As the Oklahoma City Thunder readied for their 2013 postseason run, Kevin Durant addressed reporters at a May media availability. The presser turned to potential playoff contributions from Oklahoma City’s crop of youngsters, Perry Jones III, Jeremy Lamb and DeAndre Liggins, following their stints in the D-League. On Liggins’s growth, Durant, only a year removed from the NBA Finals, waxed poetic.
“He’s a workhorse, man. I love him,” Durant began. “You can tell he’s a guy that’s tough and has been that way his whole life. You can just tell by how he plays that he’s been working from the bottom to get to the top his whole life. People have counted him out, I’m sure, but he continues to keep beating the odds.”
The Thunder never returned to the Finals. And however improbable, Liggins may now be the X-factor standing in the way of Durant’s first championship. After three years toiling back in the D-League and overseas, he’s finally carved a niche as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ premier perimeter defender.
Oklahoma City waived Liggins amidst a domestic violence case in the fall of 2013. His former girlfriend ultimately dropped the charges and the two are jointly raising their child while Liggins continues counseling, both independently and through the NBA. The incident rightly clouded Liggins's professional prospects at the time.
Cleveland offered a training camp invite this summer and he took on an uphill battle against returning Cavs guard Dahntay Jones for the 15th and final seat on head coach Tyronn Lue’s bench. Flash-forward three months and Liggins’s partially guaranteed deal has morphed into one of the biggest bargains in the NBA. Cleveland will certainly guarantee this year’s $1 million salary on January 10, as the 28-year-old has seamlessly replaced J.R. Smith in the Cavs’ starting lineup after right thumb surgery sidelined the sharpshooter until April.
The Cavaliers’ amended opening unit of Kyrie Irving, Liggins, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson has tallied a 43.5 net rating in its 88 minutes this season, making that lineup the second-most efficient five-man group in the NBA that has played more than 50 minutes, per NBA.com. Overall, Cleveland boasts a 12.8 net rating when Liggins is on the floor, largely a byproduct of its tenacious 100.5 defensive rating—equivalent to the Memphis Grizzlies’ No. 1 overall mark for the season.
Cleveland’s defensive efficiency tails off by 6.5 points per 100 possessions when he heads to the bench: the same chasm between the Grizzlies and the league’s 21st ranked defense in Philadelphia. Liggins’s impact is that transparent. “It’s great to have some youth out there—athletic, some length and somebody that’s not afraid to guard,” Cavs assistant coach James Posey told SI.com.
Cleveland transforms into an elite defense when Liggins swallows opposing point guards whole. He possesses the quickness to hound shifty lead ball handlers and the size to switch any high ball screen as well. And when it comes to Cleveland’s most essential matchup, Durant’s Golden State Warriors, Liggins can nearly neutralize Stephen Curry, as evidenced on Christmas Day.
Immediately following the opening tip, Liggins slithered around Draymond Green and crouched low in front of Curry, squared like a defensive back preparing to run lockstep with Antonio Brown. “He just has a tough stance,” Posey said, proudly. Liggins glued his lanky frame to Curry throughout the Warriors’ initial possession. By the time Curry finally managed to free himself of Liggins off a screen from Zaza Pachulia, he was too frenzied to feed the rolling big man, throwing the ball away.
While Thompson crashed the offensive glass throughout the first quarter, Liggins immediately sought Curry, preventing the two-time reigning MVP from even touching the ball. He’s cut from the same rare cloth as Patrick Beverley, another Chicago native who harbors the athleticism and desire to face-guard opponents the entire 94 feet.
Watch this early first-quarter sequence, as Liggins denies Curry on the entry pass and incessantly shadows him into flinging an errant ball out of bounds.
“To have him chasing around Steph and pressuring Steph, picking him up full court and turning him, and just using his size and length on him, that was a big thing for us,” Posey said. Liggins was a pest. He frequently nuzzled his sweaty head against Curry during live ball stoppages. He sneakily grabbed Curry’s jersey when he could get away with it and dug a paw in Curry’s side whenever the opportunity presented itself. It was textbook face-guarding. Curry didn’t attempt a field goal in Liggins’s entire opening 6:29 stretch.
And few players can track a slippery guard like Curry and still perform within a team’s greater defensive scheme. The dexterity Liggins parlayed into denying Curry and scooping up Klay Thompson’s wild pass below is nothing short of elite.
When Curry did possess the ball at the top of the key, Liggins’s length prevented him from seeing passing lanes, let alone whip easy assists to the Warriors’ slew of backdoor cutters. Curry would typically fire this ball to Shaun Livingston silently stepping across the paint, but Liggins’s 6’11.5” wingspan completely deters that option.
Liggins’s exhaustive efforts on Curry also free Irving to man Thompson. While Curry’s splash brother prolifically sprints around perimeter screens in his own right, staying attached to Curry presents greater difficulty as Golden State frequently utilizes him as an off-ball screen-setter as well. With Liggins strapped to Curry, Irving can conserve his energy to unleash game-winning dagger after game-winning dagger. “You got a young pitbull out there that’s full of energy and good on the defensive end and we can save one of our best players, why not use him?” Posey explained.
“There are a lot of scorers in this league,” Liggins told SI.com back at Summer League in 2014. “I think every team can use a defensive guy who will do all the dirty work and do all the intangibles.”
The Cavs reward Liggins’s grunt work with ample corner three-point looks. He’s drained 9-of-16 corner three-point attempts so far, a blistering 56.3%. That number will most certainly decline with increased opportunities in Smith’s void, but it’s set an intriguing precedent for Liggins to round out the first half of the 3-and-D moniker.
“I keep telling him, ‘You got it defensively. If you want to add a little chip to your pocket, you gotta be able to shoot the three ball,'” Posey said.
“If he can do that, I think he’s not only an NBA player but he’s probably playing big minutes,” Stan Van Gundy told SI.com in 2014.
Liggins spoiled Curry’s Christmas, playing a large part in his dismal 4-of-11 shooting performance, including 2-of-7 from deep, for just 15 points and three turnovers. As Durant knows better than anyone, Liggins thrives on overcoming long odds, on the brightest stages, with his career on the line. See you in June.