The Cleveland Cavaliers are one of the best teams in the NBA but after a hot start, we take a moment to ask just how good they are.
With consistent scoring, defensive versatility and functional depth, how far can the Cleveland Cavaliers go this season? (Sean Carroll illustration)
Channelling his inner Wiggle, Russell Westbrook fired off several finger guns after stealing an inbounds pass and finding Anthony Davis for a tough layup, putting the LA Lakers up 21-9 against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The play came right after a vintage LeBron James finish, the Crypto.com crowd was crazy, Russ had just hit a big three-pointer and the Lakers were looking like they might upset the 7-1 Cavs. It was all going right.
It didn’t last long.
While this Cleveland team might seem young and immature, falling to the Play-In tournament slots last season instead of coasting to a top-four seed, these guys are a much more cohesive unit.
The backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland kept doing what they do; scoring at will and finding excellent shots for their teammates. The backcourt had a combined 42 points heading into the half and a 29-16 third-quarter run put the Lakers to sleep à la Jeff Wiggle.
The now 8-1 Cleveland Cavaliers hold the second-best record in the NBA, sitting behind the only remaining undefeated team in the Milwaukee Bucks. They look primed for a deep playoff run in what will be the team’s first playoff run without LeBron James since the 1997-98 season.
I hadn’t even been born yet…
The Cavs are now here and instead of struggling to put a competent team on the court between LeBron’s Cavs stints, hoping he forgives Dan Gilbert's open letter, they’re now building something new, something that might even be better than a third King James reunion.
Donovan Mitchell, who says he grew up a Cavs fan, gave an excellent quote to Chris Fedor, Cleveland.com when asked about Cleveland winning its first game against LeBron James:
“For me personally and for the group, I wouldn’t say that’s what this was for,” he said.
“We’re just looking to build our own different culture. None of us here are LeBron James. We’re all different in different types of ways. We want to build our own culture and do it differently while always having respect for what he’s done for Cleveland and the organisation.”
And boy, have they built a winning culture. The Cavs boast the league’s seventh-best offence (and that’s without Garland for most of the season so far) and second-best defence according to Cleaning the Glass.
Donovan Mitchell looks like a free man while playing away from Rudy Gobert and Utah. He’s running off the ball, nailing an absurd number of triples (a career-high 3.6 a night) and his herky-jerky jab-step game fits perfectly with Cleveland who have more than enough capable screeners to help him slip and slide his way to the rack.
Mitchell is averaging over 30 points per game and that number is destined to slide with Garland coming back into the fold, but we know how he can flip the switch in the postseason when it’ll matter.
I was going to write an article for thedeeptwo.com right before the season started, wondering if the New York Knicks will regret not trading the farm for Donovan (I had a perfect analogy about Sydney Sweeney’s brother, but I’ll save that for a future piece). My general takeaway was going to be that it’s okay and while Mitchell is a talented scorer and All-Star, he doesn’t have that superstar upside that you need to win an NBA championship.
It’s only early (the inevitable caveat I must mention), but Spida might be morphing into an All-NBA scorer, one of the shooting guards who can vault you into contention, not just the playoffs. The Knicks should be kicking themselves right now.
Darius Garland looks like himself again, drilling deep jumpers off the dribble (hopping his way into my Instagram feed) and finding his teammates where they like to catch the ball. After one season of excellent point guard play, the former Vanderbilt guard is a known commodity and dependable All-Star on this roster now.
While some questioned the fit of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen on both sides of the court, they’ve proven that in the regular season, it doesn’t matter if the team has two traditional centres, as long as one can get out and guard the perimeter.
Mobley hasn’t taken a huge leap on the offensive end, something many were hoping for heading into the season, but with Garland and Mitchell (this backcourt needs a nickname, how about ‘Sexland 2’?) scoring as much as they are, it might not matter.
Is it repeatable?
Is Cleveland’s success in the regular season repeatable in the playoffs? Can they cruise to victories against the best teams in the Eastern Conference or are they a regular season flash in the pan?
In the regular season, there’s reason to believe that this team can hold on to a top seed in the Eastern Conference. They were on track to doing this last season before injuries derailed their campaign.
The two-centre lineup has excelled in the regular season across the league and while I hate to sound like a hack, it’s becoming vogue. Throughout the course of the season, when opponents aren’t worried about specific matchups and targeting specific weak links, your defence just gets a natural boost by having a greater number of large humans near the rim.
In 884 possessions, the duo of Allen and Mobley is a net plus-11.6 per 100 possessions when using Cleaning the Glass’ garbage time filters. They’re keeping opponents to just 104.3 points per 100; the average offence this season is 112.3 after their game against the Lakers.
A concession to focusing on rim protection is that teams give up on forcing turnovers, hoping to close out the possession with a missed shot and rebound. This duo is forcing opponents to turn the ball over to the tune of 15.7 percent of the time, meaning they’re getting all the benefits of rim protection but also getting out in transition with the quick guards.
One of Cleveland’s main weaknesses last season was their depth. We saw that when they were whole, they could be a top-four seed in the East and both Garland and Allen made their All-Star debuts because of it.
Cleveland’s president of basketball operations, Koby Altman, addressed this issue by bringing in free agents like Robin Lopez, Raul Neto and Ricky Rubio, the latter of who hasn’t made his Cavs re-debut yet. These players aren’t lighting the world on fire but they’re added depth on an already deep roster in case the injury bug bites again.
How will they perform in the playoffs?
Unlike most young teams visiting the playoffs for the first time, this roster has quite a lot of postseason experience. Obviously, there’s Kevin Love, who’s actually playing a role for this team and has visited the NBA Finals just like Cedi Osman, but there’s Donovan, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert, all starters who have played in the postseason.
But that’s no reason to pick a team for a deep playoff run, the real reason they could make a serious run is Evan Mobley.
We know this team can score and pass the ball, the Sexland 2.0 backcourt will take care of that, but on defence, Mobley will be the defensive anchor who can hope to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo or contain explosive ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll.
The seven-foot big man has the length and speed to hang with players a foot smaller than him and while he’s been playing predominantly at the four next to a traditional rim protector, last season he proved that he can protect the rim himself.
John-Blair Bickerstaff will have the option of running out Mobley next to Allen but if the matchup asks for it, he can comfortably play Mobley at the five and ask him to plug holes in screening actions.
These past NBA Finals, we saw that a dynamic guard like Steph Curry will carve up your defence if you’re hoping to protect the rim and rely on guards getting over screens. If Derrick White or Marcus Smart were able to navigate a Kevon Looney screen, they’d just do it over and over until Steph got what he wanted.
The Cavs wouldn’t have to play Curry until the NBA Finals (and I’m sure we don’t want another Cavs-Warriors matchup), but int heir own conference, Mobley’s talents will be useful against Trae Young, Jayson Tatum, Fred VanVleet and Jalen Brunson to name a few.
It’s looking like, barring injuries, this Cavs team will coast into the playoffs. They have two elite ball handlers and scorers who are only going to get better as they share the court more, and as Evan Mobley explores the studio space, this team’s ceiling will only rise.
One half of The Deep Two NBA Podcast and blog, Sean is an painfully optimistic Golden State Warriors fan who will let you know about it. Previously at Nugg Love (Site Expert), Sir Charles in Charge (Contributor) and The Knicks Wall (Contributor).