It is becoming harder and harder for the NBA and sports media to ignore the Cavs. Only fans in Northeast Ohio and the most avid followers of the NBA will have, hitherto, noticed the exciting and competitive basketball being played by the 2020-21 version of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Part of the reason for the Cavs’ lack of love and airtime given by national sports broadcasters, such as ESPN and Fox, undoubtedly comes from embarrassment among the NBA talking heads. All of whom dismissed the Cavs as a lost cause and saw nothing of value in their young core. ESPN had Cleveland listed at 29 in their Preseason Power Rankings, and predicted a 19-win season. The Cavs have already posted eight victories in their first 15 games. They haven’t been close to 100% healthy all year. NBC Sports went as far as to place Cleveland rock bottom in their preseason team outlook.
Of course, the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. And seasons cannot be defined by 15 games. But if Cleveland’s first 15 contests have told us anything, it is that they can only get better.
For one, the team is still not 100% healthy. All-star forward Kevin Love has only featured in one game this season and remains on the sidelines. The Cavs’ starting backcourt, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, have only very recently returned from injury. And although both have looked great in their returns to action, more game time will only prove beneficial. The Cavs are also slowly introducing two young, talented players into their rotation: center, Jarrett Allen and forward, Taurean Prince. Allen and Prince arrived in Cleveland, for next to nothing, as part of the SG James Harden trade. Both have had shining starts to their Cleveland careers, but will only get better as they acclimatize to J.B. Bickerstaff’s system and gain experience playing alongside new teammates.
The potential of this Cavs squad has been highlighted in their past two games against the Brooklyn Nets. Since acquiring shooting guard James Harden from Houston and therefore creating the latest in a continuous line of ‘Big 3s’ in the NBA, the Nets have vaulted to the top spot among favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Cleveland didn’t pay much heed to those lofty expectations for their opponents and in game one went toe-to-toe, offensively, before pulling away and sinking Brooklyn in double OT behind an impressive 42-point performance by Collin Sexton. Friday night’s contest was a much more comfortable route to a 125-113 victory for Cleveland. Both matchups showcased the fundamental strengths of the new-look Cavs.
NBA ‘experts’ should note that in each of the contests the Cavs’ defense kept Brooklyn – who leads the NBA in field goal percentage (49% prior to the first game) – below their average shooting mark (45% in game one, 48% in game two), and well below their 40% 3-point shooting clip (36% in game one, 32% in game two). The Cavs’ new-found defensive prowess was encapsulated on Friday, in the second half when Cleveland turned the dial and forced six rapid turnovers in the third quarter after Brooklyn had only given the ball away twice in the entire first half. That sequence allowed the Cavs to capitalize on the extra possessions in transition to outscore Brooklyn 37-24 in the period and jump out to a 14-point lead heading into the final 12 minutes.
Under closer inspection, it should again be acknowledged by the wider NBA that Cleveland currently ranks second in the East in opponent points per game (106.6) and defensive efficiency (1.038), behind the New York Knicks (wow, it really is a strange year). The Cavs are top among all NBA teams in opponent floor % – the ratio of scoring possessions to total possessions – at 46.6%. The team also possesses the league leader in steals (Nance Jr.) and are rated second in the league, as a team, in that category (10 per game).
In game one, the Nets’ bench was the focus of the Cavs’ defensive efforts. It managed just 10 points during the 72 collective minutes it played. A sorry effort from Brooklyn’s reserves who are clearly the team’s Achilles’ heel.
Conversely, the Cavaliers have a bench that is young, talented and deep. In game one, the Cavs used just three reserves: SG Damyean Dotson and new guys C Jarrett Allen and PF Taurean Prince. Those three combined to score 44 points to the Nets paltry 10. On Friday, the bench, boosted by the return from injury of SF Dylan Windler and PG Darius Garland, put up 53 points against Brooklyn’s 31. That kind of discrepancy in bench play is always going to put your team in a position to win.
As astute followers of the NBA will already know, for the Cavaliers, a quality showing from their bench players has been a staple of the season, so far. At least when the bench players haven’t been forced into starting roles due to injuries. In games where the Cavs have had at least four of their starters healthy for the game, the reserves have scored a minimum of 34 points a game. But even when the reserves have been forced to start games due to injuries – the Cavs have played a third of their games this season without their starting backcourt and starting power forward and have not played a single minute with all five preseason-projected starters in the lineup. The team has been competitive and even won several games. The only lopsided defeat the Cavs have suffered was an absolute bulldozing by the Utah Jazz in a game where Cleveland was missing four starters – rookie, Isaac Okoro, was the only starter to play. The Cavs have felt so confident in the depth and talent of their reserves that the front office had no hesitation in trading away a promising asset in SF Kevin Porter Jr.
If the defense and bench weren’t another to brag on, there are two other crucial components of the Cavaliers’ game that points to sustained success: rebounding and points in the paint.
The Cavs are ninth in the NBA in total rebounds per game. They have the league leader in rebounds, so it stands to reason they would be in the top third among NBA teams in this category. But, more importantly, they are third in the league in offensive rebounds, 11.5 per game. Those second-chance opportunities often lead to easy points. That is because Cleveland is also third in the NBA in points in the paint per game (53.7). A mark that will be sustained and likely improved upon, with the acquisition of Allen.
Dominating the boards and the paint is not as vital to success as it once used to be. After all, the Golden State Warriors won the title in 2018 and made it back to the finals in 2019, despite being among the worst teams both in the paint and rebounding the ball. But the game hasn’t changed so much as to not make those two aspects of the game insignificant. Such dominance in the fundamentals of the game – like rebounding and paint points – combined with top-caliber defense is an unfailing formula for sustained success in basketball.
The final feature of the Cavs game that should be garnering more national attention is the fluidity and dynamism on offense. In the early going, before the injury bug became terminal for several games, the team was leading the league in assists (30.3 per game after the season’s first three games). That number has come down some way since then as the Cavs often had to play several games without a healthy guard. But recently, the assists have begun to creep up again as the Cavs have welcomed injured players back into the fold. In the last three games, the Cavs have averaged over 26 assists per game; good for fourth in the conference over that timespan.
For the first time in either post-LeBron era, the Cleveland Cavaliers look like a playoff contender. They have a competent and effective head coach, in J.B. Bickerstaff, who is a great communicator and has won 100% buy-in from his players for his style of play. A style that combines polished basketball fundamentals, dynamic offense and suffocating defense, has transformed the Cavs into a fun and, at times, exhilarating team to watch. The hard work put in by the franchise’s talented, young core is paying dividends on the court as they blitz opponents with a free-flowing, extra pass, style of basketball on the offensive end and stymie their foes with lockdown defense going back the other way.
It’s time for the NBA, and Paul Pierce, to wake up and watch as the Cavs race up the power rankings and into serious playoff contention. You can bet Steve Nash and the Brooklyn Nets are on notice, and will want nothing to do with Cleveland once the postseason rolls around.