The Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason begins later this week. Here’s a look back at what we learned last season and what it could mean going forward.
The Cavs’ defense is sustainable.
Defense has long been an issue for the Cavs dating back to the second LeBron James era. The Cavs ranked 29th, 30th, 29th and 26th in defensive rating the previous four seasons prior to the 2021-22 season. That all changed with the Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen pairing.
The Cavs finished with the sixth best defense in the league allowing 110 points per 100 possessions. They did this by running teams off the three-point line and funneling opponents to their two bigs who were able to contest shots at the rim while rarely fouling.
Opponents attempted threes on 35.2% of their shot attempts which was ninth fewest in the league. They also allowed the fewest non-corner threes as opponents attempted just 24.8% of their shots from there. This shows that the Cavs bigs and guards did a good job of switching and staying with shooters on the perimeter and primarily at the top of the key.
Opponents attempted 35.4% of their shots at the rim last season which is the fifth highest percentage in the league. Allowing a large amount of shots at the rim generally isn’t a good sign as it’s the most efficient place to score from on the floor, but the Cavs were able to make this work with Mobley and Allen sharing the floor together. As a result, opponents shot 60.4% at the rim last season which was the lowest percentage in the league. They were able to do this without fouling much as opponents drew fouls on 17.1% of their shot attempts which was good for fifth-fewest in the league.
The Cavs will have a smaller starting lineup this season as they will replace Lauri Markkanen with Donovan Mitchell who has proven to be a poor defender. While adding Mitchell isn’t ideal defensively, there shouldn’t be a huge drop-off. The Cavs’ perimeter defense is predicated on stopping the ball, running shooters off their spots and funneling them to the two bigs in at the rim. This is not a big ask for a perimeter defender and something that can easily be done with a moderate level of defensive buy-in.
Collin Sexton isn’t apart of the Cavs’ future.
Sexton was positioned as the face of this team after LeBron’s second departure. He immediately stepped into a veteran locker room and coaching staff that was forced to abruptly shift its focus from title contention to player development and tanking. The veterans and head coach were shipped out shortly after the start of the season leaving behind fringe NBA players and an interim head coach who wanted to quit after a few months on the job. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t the most conducive environment for development. The next two seasons didn’t do much to improve that environment.
This allowed Sexton to continue to get better at things he showed promise in but never forced him to develop in areas he struggled. His scoring, while not always pretty, continued to improve year-over-year as he improved his three-point shooting, finishing at the rim and ability to get to the line. This led to a steady increase in efficiency and points per game. That said, his on-ball and team defense remained poor and never showed much progress. His ability to set up others offensively only improved incrementally compared to how much he was dominating possessions as seen with his assist to usage ratio. The lack of competency elsewhere on the roster made it difficult to keep him accountable for these shortcomings.
It’s unfortunate we weren’t able to really see how Sexton would’ve fit with last year’s team. The team desperately needed someone who could score off-the-dribble and generate half court offense which are Sexton’s biggest strengths. But, he would’ve also needed to cede control of the offense to Garland and find ways to contribute off-ball and on the defensive end of the floor. I’m confident Sexton could’ve found ways to excel in a reduced on-ball role in time, but his injury robbed us of seeing him put that into practice last season.
Timing is everything in the NBA. This off-season was the perfect time to upgrade the core and make a move for an all-star. Sexton once again found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hopefully the situation with the Utah Jazz will be more conducive for development and allow him to become the well-rounded player he is capable of being but never truly showed in Cleveland.
The Cavs have a core that can compete.
It’s difficult to build a contender or even a consistent playoff team without having a star level player to build around. The Cavs ended the 2020-21 season with many players who showed promise of being good building blocks, but no one who had the potential to become a perennial top ten player in the league. That changed with the addition of Mobley.
Mobley is far from a finished product, but his instincts, basketball IQ and athleticism have shown that he can become a perennial top ten player in the league. He proved to be a versatile defender as he was able to protect the rim and defend in space at a high level. His offensive game is not as polished, but he was still a good finisher at the rim while being a solid facilitator and ball-handler. The question is not if he will make the leap but when.
Mobley’s fit alongside Allen and Garland, who both took a leap last season as well, is why this team was able to take such a drastic step forward. The Cavs were 26-14 — which is a 53 win pace — in games the trio played together. Nagging injuries at different points robbed this trio of seeing how far they could go together last season. Even so, the Cavs were still able to improve their win percentage from .306 to .532 last season and jumped from 22 wins (in a 72 game season) to 44.
This upcoming season will be determined by how well Mitchell fits in with this trio. Adding a high usage guard like Mitchell isn’t as seamless of a transition as adding a lower usage, defensive first big so there will be growing pains. Knowing that the Cavs have a proven trio whose game compliments each other gave Koby Altman the foundation needed in order to make a move like this. Mitchell won’t be coming to this team in hopes to bring them back to relevance. He is being brought in to make them a consistent contender. That’s not something we’ve been able to say about a non-LeBron Cavs’ team in decades.