The Cleveland Cavaliers wandered the NBA wilderness for three years after LeBron James left town for a second time in 2018. A rebuild was always going to happen post-James, but for Cleveland it was particularly painful. They weren’t just bad, but bottom-of-the-NBA bad. And the Basketball Gods chose not to smile upon Cleveland in the lottery after years of uncommon kindness.
The Cavs were tied for the second-worst record in 2018-19, but the NBA Draft Lottery kicked them back to the fifth pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. The 2020 Lottery offered a similar result for the 2020 NBA Draft. Then for the 2021 NBA Draft, Cleveland moved up a bit to the third pick from being tied for the fourth-worst record.
Cleveland drafted a core group to build the base of their roster. But there’s more to it than just drafting well.
Let’s examine how Cleveland has gone on a path to go from rebuilding to being a good team. And how they can get to being an eventually great team.
In successive drafts, Cleveland drafted Darius Garland (5th overall in 2019), Isaac Okoro (5th overall in 2020) and Evan Mobley (3rd overall in 2021). That’s two definite hits (Garland and Mobley) and one player who remains a work in progress (Okoro).
Those three players and Collin Sexton (until he was traded this summer) formed the Cavs initial base (along with Jarrett Allen after he was acquired). Drafting well was a good start.
Then there are the holdovers. Kevin Love and Cedi Osman have been with Cleveland since the LeBron years. No pun intended, but Love was so beloved in Cleveland that the Cavs signed him to an extension even when it was clear James was moving on. Osman never became a star, but he’s been a solid rotation wing for five years running.
But where Koby Altman and crew shined was in building the roster. And what really stood out was Cleveland’s willingness to be different.
When James Harden’s time was coming to an end in Houston, the Cavs jumped into what became a four-team trade and stole Jarrett Allen for relatively little in return. Altman had his young guards and now he had his center to anchor his frontcourt and defense.
In the summer of 2021, Altman got really creative. After drafting Mobley, the Cavs inked Allen to a five-year contract. Two bigs backing up the two small guards in Garland and Sexton would be the way forward for Cleveland.
But you know what’s better than two bigs? Why not three?
When Lauri Markkanen languished longer than anyone could have imagined in free agency, due in part to his restricted status, Altman and crew got him on a team-friendly deal.
Many, your humble writer included, scoffed at the idea of an Allen, Mobley, Markkanen, Sexton and Garland lineup. There wouldn’t be enough spacing or enough perimeter defense to make it work.
But J.B. Bickerstaff made it work. Mobley came in on defense as close to a young Kevin Garnett as the NBA has seen. He was the key. Allen could cover for Garland and Sexton, and Bickerstaff and his assistants built a scheme for the guards to funnel drivers to Allen to erase them in the paint over the latter part of the 2020-21 season.
But it was Mobley who made everything work. He switched one through five and held his own at the arc at least as well as he did around the key. Garland picked up his effort level on defense, and Markkanen was fine in a simplified scheme where he was asked to direct to Allen and Mobley vs having to defend on an island.
A promising season ultimately got derailed by some injuries and the Cavs slipped from the playoff picture and into the Play-In Tournament. Ultimately, the kids weren’t quite ready, but the step forward season had happened. This year would be the jump back into the playoffs.
But, unlike so many teams with young groups, Altman wasn’t satisfied. When Donovan Mitchell sat on the trade market longer than many expected, Cleveland worked mostly in silence and cashed in some of their assets to get the Utah Jazz star.
Remember Markkanen’s team-friendly deal? That was a key to the Mitchell trade. Sexton had shown enough improvement before getting hurt that Utah took him on via sign-and-trade to make the deal happen. And Altman’s patience while rebuilding had the Cavs in a place where trading multiple first-round picks wasn’t franchise-crippling endeavor.
Is Cleveland’s roster perfect? Nope. They still have a hole at the three that shows up when Caris LeVert (who was acquired at last season’s trade deadline in a smart deal using Ricky Rubio’s expiring contract) struggles. Lineups with LeVert alongside both Garland and Mitchell and two bigs leave the Cavaliers short on shooting and with one too many guys who need the ball.
The backup point guard spot has basically been a rehash of what Utah ran with Mitchell and Mike Conley. Mitchell starts off-ball, but slides over to run the show when Garland sits. Ricky Rubio should clean that up when he returns from his torn ACL.
After injuries up front sunk the team last season, Altman invested in adding veteran depth in Robin Lopez. That’s been prescient because Love is at the point of his career where he’s probably playing 65-70 games on the high end.
The reality is, the Cavs need more shooting, ideally on the wing. They could use another perimeter defender, as Okoro is in a little over his head as a wing stopper. But what team doesn’t have a hole or two to fill?
The other key component to the Cavs success is their player development. No player shows up more here than Darius Garland.
Halfway through his rookie season, of which the last couple of months were lost to the pandemic, John Beilein swapped Garland and Collin Sexton’s roles. It was a change Bickerstaff continued when he took over as the interim head coach and carried into the next season.
Garland was tasked as the on-ball creator. He’d be the point guard and Sexton would play off the ball. The switch fit both players. Garland is a natural playmaker. He wants to pass. He drives looking to pick out a shooter or cutter. He wants to set the offense and drift away from the ball, only to be a perfect safety outlet if things break down. Garland can still create his own looks, but he wants to get everyone else going first.
The result was Garland’s assists going from 2.9 per game up to 5.1 per game in the second half of that rookie season. And he’s not dropped below 6.1 dimes per game since.
That time playing alongside Sexton, with a backcourt partner equally as good with the ball, has made the transition to playing with Donovan Mitchell an easy one for Garland.
Speaking of Mitchell, part of his development is a little harder to track with stats. You have to be open to relying on the eye test. If you can get there, and you watch or remember his Utah days, you’ll see Mitchell is playing differently on the defensive end of the floor.
When Mitchell was drafted, the thought was he’d at least be an NBA-level defender. He became better than expected on offense, way quicker than anyone expected. And with Rudy Gobert acting as the league’s premier cleanup man, Mitchell’s defense went from good to average to not-good in the span of a few seasons.
In Cleveland, Mitchell is engaged again. When he’s on-ball, Mitchell gets down in a stance and hounds ballhandlers all over the place. He uses his strong upper body to take shoulders in the chest and not get bounced off the play. Mitchell will still get lost off-ball on occasion, but the effort is better than it was at the end of his Utah tenure.
On offense, Garland’s playmaking as unlocked Mitchell to be at his best as a scoring weapon. 26.6% of Mitchell’s two-point baskets are being assisted, which is the highest mark of his career and up from just 17.7% a season ago.
Mitchell’s shot profile has also tweaked some. He’s up about five percentage points in attempts at the rim over last season (19% vs 14%), but down about nine percentage points in shots from floater range (14% vs 23%). That means Mitchell is getting more layups and dunks (he dunked 21 times in 67 games with the Jazz last year and he’s already thrown down 19 dunks in 24 games with the Cavs) and is less reliant on floaters.
Simply put: Garland is helping to make the game easier for Mitchell and vice versa.
Up front, the development of Jarrett Allen is rooted in consistency. Before getting hurt last season, Allen was putting up double-doubles on a near-nightly basis. This season has been a bit more up-and-down, but we’ll chalk that up to missing time with injuries and adjusting to the new lineups.
One thing to keep an eye with Allen that could just be small sample size noise? He’s down to 53% of his shots coming at the rim vs 62% last year. Allen’s also down about a dunk per game. More of his shots are coming from just a bit further out than he’s really comfortable with. It’s not alarming yet, but worth watching.
The last guy we want to look at is Evan Mobley. A cursory glance at his stat lines from his rookie season to this season looks pretty flat. He’s rebounding a bit more, but everything else is about the same. But that’s missing the forest for the trees to some extent.
In the inverse of Allen, Mobley has picked up his attempts at the rim by about seven percentage points (43% vs 36%). He’s done so by working less in the 3-to-16-foot area in and around the paint.
Mobley’s defensive impact remains terrific, even if he’s has had to hold down the interior a bit more with Allen out of the lineup. That hasn’t hurt the Cavs overall, but it’s changed Mobley’s individual defensive versatility just a bit. Look for him to get back to being an all-over-the-court terror with Allen back in the lineup.
Going from good to great
The Cleveland Cavaliers are a good team. They should be a playoff team. But that’s often the easy step to make. That step up from good (playoffs) to great (contender) is hard, and not every team makes it.
For the Cavs, health will be a major determining factor. They need to keep their main guys on the floor. If they can, they’ll be a factor in the years to come.
Cleveland needs to find a better fit at the three. Perhaps no roster in the NBA screams out more for a 3&D wing. That’ll come eventually, even if it costs Cleveland Caris LeVert or Isaac Okoro, who it might be time to cut bait on.
From there, it’s about Darius Garland and Evan Mobley taking the next steps in their own development. Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen are close to being fully formed as players. Garland and Mobley have a lot more room for growth.
Garland can become a more consistent shooter. He tends to go on heaters, which lift his overall percentages. But if Garland can settle into being a consistent 45/38/88 guy as a shooter, that would be huge. It’s there for him, because that’s where he lands overall. The key is to consistently be there, vs shooting 9-of-12 one night and 2-of-12 the next.
For Mobley, it’s simply about time. His shot form is good enough that he should eventually extend his range to the arc. Adding a go-to move on his post-ups and duck-ins will be helpful too. Right now, he’s still reliant on his athleticism. Having a short turnaround or jump-hook in his bag will make his life easier as a scorer. He’s already a top-tier defender and should continue to be so.
The Cavs are setup to be around for a long time. The new core is Mitchell, Garland, Mobley and Allen. All four are under team control through at least 2024-25. Mitchell is the “old man” of the bunch at 26.
Now, it’s up to Koby Altman to find the right pieces around his core. If he can do that, the leap from good to great will happen and we’ll be talking about the Cavs as a Finals contender again.