Before the season started, writers from around the SB Nation Extended Universe assembled to deliver a preseason preview for the 2021–22 NBA season. Our very own Chris Manning provided his input for the Cleveland Cavaliers, which you can find here.
The All-Star break is the perfect time to pause and reflect. What were we thinking all those months ago? Just how far off were we? How was everyone so wrong about the Cavaliers? And what happens the rest of the season? Let’s revisit, then look ahead.
Best- and worst-case scenarios
“The Cavs’ best scenario involves a play-in appearance.”
Welp. Sorry, Chris. (Editor’s note: I am an idiot!)
If it’s any consolation, I think this is what any rational person (including myself) would’ve said, too. The Cavs were one of the worst teams in the league last year, and while they added significant talent through the draft and trades during the offseason, no one could have seen this coming.
It’s not just that they’ve already blown away both Vegas’ win projection of 27.5 and our predicted record of 32–50. And it’s not just that they’ve posted a net rating that ranks among the league’s best. And it’s not that they’re nearly 60 games into the season and still fighting for the top seed in the East. …but, you know, they have, and that kicks ass. It’s the manner in which the Cavaliers have kicked ass that’s made this season feel like a nonstop joyride.
It sounds like hyperbole, but nearly every member of the rotation has lived up to or exceeded expectations. Darius Garland has officially made the leap into an All-Star and looks like a franchise cornerstone. Jarrett Allen is also an All-Star and a solid candidate for All-Defense, and he’s putting up career numbers that make his $100 million deal look like a bargain. Evan Mobley feels like a lock for All-Defense—an astonishing feat for a rookie—and leads the league in drool-inducing sequences per game.
The vets are getting in on the fun too. Kevin Love has been happier, healthier, and plain better than he has in years. Cedi Osman has brought his career back from the brink after last year’s nightmare season. Ricky Rubio was one of the best offseason acquisitions in the league before his injury. Former undrafted free agents Dean Wade and Lamar Stevens have turned themselves into solid role players. Every once in a while, everyone syncs up and the Cavs unleash one of their famed Cavalanches on some poor, unsuspecting team.
There’s not much to say as far as worst-case scenarios go. Isaac Okoro’s offense is a work in progress, but he looks like he could be joining his frontcourt on All-Defense teams before long. Lauri Markkanen hasn’t leapt over the bar he’s set for himself either, but he’s struggled with injuries for much of the season. Not ideal, but neither feels like a doomsday situation.
The only true worst-case outcome that’s come to fruition is Collin Sexton. Sexton’s season-ending injury after just 11 games is a tragedy. His scoring numbers may have been down (16 points per game), but in what little time he spent on the court, he demonstrated a clear effort to shore up his playmaking and off-ball offense at the expense of his own numbers. The Cavs have at times struggled to puncture the league’s more airtight defenses—Sexton is exactly the type of player they need right now. His future in Cleveland remains to be seen, but wherever he plays down the road (hopefully Cleveland!), he should have a long and fruitful basketball career.
Remember how I spent all that time earlier waxing poetic about the Cavs exceeding expectations? Lord forgive me, because I’m about to join the ranks of foolish doubters.
It’s not that the Cavs aren’t a very good team. They clearly are. It’s more about the other members of the pack they’re running with:
- A pair of should-be titans (Brooklyn, Milwaukee) whose outrageous collections of talent makes them a threat to rocket up the standings
- A handful of playoff mainstays who are headlined by dynamic duos (Boston, Toronto, Miami, Philadelphia) and are each in various stages of finding their grooves
- Chicago (Chicago), who unfortunately doesn’t fit cleanly into either category but has been near the top of the standings all season and boasts an MVP darkhorse in DeMar DeRozan
Most of the above teams seem to be finding their grooves lately. But the Cavs, on the other hand, feel like they’re losing steam. Injuries have left Darius Garland as the Cavs’ only real playmaker (and he’s at times buckled under that burden and missed time with back issues), which has made generating offense far more burdensome than it was early in the year. Recent addition Caris LeVert alleviates some of the pain of losing Rubio, but it’s hard to overstate just how valuable Rubio was. They desperately need the All-Star break to refresh.
My best guess? The Cavaliers lose out on homecourt, but only barely; they’ll finish fifth in the East with a record of 49–33. That would mean finishing the year on somewhat of a down note, yes. But considering preseason projections, the fact that just missing 50 wins can be considered a disappointment is kinda unfathomable.
Whatever fate the postseason holds, there’s still plenty to look forward to in Cleveland. For one, the Caris LeVert trade looks like a winner; it’s clear that the fit is a work in progress, but he has the off-the-dribble verve and shotmaking ability that every team needs in the postseason.
Then there’s award season. Aside from MVP, you could make a case for at least one Cavalier for nearly every honor: Garland for Most Improved Player (he currently has the third-best odds); Mobley for Rookie of the Year and All-Defense; Allen for All-Defense; Love for Sixth Man of the Year; and J.B. Bickerstaff for Coach of the Year. The Cavs may not win any of these awards, but the fact that they’re heavily in contention for all of them tells you about the kind of year they’re having.
Oh yeah, also: playoff basketball is going to be in Cleveland again. The Cavs will be playing in games that matter when April rolls around. There’s excitement surrounding the team again—you can feel the electricity even just watching the games from afar.
Oh, and if you look away for a second, you might miss something like this:
interrupted by only a De’Aaron jumper. a timeout, and an OB, here is quite-possibly the biggest beatdown sequence of the NBA season by the Cavs.— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) December 12, 2021
holy hell that was a rush. https://t.co/vxLURcRCLk pic.twitter.com/OjXX1tfk8T