It's Time To Think Differently About The Cleveland Cavaliers

This image is a derivative of 2013 Cleveland Cavaliers 1 by Michael Tipton (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Cleveland Cavaliers are 32 games into their 2021-22 NBA season, have 19 wins and sit 3rd in the Eastern Conference. 

“It’s early” can no longer be used to dismiss their start to the season. The Cavs are good and their rebuild is well underway thanks to a possibly not-so-deliberately-constructed blend of youth and experience.

Collin Sexton has missed a lot of time but Darius Garland has gone a long way to making up the difference as he puts forward a legitimate All-Star case. The #5 overall pick from 2019 has had help from Ricky Rubio who continues to do Ricky Rubio things while Isaac Okoro has started to benefit from the show of faith and regular minutes. Cedi Osman has bounced back from a disappointing 2020-21 season while Evan Mobley has taken the league by storm, thriving wherever he plays. He's led a surprisingly effective frontcourt which has enjoyed solid contributions from Lauri Markkanen, Kevin Love and Jarrett Allen.

With seven players in Health and Safety protocols at the time of writing, the Cavaliers are being forced to jump unexpected hurdles just as the path to relative success started to clear.

The Cavaliers haven’t featured in the playoffs since losing the 2017-18 NBA finals. In fact, they’ve only won more than 19 games in a season (their current 2021-22 tally) once since then. Their playoff hopes are real and they're good enough to navigate this difficult period, but what else can we rely on moving forward, and what might just be a flash in the pan.

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The Defence

We often see surprise teams make good starts to a season thanks to a better-than-expected offence. Typically however that offence tends to revert back to average and so do the results. 

However, playing with the second-best defence in the NBA allowing 103.9 points per 100 possessions, the Cavaliers are set up nicely to not only navigate this covid-affected period well, but to keep this level of play up through to the end of the regular season.

The Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, LA Clippers, Utah Jazz, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks occupy the spots around them on the defensive rating list. They’re all expected to make the playoffs.

This defence looks real in large part due to Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.

Allen is what he is already. He’s not going to beat too many players with the ball - his bread and butter offensively are pulling down offensive rebounds (3.3 Oreb per game) and finishing in the restricted area (67% Frequency/84% True Shooting). Still, he's a fearless shot-blocker and influential player on defence from the rim to the perimeter. Meanwhile, Mobley’s defensive instincts are on another level for a rookie. He anticipates the play and puts himself into positions to use his length while also doing exceptionally well to avoid fouls. His 2.6% foul rate puts him in the 91st percentile; an impressive number for a player with only 25 games of NBA experience.

The Cavaliers allow their opposition to take 34.8% of their shots at the rim. As we know, rim protection is a key feature of the best defences in the NBA. While the Golden State Warriors thrive on limiting the number of shots their opponents take at the rim, the Cavaliers are somewhat happy to funnel players towards Allen and Mobley. It’s obviously not perfect, but it’s effective when you have two of the best rim protectors in the NBA manning the paint while seven-foot Laurie Markkanen also has the ability to use his length to impact shots.

What Cleveland’s focus on rim protection does do is allow them to close out on three-point attempts. Opponents shoot just 32.5% from beyond the arc; only the Brooklyn Nets limit their opponents to a worse rate (31.5%).

Your identity is either on offence or defence when building a team up from the ground. It’s very rarely both, and if it is, neither are particularly good - just average. The Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets have put their eggs into the offensive basket to rank 2nd and 3rd in the league. However, they’re down at 24th and 30th defensively to be below .500 and on the fringes of the playoffs. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, suffocate their opponents using the second-best defence in the NBA and run with the 16th-ranked offence on the back of it. Defence has always been a sign of a promising team, and the early signs are that this is all for real.

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The Evan Mobley Section

Selected 3rd overall out of USC in the 2021 NBA Draft, Evan Mobley has changed the course of the Cavaliers rebuild. He’s an incredible talent. Dominant in defence and a fine complementary piece offensively. He's the future of the franchise and his introduction has accelerated what once looked like a lengthy rebuild.

Averaging 13.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.8 blocks per game, Mobley is a leading contender for the Rookie of the Year award. His seamless transition into the NBA is best displayed in his ability to make the right read in defence. He is 6th in the NBA in defensive win shares (1.7) as the Cavaliers allow only 100.8 points per 100 possessions with Mobley on the court compared with 108.7 points per 100 possessions when he's on the sideline.

He's a superb help defender. Mobley has the mobility to cave in and help a teammate while also having the length to defend a pass away and still affect the shot if the ball is kicked out. Opposing players have seen his slight frame and tried to bully him in the post only for Mobley to hold up in contact. 7th in the NBA in defended field goal percentage at the rim (min. 5 DFGA), Mobley's influence is a major reason behind Cleveland's elite defence. 

Mobley isn't limited to being a defensive maestro either. He has a soft touch and a level of patience in the post not often seen in rookies. His patience may be a result of the trust he has in his passing game, which so far, hasn't been needed all that often. 

Lob passes, high-low or out of a double to a teammate on the three-point line, Mobley has the passes in his bag and it's only a matter of time before they become a more prominent part of his NBA highlight reel.

It's early days, and teams will start to factor Mobley into scouting reports more and more, yet sometimes you can just see it in a young player and it's obvious they're going to have a long and successful career in this league. Mobley is one of those players. This start to his career is real and a sign of things to come for him and the Cavaliers.

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Going Big

The Cavaliers are zigging while the rest of the NBA zags.

It's all small ball and three-point shots across the league, but presented with three players roughly seven feet tall, coach J.B. Bickerstaff has found a way to build an impressive team with the tools he's been given. 

Laurie Markkanen (7ft), Jarrett Allen (6ft-11in) and Evan Mobley (7ft) have become one of the unlikeliest dominant trios. The Cavaliers play with a 110.7 offensive rating with the three bigs on the floor - good for 14th in the NBA overall. They're the best defensive team in the NBA with a defensive rating of 100.7.

We've touched on how effective Mobley is in defending at the rim already. Allen is one of only five players with a better defended field goal percentage at the rim. 

The Cavaliers are so long and mobile that teams are struggling to consistently score and it is where the acceleration of the rebuild begins. 

It's on the offensive end where there are some concerns.

Cleveland is dominating in transition to be third in the league scoring 132.4 points per 100 transition possessions according to Cleaning The Glass. Only two teams score more off steals and only three more off live rebounds. However, the number of transition plays per game tends to dip come playoff time. 

The league averaged 17.3 transition possessions per game at 1.12 points per possession across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 regular seasons but just 15.4 transition possessions and 1.05 points per possession in the playoffs. The Cavaliers will more than likely be forced into more halfcourt possessions should they feature in the first round. Right now, their 91.9 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt ranks 19th in the NBA and is the worst of the current playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference.

Cleveland's three-big lineup with starters Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro currently ranks in the 56th percentile when it comes to halfcourt offence (min. 100 possessions). 

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Is it sustainable?

Playing so big has its benefits in defence - clearly. However, some questions still remain over whether or not they will be able to score enough points later in the season. Playing big might not be real just yet, but it's really good to watch and adds another element to the conversation around how franchises should be constructing their roster.

Overall, the Cavaliers are dishing out humble pie and during a campaign where many predicted them to struggle. Even with some nice looking pieces on the roster, it was difficult to see how they could all fit together.

It isn't difficult now. 

This is a playoff team and one that will be able to cause a few problems, possibly even an upset, in the first round.

That experience will be crucial to how this group develops, and they'll add Collin Sexton back into the mix next season, too.

The Stats Insider Futures model isn't interested in the Cavaliers as contenders this season at only 0.5% to win the championship, but you can expect to see that number jump over the next 12 months. 

This Cavs roster is only just getting started.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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