The 2020–21 NBA season will turn a month old soon, and it’s already been an eventful one for the Cavaliers. A hot start came to a thudding end thanks to an avalanche of strains and bruises. And while the wins haven’t come as frequently since the turn of the new year, measuring progress for a team in the Cavaliers’ position—three of their starters are top-five draft picks who are 22 or younger—will be a more subjective exercise than simply counting wins and losses. Cleveland appears to have a solid vision in place, but executing it properly will require unique contributions from each player. Here’s what to expect based on what we’ve seen so far.
It’s no secret that Kevin Love and the Cavaliers aren’t exactly in it for the long haul with each other. But the trade market isn’t exactly starving for hyper-expensive, aging, injury-prone bigs who don’t defend the rim. Considering Love is unlikely to un-age, give away millions of dollars, or suddenly become a stout rim-protector, the only realistic way for him to increase his stock would be to stay on the court and prove he’s still the sweet-shooting, board-crashing outlet passer who helped bring a title to Cleveland. Instead, he missed the opener, played 38 minutes against the Detroit Pistons, and injured his calf after 9 minutes against the Philadelphia 76ers. A healthy Love is still a nightly double-double threat, but it’s getting harder and harder to envision the Cavs breaking even in a trade, let alone coming away with a net gain.
Count Collin Sexton among the few people who had banner years professionally in 2020. If his performance so far this season is any indication, he has another leap coming in 2021. Not only is Sexton dropping just over 25 points per game (good for 11th in the league), he’s doing so while shooting a higher percentage than megastars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James. Arguably the Young Bull’s biggest point of growth is his patience; as one might expect from this guy, Sexton’s intensity singleminded desire to put basketballs in baskets at times leads to tunnel vision. This year, he’s showing better discretion for when to brick the gas and when to tap the brakes, and it’s paying dividends in both his passing and scoring. It’s early, but if he maintains anywhere near this level, an All-Star appearance could be in the cards as early as this season.
Much of the memory surrounding the Cavaliers last season was aimed at their young backcourt’s lack of passing chops. Garland often looked timid and physically overmatched during his first professional go-round, but he showed signs of having a real, live point guard somewhere inside him. He’s already making good on that potential in his sophomore season; Garland looks more confident in his ability to shift gears to manipulate defenders, and he’s already capitalizing on the additional attention he’s drawing. Thus far, the numbers match the eye test: Garland piled up a career-best 12 assists in just his second outing of the year and has increased his production across the board. His fit alongside Sexton will never be the cleanest, but if he keeps improving at his current rate, Garland will render that concern moot.
How does a top-five pick who finished his first preseason contest with a game-clinching stop and layup increase his stock in just 10 games? Well, there are a lot of ways, but one that’s sure to work is to do it again in a regular-season game, which is precisely what Okoro did against the Grizzlies Thursday night. The 19-year-old is already the Land’s best defender, and while his offense is a work in progress, he’s shown a knack for cutting and finishing, and based on his time at Auburn, he has some latent passing instincts to tease out. At worst, Okoro should hold down the Cavalier defense for years to come. At best? The Cavs have an All-Defense teamer and complementary playmaker on their hands.
The Cavs’ trade for Andre Drummond was the NBA equivalent of buying an Arizona iced tea: for the price, there’s no reason not to buy it, but it’s probably not wise to make it a staple of your diet or pay north of $30 million per year for four-to-five years for. In his first full season in Cleveland, Drummond has been about what you’d expect: a rebounding machine who’s equally likely to post a 20/20 game as he is to do...uhh, this. The ideal Drummond is a supercharged version of (sorry for this) Tristan Thompson who devours offensive boards and dunks often while patrolling the paint on the other end. While his defense has ranged from solid to very good, his offensive plan of attack has largely consisted of solo, off-the-dribble missions, and...well, again. If the Cavs can sign him for half of his current price (that would land him at $14–15 million per year), it would be a solid investment. Otherwise, it’s probably best to let him walk when his contract expires at the end of this year.
Osman initially lost his starting spot to Okoro, but he hopped right back into the first five as injuries took out most of the regular starters. Osman performed well as a second-unit spark, including dropping 22 points in 26 minutes in an overtime win against the Pistons. He’s always been a streaky shooter, and that’s continued this season: Osman has scored fewer than 5 points twice, the same number of times he’s scored 18 or more. As the rotation stabilizes, so should Osman’s play. For now, he’s a bit in over his head.
Larry Nance Jr.
Larry, son of Larry, has long been one of the better bench players in the NBA, and he’s only solidified that standing (sitting?) this season. He’s a basketball matrix: plug him in anywhere, and he’ll pile up numbers. This season, Bickerstaff has unleashed Nance Jr. in a Draymond Green-type role. The results speak for themselves: Nance Jr. is posting career-high assist numbers (3.7 per game) and leading the league in steals (2.4 per game). His transmutability has been indispensable to the Cavaliers staying afloat through a minefield of early-season injuries. Nance Jr. should be an integral part of the rotation for the foreseeable future.
First off: this sucks. Now that’s out of the way: this ultra sucks. Exum spent four years in Utah being too injured to develop into the defensive gorgon he showed flashes of before the Jazz shipped him out. Now, he’s once again playing the part of trade filler, this time on his way to Houston. Exum’s his defense helped him carve out a solid spot in the Cavs’ rotation and, as recently as two weeks ago, was crucial to flustering Trae Young during a fourth-quarter comeback win in Atlanta. Should he ever kick the injury bug, Exum would make a nice backup point guard. It just doesn’t appear his body can hold up.
Former number-one Shaqtin’ a Fool draft pick JaVale McGee started launching threes this year, and hasn’t gone terribly! He’s cooled considerably since his volcanic start from deep, but McGee’s length and shot-blocking make him an excellent defensive presence and offensive finisher for the second unit. He’s a more-than-capable backup to Drummond who wouldn’t be completely miscast as a starter should the need arise.
The Cavaliers scooped up Dotson on the cheap this past offseason to bolster their bench, but thus far, he’s done much more than that. Along with scotch tape and safety pins, Dotson’s shot-making has been one of the only things holding the Cavs together: Dot chipped in 21 points and 8 assists in spot-start duty against Milwaukee and followed up with 14 and 6 against the Grizzlies. He’s played his way into the rotation, even when everyone returns to full health.
After missing his entire rookie season with a recurring leg injury, Dylan Windler finally made his regular-season debut in the opener against the Charlotte Hornets...and played 9 minutes before breaking his hand. He hasn’t played since. In limited preseason action, though, Windler couldn’t quite find the three-point stroke that made him so lethal at Belmont, but he did show some burst attacking closeouts and threw a few on-target skip passes. Windler’s still somewhat of an unknown commodity, but shooting strokes don’t just vanish. He could develop into a key floor-spacer.
D Wade II has gotten more run than probably even he anticipated thanks to Kevin Love’s injury. Wade has been adequate as a replacement—he’s a semi-reliable catch-and-shooter who will grab a few boards and won’t overextend himself—but once the roster returns to full health, it’s hard to see where he’ll find consistent minutes.
Just as quickly as he arrived, Thon Maker is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier, a casualty of the league-shattering James Harden trade. Maker always faced an uphill battle for playing time; the Cavs are deepest in the frontcourt, and for all the attrition they’ve suffered, the center position has remained largely unscathed. As a result, Maker didn’t see as much of a role boost as other players toward the bottom of the roster. His most notable contribution was keeping the house from burning down when Drummond or McGee got into foul trouble, and also this pass. Maker has yet to make good on the potential that made him a first-round pick, but that pedigree might be enough to land him one more shot at making an NBA roster.
Stevens went undrafted this past November, so he’s raised his stock simply under making a roster. The former four-year college starter has been relegated to end-of-bench duty as a pro but hasn’t made much of an impact in 12 minutes per night. Stevens will be among the first to see reduced minutes as players return to action, but perhaps some higher-usage burn in the G-League could provide an environment conducive to development.
The Cavaliers took a flyer on Bolden, a former McDonald’s All-American, back in 2019. They’ve done little else with him since; he’s logged DNPs in 7 of the Cavs’ 11 games this season, and he’s yet to play more than six minutes in a game. Don’t expect him to factor into the rotation this season.