Lamar Stevens is making an impact


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After pulling off one of the biggest and most surprising trades this off-season to add All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell to their young up-and-coming roster, the Cleveland Cavaliers entered the new season with plenty of questions to answer. One of the biggest questions was regarding who would fill the starting small forward spot vacated by Lauri Markkanen, who was sent to Utah in the Mitchell trade. Many fans hoped that the problem would just solve itself by Isaac Okoro, the #5 pick in the 2020, taking a much-anticipated leap and flourishing in an expanded role. While the 21-year-old does indeed seem to be coming into his own, his development is still going to take some time; instead it is the undrafted free agent pickup Lamar Stevens who has seized his opportunity as the 5th starter next to the All-Star caliber quartet of Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. After experimenting with several different options with mixed results, Stevens appears to be the best fit.

Stevens initially went undrafted in 2019 and started on a two-way contract with the Cavaliers. Since then, he has proven himself to be an integral part of the Cavaliers’ young core and new identity. His defense, in particular, is what earned him minutes, as he has progressed from a reserve to a rotation player to a starter. Cleveland has the third-best defense in the NBA, behind only the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks, and Stevens is a big part of that. Currently, he has a defensive rating of 108.2, which is better than that of other teams’ best defenders but only has him ranked sixth on the Cavaliers roster. Regardless of defensive rating, however, Stevens is the team’s best perimeter defender and takes on some of the toughest defensive assignments across the league. Stevens is a physical defender, who is proud of putting in the work on that end of the floor and has no fear, as his coach and teammates have noted in interviews. This fearlessness is important because if you guard some of the league’s top players night after night, you cannot be disheartened by the fact that they will score on you, no matter how solid your defense is. Stevens knows that, never gives up, and also holds his teammates accountable on defense.

The Cavaliers are one of the best teams in the East, but they still play with the same scrappy underdog energy that first catapulted them into the picture last season and Stevens embodies that very same energy on defense. He can guard isolations at a high level and stay in front of ball-handlers, constantly pestering even some of the best scorers in the league. In the Cavaliers’ first game against the Dallas Mavericks, Stevens played what was probably the best defense Luka Doncic had to face all season long. Stevens stayed with Doncic every possible second, even when the ball was nowhere near him, and it got under Doncic’s skin. The Mavericks’ star was visibly frustrated and finished with an inefficient 30 points on 9-23 shooting from the field and 2-8 shooting from three. Doncic had to work hard for every bucket and had almost as many turnovers as assists. Altogether, containing Doncic like this was a team effort with different players taking him on from time to time and a solid help defense, but Stevens led the charge.

Stevens has a track record of pestering stars on defense. He guarded Giannis Antetokounmpo for 38.9 partial possessions and over that stretch, Antetokounmpo only scored 4 points on 2-9 shooting from the field. A similar fate fell onto Dejounte Murray, who only shot 1-6 from the field and 1-4 from three with Stevens as his defender. Karl-Anthony Towns similarly struggled against the Cavaliers’ defensive weapon, as he made only two of his four field goal attempts and missed all three shots, he took from behind the arc over 20 possessions. The list of players struggling against Stevens’ defense does not end here, but these three names show his versatility, as he is able to guard players of various sizes equally well, can switch onto anyone and does not hesitate to get in the way of bigger players either.

Moreover, Stevens only averages 1.5 fouls per game, which is not a lot for someone who guards some of the best players and is so active on switches. The key to that is that he cleanly contests three-point shots, closes off the baseline and stays on his feet in the paint. So far, moving Stevens to the starting lineup looks like a smart move. It adds some defensive reinforcements to the Garland-Mitchell backcourt and allows Caris LeVert, who often found himself in the starting lineup before, to provide a scoring boost and playmaking off the bench. Now, Stevens just needs to stay a reliable scoring threat to take some defensive attention away from Garland and Mitchell. His scoring has been up and down all season long, but he has the capabilities to be a reliant scorer in this starting lineup because he is great at playing off the ball and finding open spaces at the rim. Stevens keeps a low profile compared to the rest of the starting lineup as a role player among stars, but he plays his role so well that he has become a big part of the Cavaliers’ success. Unfortunately, Stevens just missed his first game with a knee injury and will continue to miss some more games. Isaac Okoro, who has a similar style of playing and defensive potential, filled in for him, but his absence was evident, as the Cavaliers struggled to contain Kemba Walker’s incredible scoring outburst. The Cavaliers came away with the close victory in overtime, and yet the game still showed Stevens’ value as a perimeter defender for this young and rising team.