“2.5 on the clock… Dellavedova for the win… GAELS WIN IT!!”
In a January conference game against BYU, Matthew Dellavedova drilled a buzzer beater from half court to beat the Cougars by a single point, 70-69. Dellavedova had put together a wonderful college career – he was a starter on the 2010 team as a freshman that upset #2 seed Villanova in the second round of the NCAA tournament. He was the 2012 West Coast Conference Player of the Year. He also was the WCC career leader in assists and held other positions near the top of the conference leaderboards.
That was nice and all, but to NBA scouts? He was a dime a dozen. The country was littered with undersized guards who were only average shooters and not particularly athletic.
To most players, those accomplishments would have been enough. But not for Dellavedova. He tried his hand at the NBA Draft in 2013, but he was not drafted. Not hearing your name called discourages many prospects. But not Dellavedova.
He eventually earned a training camp contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, giving him a chance to play his way onto the opening day roster. But it would not be easy; the competition for the last few roster spots was fierce, with players like Elliot Williams, Jermaine Taylor, Henry Sims, and Kenny Kadji all vying for two spots.
At the time, Dellavedova was probably the least talented of the group. But he had one attribute that would carry him; a relentless work ethic and a motor that never stopped running. This endeared him to then-Cavs coach Mike Brown, and he made the team.
That too was a nice accomplishment for him, but he was still an end of the bench player for the Cavs. He was still well behind guards like Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Jarrett Jack in the pecking order. And predictably, he never played. Until he did.
The Cavs were struggling, and Dellavedova started earning minutes. His hustle provided a spark, as the Cavs were +21 when he was on the court in a November game against the Wizards. After the game, Mike Brown said bluntly, “We didn’t compete. We had one guy compete the entire time he was on the floor – Matthew Dellavedova.”
He would play nearly every game the rest of the season, and finished his rookie season with averages of 4.7 points and 2.6 assists a game on 41% shooting. They were modest averages, without a doubt, but he showed his value to the Cavaliers and he was ready to come back for a stronger sophomore season.
That didn’t happen. Despite the return of LeBron James to Cleveland, and the opportunity to nail down the backup point guard spot after Jarrett Jack’s departure, Dellavedova struggled. His shooting percentage regressed to 36%, including a miserable 31% on 2s. The Cavaliers were also 4.6 points per 100 possessions worse with Dellavedova on the floor, after being a staggering 11.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor his rookie season. Cavaliers fans were clamoring for an upgrade to back up Kyrie Irving at point guard, and GM David Griffin publicly said that they were looking for someone at the trade deadline.
Then, disaster struck in the playoffs. Kyrie Irving went down with an injury, and was in and out of the lineup throughout the Eastern Conference Playoffs. With nowhere else to turn, Dellavedova was given heaps of minutes, and he responded as well as anyone could have hoped.
In Game 6 against Chicago in the second round, Dellavedova contributed to a 94-73 drubbing to close out the series. In the game, he scored 19 points on 11 shots while playing good defense on Derrick Rose for much of the game. In Game 3 of the Cavaliers’ sweep against the Hawks, he scored 17 points. And in Game 3 of the Finals, he scored 20 points while limiting Steph Curry for the first three games of the series.
None of this is why Dellavedova was notable for the postseason, however. He was involved in a mire of controversies surrounding his playing style that was considered dirty by many. He was involved in scuffles with Taj Gibson of Chicago and Al Horford of Atlanta that resulted in them receiving flagrant 2 fouls and getting ejected. He also dove for a loose ball and rolled up on Atlanta guard Kyle Korver’s ankle, which resulted in him missing the rest of the postseason.
National debate raged over Dellavedova. Cavaliers fans admired his hard-nosed, gritty playing style that got in the heads of opponents, while opposing fans blasted his style for being dirty and intentionally trying to injure other players. As the debates raged on, Dellavedova became somewhat of a folk hero for the Cavaliers and their fans.
Despite his elevated status and impressive playoff performance, there were still questions. After all, his PER in the playoffs was a measly 6.8, he shot just 34.6%, and no one assumed he’d be able to hold down the backup point guard spot for another season. While his story was nice, the Cavaliers needed a better option backing up Irving, and found it by signing Mo Williams.
Or so they thought.
Instead of accepting his relegation to the status of third point guard, Dellavedova worked incredibly hard to improve his game. And boy, did he do so.
Irving missed almost two months to start the season, so Williams started and Dellavedova was able to retain his role as the backup point guard. He figured to slide into the background and not receive minutes once Irving returned, but Dellavedova squashed those plans by outperforming Williams.
Dellavedova was perfect for his role by becoming incredibly proficient at three specific tasks – three point shooting, taking great care of the ball, and his usual pesky defense.
This season, Dellavedova shot 41% from three, a fantastic number and career high. But this does not tell the whole story – Dellavedova was lethal on catch-and-shoot threes. Per NBA.com, Dellavedova shot 46.9% on catch-and-shoot threes, which was the eighth best mark in the NBA among players with at least 30 catch-and-shoot three point attempts. That 46.9% bested the marks of players like Kawhi Leonard (46.4%), Chris Paul (46.3%), Klay Thompson (44.1%), and C.J. McCollum (43.9%). He was a particularly effective shooter off of passes received from LeBron James, shooting 52.1% on threes on those passes from James.
Dellavedova also transformed into a fantastic passer who took great care of the ball. Dellavedova’s 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio was fifteenth best in the NBA this season, but the numbers go deeper than that. According to NBA.com, Dellavedova created 10.6 points per game off of his assists, which was the second most in the league among players playing under 25 minutes per game. Also, 10.3% of all his passes were assists, a similar percentage to Andre Iguodala, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Isaiah Thomas.
Finally, Dellavedova played very good defense, both individually and on a team level. Opponents shot about 1% worse than their typical percentages when defended by Dellavedova, including about 2.5% worse on three point shots. The Cavaliers as a team were all-in-all better defensively as well with Dellavedova on the court, performing 4.8 points per 100 possessions better on the defensive end with Dellavedova on the court vs. on the bench.
Dellavedova has also stepped up his game for the playoffs this year, and during their round 1 series with Detroit, the Cavs were incredibly effective with him. The Cavs’ net rating was an astounding +15 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor against Detroit, he shot an astounding 56.5% form the field, and had 16 assists vs. just 1 turnover in the four games. If he can continue this level of play throughout the remainder of the playoffs, the Cavaliers’ odds of upsetting the Warriors or Spurs in the Finals dramatically improve.
Dellavedova is not a star by any means, but he is perfectly okay with that. What he is, however, is an ideal role player for a LeBron James-led team. Jeff Van Gundy and Brian Windhorst estimate Dellavedova will earn approximately $10 million per year in his next contract, and for a role player of this quality next to James, it should be well worth it. Overall, Dellavedova’s rise from a nobody in college to a folk-hero in last year’s playoffs to a legitimate NBA role player is yet another improbable sports story, and it would be wonderful to see it continue.
All stats, except where noted or linked otherwise, are courtesy of Basketball Reference.