The Cleveland Cavaliers took care of business at home while losing both road games. Here’s what we learned from the up and down week.
The Cavs have been good through the first quarter of the season.
We are officially over a quarter of the way through the season. The Cavs are on pace to win 51 games while owning the third best record in the Eastern Conference and the fifth best in the entire association. Let’s take a look at how they’ve been able to do that and see if it’s reasonable to expect those trends to continue.
The Cavs have the second best defense in the league with a 108.5 defensive rating. The defense is very good despite missing their anchor, Jarrett Allen, for seven games.
Evan Mobley has taken a step forward this season when Allen is off the floor. Lineups with Mobley and without Allen have posted a 109.1 defensive rating which is improved from the 112.6 they posted last season.
The defense begins and ends with their back line. As long as one of Allen and Mobley are available, the defense should be good. If both are, the Cavs have 48 minutes of elite center play and have the versatility to have two shot blockers on the court.
Provided that one of Mobley and Allen are available, the Cavs will continue to have a good offense. It should also be noted that inserting Donovan Mitchell into the defense hasn’t led to a drop off.
The Cavs have the sixth highest three-point percentage (37.8%) in the league. The shooting percentage has consistently been around the top of the league, but the drop off is likely coming sooner or later.
Mitchell’s outside shot, and more specifically his off-the-dribble shooting, is the biggest reason to be hesitant. He has been one of the best volume three-point shooters this season. He’s connecting on 42.1% of his outside looks on 9.2 threes per game. That is good for the fourth best percentage among the 31 players who have launched seven or more threes per game behind only Steph Curry, Desmond Bane and Kevin Huerter.
Furthermore, Mitchell is knocking down 45.8% of his 5.4 pull up threes per game. This is good for the third highest percentage of pull up three-point shooting among players averaging more than two attempts per game behind only Curry and Bane.
Mitchell hasn’t been this good of a shooter in his career. He hit 36.1% of his 7.7 threes per game during his five seasons with the Utah Jazz with his best season being 2020-21 where he converted 38.6% of his threes. Mitchell also hasn’t hit pull up threes anywhere near this level before. He came into this season shooting 33.5% on 4.6 pull up threes per game. His best season was ‘20-21 where he hit 36.3% of 5.5 pull up threes per game.
Mitchell’s percentage coming back to career norms will cause the team’s shooting to come back to what we expected coming into the season. Cleveland has good shooters, but not the depth that you would expect from a team shooting this well.
The Cavs have the tenth best offense with a 114 offensive rating. Mitchell’s presence is a big reason why they’ve jumped from the 19th ranked offense last season to inside the top ten. The offensive numbers are likely inflated from Mitchell’s torrid shooting from beyond the arc. If that comes back to earth, the Cavs could easily find themselves falling outside the top ten.
The Cavs have a well diversified offense, when healthy, as they convert the eighth most attempts at the rim (69%) and have the fifth best foul rate in the league (22.6). These are the signs of a good offense. But the three-point shooting has made them a slightly better offense than they actually are. This could be a candidate for a slight drop off.
The Cavs have the fifth best net rating (5.4) and are third in the East. While the offense could slow down a bit, the team is set up to continue playing well if not better. Positive Residual has the Cavs as playing the tenth hardest schedule in the league thus far. They also have the Cavs with the third easiest remaining schedule.
The Cavs have come through the most difficult part of their schedule while not converting as many wins as they should. They are on pace to win 51, but have the point differential of a team that would be expected to win 54.5 games. Cleveland done a poor job of executing down the stretch, which has cost them. You’d expect that to turn around as Darius Garland and Mitchell become more comfortable playing together and closing games.
The easier schedule combined with their close loses lead you to believe that they should be able to keep pace in the standings.
The Cavs continue to struggle on the road.
The two road losses this week drop the Cavs to 5-8 away from home. This puts them as having the eighth best road record in the conference and the 18th best in the league. Those aren’t numbers you’d expect from the third seeded team in the East.
The Cavs have however played better than their road record suggest. Cleveland has the fourth best away net rating (1.3) in the league despite the poor results.
This suggests that the Cavs have blown teams out in wins and done a good job of keeping games close in losses. The average margin of defeat on the road in 8.75 points. They have been in many of these games prior to letting go of the rope in the second half.
It’s typical for role players to play better at home. It’s like that for every team. The best teams however are able to have their stars carry them to victory in someone else’s building.
Garland hasn’t been able to do that so far this season. The gap between his home and road performances are substantial. The fourth-year guard is averaging 29.4 points on .529/.516/.851 shooting splits with 8.4 assists to 3.6 turnovers. Away from Cleveland, he is averaging just 16.5 points on .342/.295/.867 shooting splits with 7.2 assists to 3.0 turnovers.
I don’t believe this trend from Garland is a cause for concern going forward. This is only brought up as part of an explanation for why the Cavs haven’t been as good on the road. Garland hasn’t shown wide swings between playing at home or on the road at any point in his previous three seasons.
That said, Cleveland needs to do a better job away from home if they are to be taken seriously as a contender in the East. Fortunately for the Cavaliers, only four of their remaining 13 December games take place on the road.
Evan Mobley is showing progress at guarding centers.
Wednesday’s win against the Philadelphia 76ers was a step in the right direction for Mobley. He drew the primary assignment on Joel Embiid and did a good job of making his life difficult with some help from his teammates. Embiid was held to just 19 points on 6 of 16 shooting with 6 boards and a 6 assists in the loss.
Mobley’s best defensive position isn’t center and likely won’t be for a few seasons. But, it’s encouraging to see the Cavs putting together consistent defense with him at the five which isn’t something they were able to do last season.
Lineups with Mobley at the five without Allen have a defensive rating of 109.3 while holding opponents to just 57.7% at the rim. To put that in perspective, last season the Cavs posted a 113 defensive rating with Mobley at center while opponents finished 63.5% of their shots at the rim.
Mobley still has room to grow as a five. Teams are still able to take advantage of him on the defensive glass as opponents have collected an impressive 32.4% of their missed shots. This is one of the things keeping the five from being his ideal position.
The best version of the Cavs’ defense will include Mobley and Allen on the floor together. Mobley’s improvement as being a traditional center allows J.B. Bickerstaff to deploy more creative defenses if the matchup allows for it.
Most importantly, for this season the Cavs have been able to get away with Mobley at center in Allen’s absence on the defensive end which isn’t something they could do previously. The games they’ve lost without Allen this year, with the exception of the losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Milwaukee Bucks, were not due to the defense letting them.
Mobley at the center defenses have kept the Cavs competitive. That’s all you can ask for with a Defensive Player of the Year candidate like Allen on the sidelines.