If you had to sum up the general theme for the 2020-21 campaign for the Cleveland Cavaliers, it would have to be injured. Nearly every player on Cleveland’s roster has missed minutes at one point or another due to injuries but the latest injury report features Jarrett Allen (concussion), Larry Nance Jr. (non-COVID related illness) and Dylan Windler (knee). Windler has been a fringe member of the Cavaliers’ rotation this season but Allen and Nance are key pieces that have missed extended time. Allen has been out since he took a nasty blow to the head from Lakers center Marc Gasol. Nance, meanwhile, has reportedly lost 20 pounds due to what has been dubbed a “mystery illness”.
While Allen and Nance have been sidelined, other members of Cleveland’s stable of big men have stepped up. Kevin Love, who had missed the majority of the season due to an ongoing calf injury, has been stellar - averaging 14.5 points on 41.5% shooting along with 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists. While Love’s contributions have kept the Cavaliers afloat, he hasn’t been the biggest surprise for Cleveland. Those honors belong to Isaiah Hartenstein and Dean Wade. Hartenstein, who the Cavaliers recently obtained in the JaVale McGee trade with the Denver Nuggets, has averaged 10.3 points on 60% shooting, 8.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 blocks in 23.5 minutes. Wade, meanwhile, has averaged 10.4 points on 44.4% shooting, 6.0 threes, 5.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 steals in 32.5 minutes.
For Hartenstein, a former second-round pick who hardly played for the Nuggets, and Wade, a former undrafted free agent who hardly played for the Cavaliers, they both have made the most of an opportunity. But, it also creates a big problem for Cleveland’s rotation. With a few days off before a back-to-back series against the Charlotte Hornets and Golden State Warriors, Allen and Nance have been given proper time and signs point to them both being available this week. Nance said as much when he tweeted, “Back Soon” using Emojis. Both Allen and Nance were able to practice before the team headed to Charlotte so all signs point to them coming back sometime this week.
It’s great the Cavaliers are getting closer to finally being at full health. But, it also makes things difficult for head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to finalize his rotations when the team is at full strength with Allen and Nance possibly returning. Right now Kevin Love, Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro, Matthew Dellavedova and Taurean Prince are all guaranteed minutes in Cleveland’s rotation. Add Allen and Nance back into the mix and that makes the Cavaliers rotation go eight or nine players deep, which is the usual amount for an NBA team and the amount Bickerstaff typically rolls with.
Knowing that it seems likely that both Hartenstein and Wade will likely see their minutes reduced going forward as Nance and Allen are reintegrated into the rotation. Once that finally happens, Hartenstein and Wade will likely get ninth-man or fringe minutes in Cleveland’s rotation. But, with how well they performed while Allen and Nance were away, it makes it hard for Bickerstaff to cut the minutes of either Hartenstein or Wade.
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“It’s going to be tough,” said Bickerstaff. “We’re going to have to make some tough decisions. We’ve got to make some decisions that are best for the short term and some decisions that are best for the long term.
“Obviously we’ve got to find a way to get Larry and Jarrett back on the floor - they’ve been guys that can be productive and help us. In their absence, Isaiah and Dean Wade have been really good. So, we’re going to have to figure that out. Again, we can experiment with some things, we’ve tried Larry at the three at some point, so there may be opportunities to do that. But, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions.”
Thankfully, there is a possible solution that won’t disrupt the balance of things too much. All it would take is Bickerstaff expanding his rotation to go ten players deep instead of his usual eight or nine. That way, both Hartenstein and Wade can continue to contribute while on the floor for the Cavaliers, even if it’s at a reduced rate compared to now. But, that solution also creates a new problem as well - who should get more minutes between Hartenstein and Wade?
To answer that question, you have to look at what both Hartenstein and Wade bring to the table individually. In Hartenstein, you get a more traditional big man that operates as a pick and roll threat that can also provide defense and tertiary playmaking. With Wade, meanwhile, you get a perimeter-oriented big man who can also provide defense and some secondary playmaking as well. So, it seems like it all depends on the unique trait either player brings to the table individually.
Due to the threat he provides on the perimeter, coupled with the fact that Hartenstein has averaged 3.6 fouls per game in his increased role, Wade seems like the logical option for the Cavaliers. Wade can allow Bickerstaff to get creative with five-out lineups that feature the former Kansas State Wildcat alongside Garland, Sexton, Okoro and Love. Cleveland can also try a different wrinkle for their somewhat unconventional big lineup, which typically features Okoro, Nance, Love and Allen, with Wade swapping spots with Nance to provide a stronger threat from the perimeter. Bickerstaff could even lean fully into the all-big look and go with a lineup that plays Okoro as the point guard, Nance as the shooting guard, Wade as the small forward, Love as the power forward and Allen as the center. Would it work all the time? Probably not. But, it’s something that could be worth exploring at some point for the Cavaliers.
But even though it makes sense on paper to give more minutes to Wade, it doesn’t mean Hartenstein should be phased from the rotation entirely. Instead, it should depend on the opposing matchups on a night-to-night basis. Like, let’s say Cleveland is taking on the Philadelphia 76ers - who have a stable of big players led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. It would be remiss of the Cavaliers and their coaching staff to expect Allen alone to contain players of that size. That’s when it makes sense to take some minutes from Wade and give them to Allen instead.
Hartenstein’s playmaking ability also is genuinely intriguing and could create some fun offensive wrinkles for Cleveland as well. Bickerstaff shared that he wants to embrace Hartenstein’s passing and explore playing him more alongside Nance - another tertiary playmaking big. Doing this could unlock the off-ball abilities of players like Sexton and Garland further, especially on the perimeter, and make the Cavaliers harder to defend all over the floor. It also would create a fun dynamic between Hartenstein and Nance as well, with either being able to serve as a lob threat or pick and roll partner.
In the end, it looks like it was somewhat a blessing in disguise for Cleveland when both Allen and Nance were sidelined. It led to the emergence of Hartenstein and Wade, who will likely be key members in the rotation both now and in the future. It also creates a few tough personnel decisions for the Cavaliers but having too many talented players on your roster is a good problem to have. It should lead to plenty of fun, and interesting, options for Bickerstaff and his staff to toy around with as Cleveland looks to finish up its season strong.