The many roles of Matthew Dellavedova

Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova received the most votes in an LA Times poll.

Special to Amico Hoops

Cavaliers point guard Matthew Dellavedova just started his third season in the NBA, but he’s already been an afterthought reserve player, a league villain, a Cleveland folk hero and now a role player finding his identity on a talented roster.

The afterthought

Dellavedova picked up basketball in Australia, where he played for youth travel programs like the Australian Institute of Sport. It’s where he derived his nickname, “Delly,” as he said it’s what everyone with his last name is called in Australia, but it’s also where he picked up interest from Saint Mary’s. He played four seasons with the Gaels, but despite averaging 14.2 points per game, he went undrafted in 2013.

The Cavaliers signed him to a two-year, $1.3 million deal later that September, and although they finished 33-49 that season, Dellavedova struggled to get playing time. Coming off the bench behind guards Jarrett Jack and Dion Waiters, he scored just 4.7 points per game.

Then came a late November game against Washington.

Dellavedova had played 53 minutes all year, but with the Cavaliers trailing 56-38, then-coach Mike Brown plugged Dellavedova into the game.

With just over three minutes to go, as the Wizards led 86-79, Dellavedova scrambled around the top of the key as Washington forward Nene tried to pass to guard Bradley Beal. Beal swiveled around twice, but Dellavedova edged his way around Nene, his steps in line with Beal’s. Nene had to pass to another guard, who didn’t shoot before the shot clock expired.

“The crowd was much louder than they normally would be for a play like that,” Dellavedova said.

Beal later said Dellavedova is the toughest defender he’s ever faced, and Brown told reporters in a postgame interview, “We had one guy compete the entire time he was on the floor—Matthew Dellavedova.”

During the following summer, the Cavaliers signed LeBron James, then brought in power forward Kevin Love and a supporting cast that’d make most general managers salivate.

But by the time the playoffs started, it was Dellavedova making noise on Twitter, fan forum message boards and national media outlets alike.

The villain

Dellavedova’s always been known for his scrappy play, but nothing could have prepared him for the “scrappy versus dirty” debate that started in the Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference semifinal series with Chicago.

With the series tied at 2-2, Dellavedova was covering shooting guard Jimmy Butler. Power forward Taj Gibson set a hard screen on Dellavedova at the top of the three-point arc, and Butler cut to the basket. Dellavedova and Gibson fell to the floor during an attempt to get a potential rebound, and on Gibson’s way up, it appeared Dellavedova wrapped his legs around Gibson’s. He kicked Dellavedova to get free.

Gibson was ejected; Dellavedova wasn’t. The Cavaliers won Game 5, 106-101, and eventually won the series.

“It’s the playoffs, so everyone’s playing hard. We just got tangled up,” Dellavedova says now. “The video is there. I’m not worried about [the debate].”

People continued to question Dellavedova’s play. He fell onto Hawks guard Kyle Korver early in the Cavaliers’ next series with Atlanta, rolling into Korver’s legs while trying to snag a loose ball. Korver left the game with a right ankle injury and didn’t play for the rest of the series. Later in the series, Hawks’ Al Horford elbowed Dellavedova in the head on a similar diving sequence, resulting in Horford’s ejection. Then in the Cavaliers’ Finals loss to the Warriors, Dellavedova set a screen on small forward Draymond Green that most of Twitter called a “dirty play.”

Dan Bernstein, a Chicago radio host and columnist, lambasted NBA officials after the Gibson play, but he wouldn’t label Dellavedova “dirty.”

“So much of [the dirty debate] is just driven by social media,” Bernstein said in an October interview. “I’d say he’s an instigator. That little play [on Gibson] was on the edge, but my standard for a dirty player is much higher.”

Others didn’t agree, arguing Dellavedova had been involved in too many plays like the Gibson sequence. The breaking point for USA Today’s Mike Foss came after Horford’s ejection.

Foss listed all of Dellavedova’s dirty plays from that postseason in an online column, writing, “Dellavedova does deserve a bad rep because Dellavedova is a dirty player.”

“You can go into [tough plays] aggressively, but it’s an entirely different thing to go in recklessly,” Foss says now. “When you do that as an elite athlete, you’re doing it consciously. There are guys who could’ve lost careers because of how he played.”

The folk hero

Back in Cleveland, though, Dellavedova became a fan favorite. Injuries slowed starting point guard Kyrie Irving all postseason long until he eventually fractured his left kneecap during the Finals. With Irving—and seemingly all the Cavaliers—in and out of games due to injuries, Dellavedova needed to play much more than anyone could have anticipated.

He led the team with 19 points in Game 6 versus the Bulls, lifting the Cavaliers to the Eastern Conference Finals. Then, following their four-game sweep of the Hawks, the team played the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, and Dellavedova’s stingy defense against league MVP Stephen Curry helped the Cavaliers take a 2-1 lead in the series.

“When you’re going against guys like that…you just got to try to make it as hard as possible. You’ve got to watch the tape to try and figure out what they like to do,” Dellavedova said.

Dellavedova inspired a rampant social media movement. His Twitter handle @matthewdelly was mentioned 380,000 times after Game 3 of the Finals, and the hashtag “#delly” was tweeted nearly every time he touched the ball. Dellavedova t-shirts sold out within days on the Cavaliers website. Even songs popped up on Twitter during the playoffs, including one called “Hustle like Delly.”

Eric Cannon, who manages the Twitter account “Mattyu Delly,” created his account during the playoffs and within minutes, it picked up attention. It’s not the most popular Dellavedova parody account on Twitter, but it’s reached over 8,000 followers.

“It’s [become] its own character. It’s not me,” Cannon said. “I never realized how much love for Delly is out there.”

Bernstein said that although there’s plenty of Dellavedova hate to go around in Chicago, the Cavaliers guard would be a hometown fan favorite anywhere else, too.

“If Matthew Dellavedova did [the tough plays] in a Bulls jersey, he’d be a folk hero,” Bernstein said. “He’d be on commercials selling cars in Chicago.”

The role player

Back in October, practice is over at the Cavaliers practice facility. Lost in the commotion of LeBron’s daily media session and center Timofey Mozgov shooting free throws is Dellavedova. Sidelined by an ankle injury, he spent most of the afternoon in the weight room.

It’s now, in an empty gymnasium, when Dellavedova reflects on his tumultuous postseason. He didn’t really have time to reflect during the NBA postseason: Following Game 3 versus the Warriors, he was hospitalized for severe cramping and team doctors gave him an IV. He played the remaining three games of the series, but he wasn’t the same, and neither were the Cavaliers as Curry and the Warriors won the series in six games.

Dellavedova, who was a restricted free agent after the season ended, re-signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal with the Cavaliers. He’s expected to continue to play in Irving’s place and switch out with guard Mo Williams, who also signed with the team in the summer.

Dellavedova says now that he didn’t pay attention to any of the commotion online until he returned to Australia following the finals. Even then, he still insists he didn’t see any of the fake Dellavedova accounts and that he avoided feeding into all the opinion columns. Months after his unprecedented rise in popularity, he’s unapologetic when he says he’s just looking forward for the next season and not looking back.

“LeBron, Kyrie and Kev have to deal with [the attention] every day…so I’m happy just to go about my business,” Dellavedova said.

On the heels of the Cavaliers’ priciest spectacle of an attempt at bringing Cleveland a championship, Dellavedova is still figuring out his role with the team. Through this point of the season, he’s averaging 8.6 points and 5.4 assists per game, but once Irving returns from his kneecap injury, it’s unclear what Blatt will do with the fan favorite.

For now, he’s just the role player, an act he’s more than happy with.

“Any team you play on, you have to try to find your role, whether you’re the No. 1 or you’re the No. 15,” Dellavedova said. “Obviously that role changes throughout the season. You have to always be ready to adapt.”