I know people don’t like hearing about dreams, but this one was about Darius Garland. Garland, driving a big rig with a makeshift snowplow attachment fixed to the front, on his way to a game. Smiling. More carefree than somebody piloting a vehicle straight out of Mad Max ought to be. There is no one in the road to run down, but the symbolism is not lost on me. The Cavaliers — albeit with a menace joyful instead of dark — have been running down teams all season, and they have been doing it in large part because of Garland.
At both ends of the floor Garland has become both intrinsic intermediary and main event, fluidly toggling between roles depending on what his teammates need from him. An offensive kick in the butt? Garland is there, driving smack down the middle of the paint, light and forceful on his feet to take a floating layup right to the rim. Ball movement to shake off the energy dip that leads to third quarter stagnation? Garland is as happy to flip the ball out to Donovan Mitchell or Caris LeVert on the wing as he is to lob it up, barely looking and all intuition, for Evan Mobley to pluck out of the air and jettison home.
The energy injection to the roster is immediate and the numbers dually reflect it. Garland’s plus/minus ratings soar where he’s recorded double-digit assists this season and, less numerically but more meaningfully, his customizable contributions in how he reads the floor have been the main driver to where the Cavs sit — fourth in the East and about to clinch a playoff spot.
This isn’t a knock on LeBron James’s Cavs, which did benefit from a very talented roster’s contributions, but this Cleveland team has made winning cooperatively into an effervescent one-upmanship. Their communication is constant, with heads on a swivel at either end of the floor, and any in-game undertaking immediately becomes a team effort. Lobs like the ones Garland excels at are echoed even by Mitchell, who as the team’s biggest star and most prolific shooter would not be blamed for opting to take the shot himself. Similarly, this Cavs team loves the heist — to agitate the ball for a steal or pressure a turnover and flip their direction in sync simultaneously, like a flock of birds rolling overhead, to crash back toward the basket together.
Garland, drafted by Cleveland and in his fourth season with the team, has grown up as a player in this environment. So too has the team. Its best tendencies come from the unselfish approach Garland and Mobley (Jarrett Allen and Ricky Rubio, also) have infused throughout all facets of gameplay. The Cavs fingerprints are everywhere, as in, the more touches the better — that’s the point.
As joyful as it is to watch the Cavs there’s still a tinge that comes in understanding the NBA does not often reward this kind of rare balance in a player. First, there just aren’t enough awards to go around, and in Garland’s case, Sixth Man wouldn’t really cut it. He recorded 51 points against the Timberwolves back in November and plays upwards of 36 minutes a game. He’s not a sixth man in that sense, but neither is he such a main character, or singularly specialized at one thing, that he’d be granted nods at Defensive Player of the Year or MVP. Accolades aren’t everything, but they do help to translate an athlete’s game to a larger audience, or make their skills better recognizable at a glance.
The nicest thing about Garland is that, watching him, you don’t want there to be just a glance. You want to let him yank your eyeballs around the floor, watch him pressure expert ball handlers like Bradley Beal until they crumble, or hook on defenders to pry and force through their screens. Garland’s acrobatic moves to the basket, his hesitation drives, light-footed floaters and cheery, almost whistling lockdown defense refract the tidy concept of awards, making the best way we know how to name and celebrate skill fall short and feel clunky.
Garland likely isn’t going to get the recognition he deserves this season, at least in the form of one of the NBA’s redesigned awards, but with the Cavs set to take the postseason stage and likely last there for several rounds (look, I don’t want to jinx it) we can at least be appreciative that he’ll get the wider audience and sustained looks he’s deserved all season. Better still is that Garland, at 23, already has the rare balance of speed, timing and dexterity that tends to take years to hone. His impacts in Cleveland have been formative to team culture. His broader influence on the league is going to be felt for years to come.