It is now December, and under normal circumstances, we’d already be roughly 2 months into the NBA season. But as you all know, this year has been completely out of the ordinary, bringing on unexpected changes to our life and the sports world. So now, late into December, the NBA season has started back up again, with each team playing 72 games on their schedule instead of the traditional 82 game slate. Early on, many surprise teams have been off to hot starts, which leads fans to the question: Are these teams legit playoff contenders? Or do they still not have what it takes to bring down the best? Although I am not a Cleveland Cavaliers fan myself, they have caught my attention so far. J.B. Bickerstaff’s team is off to an impressive 3-1 start, highlighted by a blowout win over the 76ers. Despite their early success, they haven’t garnered any attention from fans or the media. The Cavs have been nothing short of abysmal since King James’ departure from The Land. Once the epitome of success in the Eastern Conference, they are now a laughing stock of the league. After LeBron’s magical finals runs, where he seemingly willed his team to victory, he packed his bags and left the frigid state of Ohio in favor of the sunny skies in Los Angeles. This decision sent Cleveland into full rebuild mode. They were left with virtually nothing after LeBron except for an aging Kevin Love nearing the tail end of his prime. It may be hard to fathom that one player could have such an impact on a team, but when it’s the best basketball player in the world, the loss is immense. Look no further than the Cavaliers difference in wins since LeBron left. The Cavs won 50 games in James’ final season in the Wine and Gold. Since then, they have 38 wins in two seasons combined. The roster has been completely restructured since the 2018 season, with only three players retained from their finals run (Kevin Love, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr.). Cleveland’s roster is loaded with young talent, as they have the sixth youngest roster in the league with an average age of 25. General manager Kolby Altman has selected in the top ten three times in as many years, drafting Collin Sexton (G, Alabama), Darius Garland (G, Vanderbilt) and recently Isaac Okoro (F, Auburn). J.B. Bickerstaff’s team has won three of their first four games, highlighted by a blowout victory against the 76ers. Let’s take a glance at the Cavalier’s roster to see if they have what it takes to crack the top eight in the East.
The Cleveland guards are young and inexperienced, but they have a lot of promise. Collin Sexton was drafted by the Cavs back in 2018 out of Alabama. Sexton was seen as a score first guard that was able to put points on the board seemingly at will. Sexton’s scoring ability was evident throughout lone season with the tide, posting 19.2 points per game. Look no further than Alabama’s matchup vs Minnesota to see just how dominant Collin can be. Alabama was forced to finish the last thirteen minutes and thirty nine seconds of the game with just three players after the Tide had multiple players ejected due to a brawl. You’d assume the game would be a blowout, considering the Gophers had a two player advantage on the court. But in fact, it was the exact opposite, thanks in large part to Sexton’s 40 points. Minnesota barely escaped, and they won by just a five point margin. The scoring talent Sexton possesses caught the eye of many scouts. However, as a point guard, his playmaking ability is poor. He averaged 3 assists in both his rookie and sophomore season in the league. It’s troubling that the second year guard ranked 80th in the league in assists while having the 30th highest usage rate. He tends to have tunnel vision driving to the hoop, as he led the NBA in shots blocked per game. Sexton must look to create shots for others more frequently instead of having a constant desire to score and stuff his stat sheet with points. Another issue with Sexton is his play on the defensive end. His defense leaves much to be desired, which could be attributed to his small stature. Out of 529 players, Sexton ranked 357th in defensive win shares. If Sexton doesn’t change his ways, he could be best fit in a Lou Williams-type role, providing instant offense off the bench. For now, Sexton is a productive guard that looks to have a bright future in the NBA, even if he does not improve on his weaknesses. Alongside Sexton in the backcourt is sophomore guard Darius Garland out of Vanderbilt. Garland played just four games in college, but it was enough to convince the front office that he could be an elite NBA scorer. The Cavs decision to draft Garland was a head scratcher, considering Garland has a similar skill set to Sexton. Many thought their playstyles would clash and they would not mesh well together in the backcourt. They were both viewed as guards that look for their own shots before others, and they were seen as somewhat inefficient when it came to scoring. Garland flashed his potential to be an elite three point shooter in college, but it did not translate to his rookie season. Garland didn’t even crack the top 100 in three point percentage, and he was 125th in the league in overall field goal percentage. Darius didn’t exactly flash playmaking skills as a rookie either, averaging just 3.9 assists per game. His defense wasn’t particularly ideal as well, considering he’s a bit undersized and lacks some physicality as a result of his 175 pound frame. Although it is a very small sample size, Garland has significantly improved his playmaking so far this season, as well as his efficiency from the field and from three point range. If Garland can keep up his assist numbers, Cleveland’s offense will run through him, which will surely set up teammates like Sexton and Drummond for scoring opportunities. Garland and Sexton possess high upsides and tons of potential on the offensive end of the floor, but if their defense doesn’t evolve, it could become a liability for the Cavaliers moving forward.
In the NBA Draft, there was a consensus top three of Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman, and LaMelo Ball. Outside of those three, it was relatively unclear on who would go where. On draft night, after the top three fell where they were expected to, Chicago shocked many by taking Patrick Williams from Florida State. Williams had recently shot up many team’s draft boards due to his defensive ability. This put the Cavs on the clock, and they ultimately selected Isaaco Okoro from Auburn. Last season, the Cavaliers ranked dead last in the NBA in defensive efficiency, which led them to select Isaac. Defense is Okoro’s calling card, and he can guard multiple positions on the floor due to his 6’9″ wingspan. Okoro will likely be tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best wing player every night. He possesses great strength, speed, physicality, and effort, which are all things that cannot be taught. His athleticism helps him finish around the rim, which will serve him will in his NBA career. His offensive stats don’t exactly jump off the page by any means, but he does have the upside to be solid on the offensive end of the floor. However, the knock on Okoro is his shooting. He does not have a fluid form and struggles from deep, hitting a poor 28.6% of his long balls. College numbers do not always translate to the NBA, but it doesn’t bode well for him moving forward. Okoro also made just 67.2% of his free throws, which goes to show that his shooting struggles from deep last season weren’t just due to range. If Okoro cannot fix his shot, he could be a similar player to Andre Roberson, causing teams to lay off and try and make him hurt them from three point range. Even if Isaac’s shot does not come around, he should provide exceptional play on the defensive end. Alongside Okoro at the other forward position is Kevin Love, assuming he can stay on the court. Love has been dealing with a string of injuries, and he recently just suffered a calf strain that will sideline him for at least 3 weeks. For the sake of this breakdown though, we will deem Love as the starting power forward. Love can still put up solid scoring numbers on a nightly basis, but he is no longer the MVP caliber player he once was in Minnesota. Kevin wasn’t solid defensively last season, leading to the Cavs defensive rating being worse with him on the floor compared to when he was on the sidelines. At age 32, Love’s best years are far behind him, but he can still be a valuable asset moving forward. Rounding out the starting five is big man Andre Drummond. Drummond was traded from the Pistons to Cleveland in exchange for a second round pick, as well as Brandon Knight and John Henson. Neither Knight nor Henson is still on the Pistons roster. The trade can be seen as an absolute steal for Cleveland, considering they gave up virtually nothing for one of the most productive centers in the league. For years, Drummond has been one of, if not THE best rebounder in the NBA. Just how good is he on the boards? Well, dating back to 2013, Drummond has finished top two in rebounding every single season. He’s won four rebounding titles since 2015. Additionally, he’s averaged over thirteen points per game in every season, except for his rookie season (2012). His defensive game is exceptional as well. He ranks third out of all active NBA players in defensive rating and 37th all time. Andre also averages 1.4 steals and 1.6 blocks per game over his career, which helps him achieve such an impressive defensive rating. He can get it done on both ends of the floor, making him an extremely valuable asset to any team at the center position. The only issue with Drummond’s game is that he is not a modern day big man, as he struggles with his jumpshot. However, what he lacks in shooting he makes up for in his play in the paint. Drummond’s incredibly high motor on the boards should lead to tons of second chance opportunities for Cleveland.
Cleveland’s bench last year was just average to say the least. The Cavs were 7th worst in bench points and bench rebounds. Additionally, they had the third worst three point shooting bench. Cleveland traded one of the best bench players in the league, Jordan Clarkson, for Dante Exum, hoping he could help solve their defensive woes. Exum has been a bust, considering he was the 5th overall pick in 2015. His inability to sustain success could be attributed to his injury troubles. Although offense is not his strong suit, he makes himself a valuable rotational guard due to his defensive skill set and versatility. Alongside Exum is Kevin Porter Jr. Porter Jr. is an intriguing, raw prospect that possesses a lot of talent. However, Porter has an alarmingly high turnover rate and foul rate which can hurt the team simply by him being on the floor. He cannot be a primary ball handler due to his carelessness with the ball, but he should be a good bench scorer with the potential upside to become a starter in the future, assuming he can fix his issues on and off the court. Another bench forward is Cedi Osman. Osman is a very solid bech piece who can score from deep. He’s a very unselfish player that is a capable starter if the Cavs need him to be. At the backup power forward position is Larry Nance Jr. Nance has been a solid player ever since entering the league out of Wyoming. He has a lot in his repertoire, as he can shoot, facilitate, and rebound well. Nance has carved himself out a nice role on the Cavaliers, and he will likely be slid into the starting lineup due to Kevin Love’s injury. Finishing up the bench now with JaVale McGee. McGee is known for his dunking ability and embarrassing on-court plays, but he’s more than just that. He does a great job on the defensive end and is a good shot blocker, as he often plays above the rim.
Cleveland is on the come up, but as of now, I still think they are too young to grab a playoff spot in the Eastern conference. Certainly their hot start looks promising, but I don’t want to overreact to a small sample size. I think they will be a fringe playoff team for now, however, I think they’ll be on the outside looking in once it’s all said and done. The Cavs have a plethora of young talent, and if they develop, this team has a solid future ahead of them.