The vet returns: Matthew Dellavedova is exactly what Cleveland needed

The Cavaliers are benefiting from the return of their veteran point guard.

Matthew Dellavedova endured a long wait before making his debut this NBA season, but he’s making it count.

The guard missed the Cavaliers’ first 47 games of the campaign. A severe bout of concussion in November sent the Australian to the sidelines, before a case of whiplash and then an appendectomy in late February further delayed his return to the court. Erroneous reports of his basketball career being in jeopardy lingered, but Dellavedova spoke publicly of a desire to return to an NBA court.

He has made that a reality over the past fortnight.

Dellavedova’s impact to a lowly Cleveland side has been immediate. In 70 minutes across his first four games, Dellavedova has dished up 22 assists without committing a single turnover.

The Cavaliers have outscored opponents by 29 points with him on the floor. He has provided the team with a bona fide reserve guard — something they have been lacking since November — while providing support for Cleveland’s youthful brigade.

“Delly has helped a lot,” said Darius Garland, the Cavaliers’ starting point guard, over the weekend. “His intensity, leadership. His voice is just amazing, especially in the locker room. He’s always in someone’s ear trying to help them out. Just him being out there, his physical presence and him getting everybody involved is helping our second unit a lot.”

With Dellavedova injured, the Cavaliers had been cycling through NBA spare parts in an attempt to replicate the Australian’s impact. Dante Exum’s injury rendered him useless to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cavaliers coaching staff. The team signed Yogi Ferrell and Quinn Cook to 10-day contracts as it looked for experience at reserve guard, but neither player could service the role. Damyean Dotson and Kevin Porter Jr. were given a chance and they too fell short. Simply put, the Cavaliers missed the intellect of their veteran guard from Maryborough. They are now a better team with Dellavedova back.

“Delly really does a great job of playing with his brain,” Bickerstaff says. “He understands how to set the table for other people. His game isn’t based on himself. When your game is based on the team and making your teammates’ job easier, it makes ... your comeback a little bit easier.

“We’re not asking him to go score 40 points a night, that would take him some time to get some rhythm there. But he has an uncanny ability to see things before they’re happening and that doesn’t change, so he’s been able to be impressive quickly.”

What Bickerstaff speaks of has been true throughout Dellavedova’s NBA career, and has become more pronounced as his age has risen.

Dellavedova is a lesser NBA player than he was five years ago. His shot has eroded - he has made just 66 of 228 three-point attempts since returning to Cleveland in December 2018. What athleticism Dellavedova once had has lapsed. But his impact on a rebuilding team remains sky high. Dellavedova is exactly what the Cavaliers have missed this season. Steady and unremarkable, sure, although there is a reason why Cleveland is scoring at a 124.5 offensive rating when he is on the court.

Take the below play from a recent game against Philadelphia.

Watch as Dellavedova sets a subtle back screen to free a teammate for a wide open look. He is motioning for Kevin Love to make the pass even before the screen is set. Dellavedova watched on from the sidelines and took note of where the offence would fall down. He cannot fix all that ails Cleveland, but his impact goes beyond the box score. He makes everyone better.

“Keeping us organised, like when to run certain plays, and trying to take the pressure off [Darius Garland] and [Colin Sexton],” Dellavedova said recently when asked about his role on the team.

“They’re carrying a lot of the load in creating offence and having to score as well. Just providing something different there to take the pressure off them and get some of the other guys some easy looks as well.”

Garland and Sexton are Cleveland’s two best young prospects. Realistic or not, the franchise is banking on their young backcourt leading the team out of the doldrums. Dellavedova’s true measure to the Cavaliers future will be measured in how much he can aid their development.

The early returns are looking great. Nine of Dellavedova’s 22 assists have been on Sexton buckets. With the Australian back in the lineup, Sexton has spent more time away from the basketball. For the first time all season, the 22 year old has a teammate who is creating easier looks for him. It continues a trend seen before COVID-19 shut the NBA down last March.

Dellavedova started five games alongside Sexton and Garland to end last season, averaging 9.2 assists. He allowed both young players to flourish away from the responsibility of needing to create offence every time down the floor. In Dellavedova, the Cavaliers have a secondary ball handler who can stabilise an inexperienced squad. They have someone with a proven track record of contributing to winning. That is something Dellavedova wants to continue for a long time yet.

“I feel like I still have a lot to give and a lot to improve on,” Dellavedova said. “And there was really no doubt in my mind that I would be able to come out here and contribute in a positive way by just competing, keeping us organised and helping the team win. And that’s what I’ve been able to do so far.

“It’s just like riding a bike. I’ve played so much basketball. My body wasn’t working out and stuff like that, but my mind was still there and paying attention to what I needed to do to help us win. And I knew that I was going to be able to come in and help us right away.”