The Cavaliers' fortunes have largely been tied to LeBron James since he entered the NBA in 2003. In 11 seasons with James, the Cavs boasted a 560-342 record and reached the NBA Finals five times while also taking home one NBA Championship.
In contrast, they are 201-412 in eight seasons without him and have yet to make the playoffs. But the team's struggles have led to a series of high picks in the NBA draft that has allowed the Cavs to fill its roster with high-pedigree players. In combination with a few trades that also brought significant talent, Cleveland is on the cusp of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2003 without James on the roster.
It looks likely that the Cavs will be locked into the fourth seed, giving them home-court advantage for a potential first-round matchup against the Knicks.
A significant part of the team’s step forward as compared to recent seasons has come on offense. After posting a 111 offensive rating in 2021-2022, the Cavaliers are currently over 115, ninth best in the league and fourth best in the Eastern Conference.
The most obvious reason for that improvement has been the addition of Donovan Mitchell, who is averaging over 27 points per game on the strength of a jump in efficiency in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage.
While Mitchell has immediately stepped in to lead the offense, the emergence of Darius Garland over the past two seasons has been a key factor for multiple reasons. First, his emergence as a franchise point guard allowed Cleveland to part ways with Collin Sexton as a part of the Mitchell trade this offseason.
Meanwhile, Garland has taken another step forward this season, leading the offense with a 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio while also remaining on the floor for an impressive 35.1 minutes per game. Garland was selected by the Cavaliers fifth overall in the 2019 draft and has emerged as one of the better players from that class alongside Ja Morant and Zion Williamson.
Another homegrown talent in Cleveland is Evan Mobley, the third overall pick of the 2021 draft. Whether due to natural growth from his rookie to sophomore campaign or as a beneficiary of the addition of Mitchell, Mobley has improved his true shooting percentage from 54.9 to 59.2 percent and his offensive rating from 108.5 to 114.4. Despite his limitations both from beyond the arc and at the free-throw line, Mobley has filled his role as the third scorer on the team.
Defensively, the Cavaliers have a 109.6 rating and rank third in the NBA, a year after ranking fifth. Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro stand out, but the other starters also can hold their own on defense.
Allen has been a steady presence in the paint since being acquired in the middle of the 2019-2020 season. Okoro, the fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft, has emerged as a defensive stopper and pairs very well with Allen to lock down the opposition’s top scorer. He’s taken on a diminished role this season but brings energy to the floor and also boasts a 108.9 defensive rating.
The Cavaliers do lack bench scoring. Though Kevin Love fell out of favor as the season progressed, his recent departure further highlights the team’s lack of firepower outside of Mitchell, Mobley and Garland. In Love’s absence, Caris LeVert is the team’s most significant scoring threat not regularly in the starting five. While he’s capable of big performances, LeVert is an inconsistent scorer dependent primarily on shooting volume rather than efficiency. The recent addition of Danny Green could help the outlook of the bench unit, though he is still getting up to speed having yet to play more than 12 minutes since joining Cleveland.
While the Cavaliers may not be able to keep pace with the Bucks, Celtics, or 76ers in the East this season, they are destined for their first postseason appearance since 2017-2018. If they can keep their core intact, they also have an even brighter future as Mitchell is the oldest member of the starting unit -- and he is just 26.
After years of suffering in the absence of James, the Cavaliers are preparing to reclaim the Eastern Conference.
READY FOR MORE?
Enter your e-mail below to get started now with your registration, and be ready to place real money bets on all your favorite sports.