The Cleveland Cavaliers are off to a modest 4-6 start to the season. Yet when you take into consideration the expectations for this team, plus the way they’ve performed so far, it’s hard not to feel encouraged.
Through 10 games, the Cavs have been mediocre. They rank 20th in offensive rating, 16th defensively and 18th in net rating. Per ESPN’s Strength of Schedule metrics, they’ve done this against the 14th most difficult schedule to start the year. From top to bottom, they are profoundly average.
For most teams, this would be a cause for concern. But coming off a 19-win season where the team had the worst defense in NBA history, these numbers are very encouraging —especially when you consider their rotation is full of players in their first or second year of real NBA minutes and a new coaching staff.
There weren’t really signs of this during the preseason. The rotation then featured many that wouldn’t make the team, the Cavs didn’t look prepared and coach John Beilein echoed that sentiment after their final loss of the preseason.
But the week of preparation between now and then, along with the rotation being cleaned up, things appear to have been cleaned up. So what has gone into the Cavs impressive start to the season?
The first thing that jumps out is that the Cavs haven’t played down to the level of their competition. Last season’s Cavs were capable of making any team look dramatically better than they were.
However this season things have been different. Through 10 games, the Cavs have had three matchups against teams that don’t appear to be part of the playoff picture: the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards and New York Knicks. Cleveland won all three games.
As you can see below, outside of the win against Chicago, the Cavs’ defense has done an effective job limiting these lesser opponents:
Out of the nine teams the Cavs have faced this season — Dallas Boston, Milwaukee, Indiana and Washington — all have average offenses. Yet in six of Cleveland’s 10 games, their opponent has been held well below their season averages offensively.
Now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the three of the top-five’s offenses found a way to dissect the Cavs defense. After all, this team still has a ton of youth and a limited supply of quality defenders. But the overall defensive output is still noteworthy.
The primary driver for the Cavs success to start this season has been the effectiveness of Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson as a unit. The starting five has played the second most minutes out of any five-player unit (156 minutes). Their offensive rating of 110.4 would rank fifth in the NBA and their 95.8 defensive rating would be best in the NBA. Maybe those numbers won’t hold up, but they are encouraging.
But while the Cavs defensive numbers have fallen apart against tougher competition, that hasn’t been the case for the starting five. The following are the single game defensive rating for that five player unit sorted from their worst performance to their best:
- Indiana on Oct. 26: 109.7
- Chicago on Oct. 30: 104.3
- Washington on Nov. 8: 104.2
- Dallas on Nov. 3: 103
- Milwaukee Oct. 28: 100
- Boston on Nov. 5: 100
- Orlando on Oct. 23: 93.9
- Philadelphia on Nov. 12: 86.7
- Indiana on Nov. 1: 83.9
- New York on Nov. 10: 70.6
Outside of the Cavs win over Indiana, their starting five has been above average or better defensively every game. Even the Sexton-Garland duo have posted a perfectly fine 103.6 DRTG in their minutes together.
While some credit should be given to Sexton and the strides he’s taken defensively, the play of the Cavs championship big men and the coaching of Beilein deserves a ton of praise.
The Sexland duo has played just two minutes together without both Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love on the floor. Both of those minutes came in garbage time in the win over the Knicks.
Nobody is going to mistake Love for a lockdown defender. But when teams aren’t playing five out and he’s alongside a center, he can be perfectly fine on that end and certainly better than the fringe rotation players the Cavs were forced to play at the position last season.
But the reemergence of healthy Thompson is what has truly made the biggest difference for the defense. He’s showing the prowess on that end that made him a key part of disrupting the Warriors “death lineup” in the 2016 Finals.
Cleveland’s net rating is 27.9 points better with Thompson on the court compared to off. The burden he shoulders on defense, along with Love’s presence on offense has enabled John Beilein to shield his young guards and allow them to play through their mistakes.
For the starting five to be so effective while Garland is finding his footing — and not playing that well — in the NBA is tremendously encouraging. Even if the veterans aren’t here long-term, it provides some proof of concept of what type of team could work around the guard duo should the team decide to play them together.
Having a positive lineup seemed like a near impossibility for the Cavs just a season ago. To have a lineup with a connection to the past, while helping develop the future of the team has been a very rewarding experience to start this season.
Other observations through 10 games:
The Cavs’ bench will continue to struggle until they get healthy
Thompson and Cedi Osman are the team leaders in on/off net rating with +27.9 and +24.9. Nobody else is even close, with Collin Sexton as the third leader on the team with +5.4 and Kevin Love at 5.3. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise as both players currently do not have an active backup in the rotation.
John Henson, Ante Zizic and Dylan Windler all are out with injuries, depriving the team of it’s two backup centers and backup small forward. Obviously when Windler makes his debut there will be a learning curve, but having another body at the position other than the sparsely used Alfonzo McKinnie. Speaking of the center position...
The Cavs no center lineups are a tire fire
Heading into this season, the team and Larry Nance Jr. appeared to have come to a consensus that the forward should not be playing center. Nance was among the worst rim protectors in the league last season and asking him to deal with the size at that position is unfair.
Unfortunately injuries have forced Beilein’s hand. With no backup center active, Nance has had to spend extended minutes with both Thompson and Love.
The minutes with Thompson have predictably been a struggle offensively, but not terrible overall with a 105.3 DRTG and -1.7 net rating. But the no center lineup of Love and Nance has been a disaster with a 111.4 DRTG and -21 net rating.
Perhaps there is the possibility for that duo to improve on their offensive output, as both players primarily make the biggest impact on that end of the floor. But the defense is likely a going to be a lost cause, especially when they are playing with the reserves.
In theory, Henson should be a great partner for Nance. He can allow Nance to rim run offensively while providing some cover on the defensive end.And Henson was solid in the minutes he actually played. Nance is capable of making good defensive plays, but he isn’t someone that can anchor a team defense — making any pairing with Love near untenable.
Cedi Osman has been a great glue guy
Despite a few spells of passive play offensively, Osman has fit like a glove in the Beilein system. He moves well off the ball. He’s been a solid, but slightly streaky, shooter from distance and has made some real strides on the defensive end of the floor.
Osman is like Thompson in that he doesn’t need plays called for him or touches to be an active contributor. Outside of Nance, McKinnie and two-way player Tyler Cook, every Cavs player has a positive net rating when they share the floor with Osman.
He likely is not the long-term starter for this team, and his contract extension would put him in the range of a seventh man or so. But he has proven that he can be a quality rotation player that can occasionally play like a starter and make a large impact on the game. When you factor that with his ability to get along with teammates and be a positive presence in the locker room, you get a quality glue guy for this team.