On Feb. 11, the Cavaliers were tied for second in the East at 35-21, a game back of the top-seeded Miami Heat, and owned the NBA’s fifth-best net rating (plus-4.7). Over the final 26 games of the year, they stumbled to a 9-17 finish and dropped a pair of play-in games to miss the playoffs altogether.
Once Jarrett Allen went down on March 6, they finished 7-11 to close out the regular season. Allen’s absence cratered their defense (21st without him), while the longstanding absences of Ricky Rubio and Collin Sexton sapped Cleveland of the requisite offensive juice to compensate for its defensive slide. Yet that disappointing finish should not diminish the luster of a delightful 2021-22 campaign.
Both Allen and Darius Garland became first-time All-Stars. Evan Mobley, the Rookie of the Year runner-up, arrived as a top-10 defender in his first season. He and Allen were a devastating frontcourt pairing, especially on defense. Lauri Markkanen embraced a 3-and-D role on the wing and performed admirably, often dealt rather arduous assignments. Isaac Okoro made strides offensively. Prior to Allen’s injury, head coach JB Bickerstaff’s ingenuity defensively had them fourth in defensive rating.
That entire group is back in the fold for 2022-23, as is Rubio, who signed a three-year, $18.4 million deal with the organization. He tore his ACL in late December, but should be ready early in the year. Sexton, who tore his meniscus in early November and missed all but 11 games, remains a free agent and his return is a mystery, though.
His scoring prowess could help invigorate an offensive attack that grew tenuous for stretches last season; the two sides seem to be haggling over the proper price point for a new contract. Regardless of whether the talented guard is donning wine and gold next year, this club could be very, very good and challenge for a top-four seed, even in a loaded Eastern Conference.
Following a quiet summer, Cleveland is aiming for renewed health and internal development to build on 2021-22. Its three best players, Garland, Allen and Mobley, are all 24 or younger and will likely be better than the year before.
An offensive leap for Mobley, already an All-World defender, would vault him from above-average starter to someone worthy of All-Star buzz. Garland, 22, could vie for an All-NBA spot rather than just an All-Star reserve berth. Allen improved his perimeter mobility, timing as a rim protector and self-creation to nab an All-Star nod. He’s borderline elite defender and dominant play-finisher who touts a synergistic connection with Garland. Stagnation, if it transpires, after a breakout season would be just fine. He’s a terrific player and only 24 years old.
This team’s most glaring holes are on the wing. Markkanen adapted well to a tricky 3-and-D role, but he’s truly a 4 that the team entrusts to play the 3. Okoro was a better offensive player than last year — up from 29 to 35 percent beyond the arc and 50 to 55 percent inside the arc. Yet he still cramps floor-spacing as opponents ignore him and his defense, albeit very good, hasn’t proven to overcome those offensive hurdles thus far.
Lamar Stevens is a fellow defensive-minded forward with offensive plights. While Cedi Osman enjoyed a bounce-back season, his decision-making on both ends, as well as the jumper, are inconsistent bets still. Dylan Windler has struggled to stay healthy and hit threes (32 percent from deep for his career), despite the latter being a sizable portion of his supposed pre-draft allure in 2019. Cleveland nabbed the 6-foot-5, sweet-shooting Ochai Agbaj 14th overall in June to ideally fortify the wing and add a much-needed, long-range marksman. I’m a big fan of this team, but the wing rotation is assuredly a point of tension and uncertainty heading into the fall.
That’s probably not a deathknell, though. If Garland and Mobley progress to some degree (they should, they’re so young), and the Big Three — Garland, Mobley, Allen — are healthy (53 combined games missed last year), the Cavaliers will probably be really, really good.
When those three played, Cleveland was 26-14. Now, I’m sure most teams boast excellent records when their top three are available. Point being, however, was the Cavaliers capably weathered injuries to their second- and third-best guards, along with inconsistent contributions across the rotation, through the first two-thirds of the year. All they needed perform at a high level was their core intact, regardless of who flanked them. If they get that next season, 50 wins is entirely plausible. The downside of any significant injury to one of them is perilous.
The Sixers strike me as a better team by a decent bit, but I imagine these squads will treat us to some great games and I’d by no means declare Philadelphia an ironclad lock to be better. Between its youthful stars and potentially increased injury luck, Cleveland has lots of room for upward mobility. The Cavaliers are presumably going to be both very fun and good, now and into the future. Last season was merely the prologue.