous possession to impact the current possession. And as a point guard, it's managing the control of the whole team. Too often Garland can be stuck mentally in a previous position or let the flow of the game up until that point weigh on him too heavily. Just like they tell shooters to have a short memory, so too should point guards and particularly Garland.

But enough anecdotal, let's dive into what is on tape.

I.... sigh. Just baseline effort here and it's at least a contested shot. Every possession matters in the playoffs and these types of defensive plays are killer.

Part of the reason why the Mitchell-Wade-Okoro-Strus-Allen lineup worked so well, especially defensively, is there were no plays off defensively. Even if there was a missed assignment or blow-by, the effort to follow that up was there. It needs to be there on a more consistent basis for Garland.

Don't fake getting caught in the screen, get though it and contest.

If there's another place effort shows up it's in transition. How many times I yelled "GET BACK!" flipping from offense to defense was noted in my notes.

Not every transition play is going to end in a stop but the point is to recover enough to give yourself a chance not give up a bucket.

Here, Garland and his man are even to start the play. Look where Garland and his man end up at the end of the play.

The lack of defensive attentiveness shows up in help defense.

When you're in off-ball position you're supposed to be in tune with your man, and the ball at all times. Depending on the player you're guarding, it will either allow you to sag off more to help on any potential blow-by's or force you to squeeze up to the shooter to play your man and not allow open shots.

De'Aaron Fox is likely more of the latter BUT, if you're going to be in some help side position at least show and recover on a drive by or dig at the ball to offer some resistance. Allowing a defender to go by and not be in a position to help your teammate or your man is in no man's land.

Speaking of no man's land, Garland can get lost in no man's land off the ball at times.

If effort is 1a on defense, 1b would be off-ball awareness.

Garland can put himself in spots where he is caught ball watching instead of keeping his three points of contact (ball, you, man), and it puts himself in difficult positions to recover once kick outs happen off drives.

Perhaps more so a pet peeve but a very fixable aspect of Garland's defensive game is closeouts. The thought and effort are there but the execution can be lacking.

Let's not pretend trying to closeout on today's NBA players is any easy task with the combination of athleticism and shooting they possess however, Garland can get overambitious in closeouts putting himself in a position of needing help rather than being the one providing help.

This is an easy fix for Garland -- short, choppy, under control steps instead of flying out of control.

The part of this to reconcile is there is good plays out there as well. It's not like good tape doesn't exist, it just only exists when the effort and/or mood of Garland is there.

The one place where Garland does seem to fair better is on-ball. Perhaps because it requires his full attention and focus to lock in and defend well.

Take Fox again here for example. The effort, stance, and hands all come together for a positive defensive possession that forces a tough, contested shot. Having Shai Gilgeous-Alexander arms and hands may help the contest here but everything leading up to the shot attempt is in Garland's toolbox each and every defensive possession. Shut off the initial offensive move, navigate the screen, recover and contest without fouling.

Garland can get hung up on screens in pick-and-roll situations, or as seen earlier with the Pistons screen to open shot, but Garland has it in him to fight through screens, recover and present a good defensive look.

Isaac Okoro is one of the best in the NBA in having the tenacity, lateral quickness and strength to fight through screens. Garland isn't going to win the same way Okoro does but he can still win. Garland has the quickness to evade or bypass some screens; he has the quickness to recover off of screens; and he has the lateral agility to move once in a position to get near his defensive assignment.

Take the Toronto game for example: He gets caught up in the initial screen a bit but tries to get small to get through. After Mobley shows enough to let Garland recover, he's able to fight to get around Quickley to be between him and the rim. Off of that, Garland is able to stay with him laterally, take a bump and not foul on the drive or shot attempt. The contest leads to a tough fadeaway shot and the possession is a defensive win for Garland.

Again, the bad is the bad above but the good is also quite good and it's well within his reach to obtain it more consistently especially if his offensive role requires less energy.

When we talk about good help and a good closeout, this is what that looks like.

The rotation, closeout and help are all crisp on this defensive possession. The shot goes in but that's a shot you live with 100 times out of 100. If they make the shot, it's not because of a poor defensive execution it's just in some cases better offense can beat better defense.

Give me more of this Garland!

Key takeaways

All of yapping and the question needs to be answered: How does Garland return to form and help the Cavs win a playoff series?

  • Get his legs and perimeter shot back (which he's due for)
  • Be better about being shot ready off-ball -- move with the ball, be in a threatening position, and be ready for catch and shoot
  • Coaching staff to utilize Garland more in off-ball sets, taking advantage of his gravity and shot making
  • Keep the vision up and the turnovers down
  • EFFORT defensively -- no empty possessions
  • Show more attention off-ball both to your man and to help opportunities
  • If you compete, contest and do your best, you can't fault the defensive outcome
  • Win non-Mitchell minutes -- Garland led lineups were a -8 without Mitchell on the floor. If you're going to stagger, make sure you're winning those minutes or at the very least come out even
A lot of eyes are on Garland, and rightfully so with this being the first year of his extension kicking in. However, the stats and film marry up to paint a picture of a player who is playing well offensively despite some shooting struggles (not efficiency) but needs to improve his consistency defensively to produce at the levels needed to win a/multiple, playoff series.

We'll see where this path leads the second half of the season but if it's any indication of how resilient this team and individual players have been, Garland's bounce back might be right around the corner.

Then all eyes on ___________?
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You say the Mitchell-Garland net rating improved this year but then the stats you give show it declining by like, a lot? Seems like it would significantly change the tone of your article if you acknowledged that.

Also, your Mitchell-Garland net ratings should be compared to other Mitchell lineups, since Donovan is positive with everybody.

Good job generally tho!
You say the Mitchell-Garland net rating improved this year but then the stats you give show it declining by like, a lot? Seems like it would significantly change the tone of your article if you acknowledged that.

Also, your Mitchell-Garland net ratings should be compared to other Mitchell lineups, since Donovan is positive with everybody.

Good job generally tho!

To what are you referring? The core four net has dropped but Garland-Mitchell has a slight bump in the chart he included.
You say the Mitchell-Garland net rating improved this year but then the stats you give show it declining by like, a lot? Seems like it would significantly change the tone of your article if you acknowledged that.

Also, your Mitchell-Garland net ratings should be compared to other Mitchell lineups, since Donovan is positive with everybody.

Good job generally tho!
Yes, the Mitchell + Garland net rating has dropped in the nine games since Garland's return but the overall net rating year over year has increased... Also, if you drop the Pistons game, the Mitchell + Garland net rating for their February games jumps to +9.7...

If you drop the Pistons game from the core four, the net rating for them pops back up to +7.4 for February games which is much closer to last year's mark and a significant jump from earlier in the year..

Other Mitchell lineups (last year, this year, last 9 games):
Mitchell + Mobley: +5.8, +4.2, +4.1
Mitchell + Allen: +9.6, +12.2, +18.4

We can slide Okoro, Wade and LeVert in there too:
Mitchell + Okoro: +4.4, +10.2, +27.7
Mitchell + Wade: +6.6, +13.9, +21.3
Mitchell + LeVert: +5.9, +11.8, +36

Garland + Okoro: +8.2, +6.8, +13.7
Garland + Wade: +9.9, +5.9, +18.4
Garland + LeVert: +7.9, -0.8, +9.3

Keeping Garland + Mobley and Mitchell + Allen paired as those have primarily been the best pairings between the two going back to last year..

Okoro + Mitchell didn't really start to take off as a pair until this year but Okoro + Garland has always been one of Garland's stronger 2-man pairings...

Wade is incredibly effective in just about any lineup with any player...

Similar to Okoro for Garland, LeVert and Mitchell have always meshed well whereas Garland + LeVert have too but not as well to start the season..
I see, I was looking at Garlands stats not Garland + Mitchell. I don’t think Garland + Mitchell tells you much if anything though as I imagine Mitchell’s net ratings have gone up across the board with everybody. Mitchell has a +12.5 on-off this year (Lebron territory!) but he was barely positive last year! We are +11 when he’s on and -1.5 when he’s off this year but last year we were about +5 when he’s on or off. So any improvement in the net rating of the Garland/Mitchell pair is probably about Mitchell, not Garland.

My concern is that we made a mistake rushing to max Garland out and I can’t say this post puts my fears to rest. Excellent post overall though.
Also, can’t remember if you did this, but it seems worth noting that Garland’s bottom line overall on-off has moved from a +5.9 last year to a -3.4 this year. That’s a really major swing and it’s a more reliable and important number than these lineup on-off figures that a lot of people seem to focus on.
Great work Smooth! One thing I have noticed with DG's passing game especially since he has come back is that he is looking for those kickouts more. I always felt this was a weakness in his passing game but he has really made major strides here since the jaw injury
Great article Smooth!

How long did it take to research and write this?
Agree with you on Garland needs to keep his head up and his off ball awareness needs better work. I would add one more item is that he needs to make the ball moving when situations he dribbled a little too much. That allows the defense to be set and our offense more predictable. I believe over time he will be able to expand his offense and make quicker decisions.
Great article Smooth!

How long did it take to research and write this?
Agree with you on Garland needs to keep his head up and his off ball awareness needs better work. I would add one more item is that he needs to make the ball moving when situations he dribbled a little too much. That allows the defense to be set and our offense more predictable. I believe over time he will be able to expand his offense and make quicker decisions.
Too long... :chuckle:

I really interested to see how the touches per game and average time per touch changes now that the minutes restriction is lifted and he should be more acquainted physically... Does he revert back to old Garland, or does he develop along with this offense and he's able to better adapt to what his new role may be?

They need a little of the old Garland at times but the offense has evolved and so does Garland -- it's for the betterment of this team..
Great work Smooth! One thing I have noticed with DG's passing game especially since he has come back is that he is looking for those kickouts more. I always felt this was a weakness in his passing game but he has really made major strides here since the jaw injury
To that point, some of those clips I had but didn't add:


Rubber Rim Job Podcast Video

Episode 3-13: "Backup Bash Brothers"

Rubber Rim Job Podcast Spotify

Episode 3:11: "Clipping Bucks."