Cleveland Cavaliers: Breaking down the Collin Sexton dilemma

Oct 23, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton (2) lies on the ground after play during the second half against the Atlanta Hawks at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 23, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton (2) lies on the ground after play during the second half against the Atlanta Hawks at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Collin Sexton has been one of the most polarizing players in the NBA since making his rookie debut for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018. His first season was plagued by ill-advised shots and frequent turnovers, giving him a reputation he has yet to shake off.

Even after a career-best season in which Sexton averaged 24.3 points and 4.4 assists on efficient shooting numbers, the fanbase and front office are not convinced Sexton deserves to be a long-term piece of the franchise. The Cleveland Cavaliers made this clear in October by choosing not to extend Sexton’s contract, meaning he will enter restricted free agency at the end of the 2021-22 NBA season.

Holding off on an extension is not necessarily a bad thing for anybody. While Sexton has proven to be a dynamic scorer, Cleveland is in an awkward position with multiple young prospects and only so many extensions they can offer. As a result, the most logical solution is to be patient and watch how this season plays out.

There is no telling what the future holds for Collin Sexton and the Cleveland Cavaliers as the dilemma heads to a breaking point next summer.

Cleveland is eager to see if Darius Garland has another leap in him. Becoming the type of elite offensive threat he was projected to be out of college would make Garland worthy of a max extension in place of Sexton.

Less likely is Isaac Okoro, who some still hope can blossom into a franchise cornerstone. His offensive game remains incredibly raw but he is a fascinating perimeter defender. Most of all, he is only 20 years old. For comparison, Jaylen Brown and Andre Iguodala did not break out as consistent scorers until they turned 23.

Lastly, Evan Mobley has looked like the best rookie to wear a Cavaliers uniform since Kyrie Irving. Mobley has been an instant-impact defender and flashed his upside as an offensive threat. A future extension seems all but certain by the way Mobley has begun his career.

This leads us back to Sexton. At 22 years of age, there is certainly an argument to be made that Sexton is only getting started. Yet, it is fair to question how much more Sexton can develop. He works as hard as anyone in the league — but is Sexton capable of being the guy on a playoff-bound team? This season should give us the answer to that question.

Collin Sexton’s per game stats in 2020 (bold) and 2021

  • Minutes: 35.3, 29.1
  • Field goal attempts: 18.4, 13.6
  • Touches: 76.6, 48.1

However, rather than giving Sexton an opportunity to prove his worth in a contract season, the Cavaliers have had their top scorer on a tight leash. His minutes, field goal attempts and touches are all down significantly from the last two seasons.

There are a few reasons for this drastic decrease in usage for Sexton.

Ricky Rubio and a shift towards motion offense

One of the most glaring differences between this year’s team and the Cavaliers of old is how they run their offense. Cleveland has ranked in the bottom 10 for assists in each of the last three seasons. So far through seven games, they rank sixth. At 24.9 assists per game, this would be their highest average since the 1993-94 season.

What’s more, Cleveland ran an average of 6.3 isolations per game last season, putting them right in the middle of the league. This year, they have resorted to isolation ball just 4.7 possessions per game, the third-fewest in the NBA.

What has caused this sudden influx of ball movement? Well, Garland’s rise as a playmaker has been helping. But, the addition of Ricky Rubio pushed them to new levels.

Rubio is averaging 5.6 assists per game off the bench and 6.6 on the season (he started one game). This places him 15th in the NBA and first among bench players. His veteran savvy, along with Garland (who ranks 5th with 8.6 assists per game) has granted the Cavaliers a luxury they did not have in the past.

This squad has been depleted of ball handlers for years. Having two quality playmakers has changed the way Cleveland now plays basketball. Sexton is no longer being asked to create for himself constantly. Instead, Rubio and Garland can dominate the playmaking responsibilities while Collin does what he does best.

Sexton is playing more off-ball

As long as DG and Rubio are both healthy, the Cavaliers do not need to play a single minute without a true distributor on the floor. Consequently, this means Sexton is almost never the primary ball-handler. This explains his decreased time of possession (down to 3.5 seconds from 5.9 the year prior) and why Sexton is having a difficult time catching fire.

We have seen some highlights from Sexton in this new role. He is a blistering quick gaud who can backdoor cut his way to easy layups. And, despite shooting just 7-of-28 (25 percent) from the 3-point line, it was a pair of late catch-and-shoot triples from Young Bull that helped Cleveland notch their win against the Denver Nuggets.

Yet, it must be a jarring adjustment for a player who spent his first three seasons as a heavy-duty scorer. Sexton is most comfortable with the ball in his hands and he has not had that opportunity this season.

It is safe to assume Sexton will resolve his shooting woes. He is a career 38.1 percent 3-point shooter so this early slump is nothing to worry about. Even so, there is no telling if Sexton will ever reclaim his role as the Cavs’ first option offensively.

J.B. Bickerstaff’s odd rotations

We might look back at this trend and realize Sexton’s limited role in the offense was just a strange anomaly at the start of the season. After all, the Cavaliers have been experimenting with some wonky lineups and Rubio’s red-hot start to the season (as well as Sexton’s shooting slump) could very well have caused a temporary shift in roles.

It is encouraging, for Sexton, to see that no one else on the roster is being passed the torch just yet. Garland and Rubio are playing roughly the same amount of minutes as him and still attempt fewer shots per game.

Furthermore, J.B. Bickerstaff is using each member of his seven-man rotation for 27+ minutes a night. For the most part, he has played the hot hand. This again suggests that Rubio’s early success, combined with Sexton’s slump from the field, has led to a diminished role to start the season. We can assume things will revert back to normal for both of them eventually.

Of course, this is where the Sexton dilemma becomes a bit of a paradox. The Cleveland Cavaliers have put Sexton in a position where he needs to prove his worth — but they have not given him the opportunity to do so. The two parties have conflicting interests, which could prove troubling in the future.

Sexton’s future in Cleveland

No one can blame Sexton for wanting to get paid. He has worked relentlessly to become the versatile scorer and underrated playmaker he is today. Similarly, the Cavaliers are not at fault for wanting to tread carefully during this crucial stage of the rebuild.

Some of the early issues of this season will work themselves out as the rotation becomes more polished. Still, the question of Sexton’s future in Cleveland will hang over the team all year long.

Will Sexton feel content in a reduced role when this summer could grant him the biggest payday of his life? Do the Cavaliers want to trade Collin in order to avoid losing him for nothing in free agency? Or, will the two sides agree to a mutually beneficial contract after all?

Much of this relies on the team’s success. It bodes well for Sexton’s offseason negotiation if the Cavaliers compete for a playoff spot with him as the go-to scorer (or even an important off-ball contributor). In contrast, falling back into the lottery will not have anybody feeling confident in Sexton’s ability to play winning basketball. I am not sure if that judgment is fair or not — but it is how he would be viewed.

As of now, the Cavaliers are feeling good with a 3-4 record against some of the league’s toughest foes. Their schedule does not get any easier but a run at the Play-In is possible if they keep their heads above water through November. For Sexton, it is in his best interest he finds a way to succeed in whatever role he is given moving forward.

Next. Cavs: 3 Keys to reaching NBA Playoffs. dark