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Cleveland Cavaliers are becoming the East’s ultimate wildcard

The Cavs might be contenders after all.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Approaching the midpoint of the 2023-24 NBA season, it feels impossible to judge this Cleveland Cavaliers team accurately. A carousel of injuries and drastic stylistic changes throughout the year have made them the definition of a wildcard.

No one seems quite sure what to make of the Cavs. They were teetering over the edge just a month ago. Now, they’ve won six in a row with their latest coming in the form of a 40-point beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks.

It was arguably Cleveland’s best performance of the season. They opened with a 22-2 blitz, turning defense into offense with swiftness. The Cavaliers made it a point to run in transition by outscoring the Bucks 33-8 in this department.

Over their last 10 games, Cleveland is 17th inpace — which might be middle of the road, but it is a significant improvement from last season when they ranked dead last. More importantly, the Cavs have attempted a league-high 42.8 three-pointers per game since Dec. 15.

With a healthier dose of pace and a whole lot more space, the Cavaliers have become a brand-new team. They have ditched their sluggish halfcourt style from a year ago and embraced the run-and-gun era of basketball.

The Cavaliers aren’t playing at a reckless, breakneck speed or jacking up three-pointers with no aim. They are moving the ball with a purpose and attempting high-quality shots. The Cavs rank third in assists per 100 possessions with the 10th-best offensive rating over this stretch.

Their new offensive scheme was on full display against Milwaukee. This push in semi-transition and a swing to Georges Niang, who poured in 33 points on 5-6 three-point shooting off of the bench, says it all.

Executing the game plan has been a team effort. Early in the first quarter, the Bucks showed a zone defense to try and stump the Cavs. So, Cleveland responded with patience, deliberately working the ball around to trap Brook Lopez into a two-on-one situation.

The Cavs are playing confident basketball as of late. Looking to run whenever possible, Allen sprints into open space while the Bucks are sleeping. By pushing the tempo, Allen gets the ball deep in the paint — and Isaac Okoro wisely cuts backdoor for a layup.

Cleveland’s movement on offense has kept opponents on their heels. A simple misdirection as Max Strus slips a screen turns into a free layup. This increase in off-ball movement has been key for the Cavaliers which has featured Allen’s role as the facilitator.

Allen has taken on new responsibilities since Evan Mobley’s knee injury. He’s recorded 10 consecutive double-doubles, averaging 19 points, 14.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists over this stretch.

So much of Cleveland’s recent success has come on Allen’s shoulders. He’s opened up the floor with his passing from the perimeter and has relentlessly attacked the glass. Since Dec. 15, Allen has been collecting offensive rebounds at the third-highest rate in the NBA.

Scoring against drop coverage was a pitfall for Allen and the Cavaliers during last season’s embarrassing series versus the New York Knicks. This year, however, Allen is punishing drop defenders in three different ways:

  1. Creating a two-on-one situation by flowing into a dribble-hand-off
  2. Using the open space as a runway to barrel his way into the paint
  3. Or, flat-out shooting the ball from 16-feet

On top of this, Allen has secured the Cavaliers as an elite defensive team. In the wake of their three-point boom, Cleveland has re-emerged as the No. 1 defense in the league over this span.

Allen is the anchor that holds the team steady. Yet, plays like this where the Cavs scramble as a unit to hold the Bucks scoreless show their all-around commitment to winning.

So the Cavaliers have found their groove offensively and returned to their roots on defense. All of this puts them two games back from second place in the Eastern Conference with Darius Garland and Mobley still on the injury reserve.

Are they legit contenders? That all depends on how seamlessly they can insert Garland and Mobley into the fold. This month has been a proof of concept if I’ve ever seen one. Given the talent level of both Garland and Mobley — the Cavs should only get better at full strength.

The top of the Eastern Conference might be impenetrable. The Boston Celtics are coasting in first place with one of the most complete starting fives you could imagine. The Bucks are no joke either, despite their recent performance. The rest of the conference is a bloodbath with the Philadelphia 76ers, Knicks, Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers all posing threats to give Cleveland a run for its money.

As for the Cavaliers, the stain of last year’s playoffs remains. Regular season success won’t wash that away and their slow start this year hasn’t helped their image. Cleveland will likely enter the postseason as an underdog as a result.

But for those watching closely, the Cavs have shown enough sparks to be a wildcard contender in the East. If they continue to be a high-powered offense with a bone-crushing defense to match — look out, NBA.