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Cleveland Cavaliers: What we learned from Dec. 21 - 27

The Cavs are off to their best start since 2016 thanks to Sexland.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The first week couldn’t have gone any better for the Cavs. They jumped out of the gates to a 3-0 start which included a dominant win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s fun to jump to sweeping conclusions from the first week of the season, but it isn’t wise. You really need to get about 20 games into the season before you can really start analyzing trends. So, all the stats I’m mentioning here should be noted with a small sample size disclaimer.

With that said, let’s get into some of the fun stuff that happened. Here’s what we learned this week.

We see how Sexland can work.

This was the most encouraging week for the Collin Sexton and Darius Garland backcourt. This week didn’t prove that they can work as a backcourt longterm, but we saw a part of what the ideal version would look like as the pair posted a 12.9 net rating together in the first three games.

It didn’t feel like there was a defined role for Sexton and Garland last year. They took turns running the offense which unsurprisingly didn’t go well for either of them or the team. This year there is much more of an emphasis on Garland playing the point and Sexton playing off-ball which has worked so far.

Garland flourished in the point guard role. He finished the week averaging 8.3 assists per game and just 2 turnovers. Cleveland played their best basketball with him on the floor as the team had a 17.6 net-ratings when he was on and a -3.8 when he was off. That’s the best on the team among starters.

Great point guards have a way of racking up assists without dominating the ball. They set up the offense in a way that encourages the ball to move to everyone. Garland was able to do that this week as the Cavaliers moved the ball better than they have in seasons as 66.2% of the team’s field goals came off of assists.

Garland’s increased control of the offense has helped Sexton be the best version of himself. As pointed out in the above tweet by Carter, we see that a majority of Sexton’s points are coming off-ball which is somewhere he’s excelled in before but hasn’t had a chance to do for extended periods. Sexton shot 42.1% on 2.2 catch-and-shoot threes last season which lends credence to this idea. Playing off-ball has yielded good results early as he averaged 27.0 points with a 64.8 effective field goal percentage and 3.7 assists per game this week.

While the production isn’t sustainable, this week showed what the optimal version of this pair could look like. Garland’s skill set is best used as a traditional point guard who gets the team in and out of their sets in an efficient way while Sexton is a lethal off-ball scorer who is a threat in all three levels. We’ll see if this pairing continues to produce results like this going forward.

Cedi Osman is settling into his new bench role

It turns out that not having to guard an opponent’s best wing every night can really free you up offensively. At least, that has been the case for Osman through the first three games. The fourth-year player averaged 15.7 points per game while shooting 52.9% from deep on 5.7 attempts a game this week.

Osman’s game has generally fluctuated with his outside shot. He’s been a streaky shooter in his career which allows him to look great when his shot is falling and pretty bad when they aren’t.

It’s too early to make any judgment, but moving to the bench could help with the consistency that Osman has been lacking. He’s been asked to play a role above his skill level the last two years which has exposed the worst parts of his game. Coming off the bench has allowed him to play freer than we’ve seen in years. It’ll be interesting to see if this role allows him to be a positive contributor when his outside shot is off. That’s not something we’ve seen from him in the past.

The defense doesn’t have to be awful.

The defense is the biggest reason why the Cavs have had success out of the gates. They’ve posted an unbelievable 100.3 defensive rating which is good for second best so far. This obviously isn’t sustainable, but it does show that J.B. Bickerstaff does have something to work with.

The Cavs have done a good job of incorporating Andre Drummond and JaVale McGee into the defense. Bickerstaff has traditionally had his bigs play drop coverage in pick-and-roll situations, which plays to Drummond and McGee’s strengths. Sexton and Garland have done a good job of trying to fight over screens which has gives Drummond and McGee the opportunity to clean up the mess at the rim.

Besides that, Isaac Okoro and Larry Nance Jr. have made their presence felt on the defensive end early. Okoro was asked to guard Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward down the stretch of Tuesday’s game with some success. Nance jumped into the starting lineup Sunday and was able to stifle the Sixers offense by keeping Ben Simmons under control for most of the night. Bickerstaff has shown that he isn’t afraid to use his best defenders in a variety of ways which isn’t something we’ve been able to say about previous coaches.

The Cavs will probably not be an above-average defensive team by the end of the season, but they also won’t be the worst defense in the league like they’ve been the last couple of seasons. Bickerstaff has done a good job of using what he’s been given in the best possible way on defense. That’s all I’ve ever asked for.