The Cleveland Cavaliers started the season with two solid showings against projected playoff teams. They lost the season opener to the Orlando Magic despite getting solid minutes from their starters. Cleveland followed that by christening the newly renovated Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse with an impressive win over the Indiana Pacers.
Overall it was an encouraging start to the season. Here’s what we learned from opening week.
Tristan Thompson could be playing the best basketball of his career.
Thompson is entering the season completely healthy for the first time in years. He appears to be performing at his athletic prime while putting his refined handle and touch around the rim to good use. As a result, Thompson is averaging 20.5 points with a 72.2% effective field goal percentage and a net rating of 15.8 through two games, per basketball-reference.
Thompson has arguably been the biggest beneficiary of Beilein’s new offense. We saw glimpses of his scoring ability around the rim last season, but many of those were tough looks off high pick-and-rolls with defenders crashing the paint. The added ball and off-ball player movement this season have opened lanes for Thompson to attack the rim with less defensive attention. The new offense combined with good health could result in a career year offensively.
The defense might not be historically bad
The Cavs were one of the worst defenses in NBA history last season. They followed that up with losing their best defensive player in free agency while adding another undersized rookie point guard. There are plenty of reasons to believe that this will once again be the worst defense in the league, but that hasn’t been the case through two games. The Cavs have held both of their opponents under 100 points while posting a 96 defensive rating.
The defensive numbers will come crashing back to earth, but there have been marginal improvements. Collin Sexton has incrementally improved on that end of the floor. He has won at the point of attack more consistently than he did at any point last season. The added muscle and defensive awareness have shown glimpses of someone who could be a plus defender. Thompson’s renewed athleticism has provided solid rim protection so far as well.
Overall, this is still a poor defense which is to be expected. The guards have not done a good job of fighting through screens and Love is still a liability in the pick and roll. With that said, J.B. Bickerstaff has at the least provided some cohesion on defense. Maybe there’s hope this isn’t the worst defense in the league.
The starting lineup has been surprisingly good
It’s way too early to start drawing conclusions, but the early results for the new starting lineup have been good. The five-man combination of Garland, Sexton, Osman, Love and Thompson have posted a 121.3 offensive rating and a 19.7 net rating in 30 minutes of action.
The starting five’s early success is largely due to the foundation their championship front court provides. Love’s early injury last year derailed that season quickly. The Love and Thompson duo was never able to provide that base level of competence as they were limited to just 159 minutes together last season. To put that in perspective, this combo has played nearly a third of those many minutes through two games this season.
Love and Thompson have been the anchor for the starting unit by posting a 15.6 net rating in 50 minutes. Being able to rely on those two on both ends has mitigated some of the mistakes that come with the lack of experience in the backcourt. Sexton and Garland could be capable of playing well together. However, that is only possible if they’re put in a position to succeed. The frontcourt has put them there so far.