Despite the Browns’ failure to capture that all-elusive NFL playoff berth with an abysmal performance against the New York Jets, many Cleveland sports fans are still pleasantly surprised with the way that the Cleveland Cavaliers have started the COVID-shortened NBA season. The Cavs are now 3-0 on the year and had an impressive 24-point victory over the Philadelphia 76ers (albeit without C Joel Embiid). Either way, this type of fast start is the polar opposite of the previous two seasons in which the Cavaliers have been without SF LeBron James. They had to worst aggregate record over that span.
Since the end of last year’s campaign, the Cavs haven’t made any significant roster moves other than drafting SF Isaac Okoro and letting PF/C Tristan Thompson walk.
So, what changed?
When he was promoted to head coach in late February, J.B. Bickerstaff inherited one of the worst teams in the league. Despite this, Bickerstaff made an instant impact on the Cavs morale and chemistry, guiding the previously terrible Cavaliers to a 5-6 record during the short time before COVID-19 forced the NBA to move to the bubble. The Cavs gave Bickerstaff a second chance with a more talented roster than before after faring poorly as the head coach of the Grizzlies. He’s made the most of it.
After having nearly nine months to get ready for the upcoming year, Bickerstaff got his team to move the ball with ease and has clearly motivated his players to play hard. This is very evident in the way the Cavs play for him. PF Larry Nance & C JaVale McGee are hitting threes and the Cavs are diving on the floor for loose balls.
Additionally, GM Koby Altman deserves massive amounts of credit for the trades and draft selections he has made. When he was made General Manager in 2017, there was little he could to entice LeBron to stay. In the time since then, he amassed a treasure trove of assets and hit on all three of his top picks. SG Collin Sexton is quietly becoming one of the best young scorers in the league. PG Darius Garland has continued his progression from his better than solid rookie year and is averaging 19 points and eight assists through the three games they’ve played so far. From all we’ve seen from Isaac Okoro, his defense is as good as advertised and the shooting concerns draft analysts gave him don’t seem to be concerns at all as long as it can replicate his preseason form of 45% from beyond the arc.
Altman has also taken the necessary risks to acquire talent to make the team better by acquiring players like C Andre Drummond, who many analysts had written off as an outdated player. Despite this, Drummond has sort of revived his career in Cleveland by increasing his long-range distance, giving the Cavs’ critical floor spacing for their small guards to use. When you combine the draft picks he has made with the acquisition of players like Andre Drummond, you realize a trend-every player Altman brings into the building seems to have a tremendous upside to them and they all seem to be progressing in the right direction.
It may be optimistic to hope for the playoffs this season. Three games are a very small sample size and some strong teams who have started slowly will soon shake off their rust. But Cavalier fans can finally feel confident in their Head Coach/General Manager tandem to lead them into the future.
Strong and capable leadership – that’s what has changed.