The Cleveland Cavaliers have officially surpassed the halfway point of the 2023-2024 season.
Through 43 games, the Cavs have a 27-16 record behind an up-and-down campaign. Injuries and trade rumors dominated the radio waves, but the actual on-court product has been quite interesting. Let’s go over what we’ve learned about the Cavs so far this season.
Jarrett Allen is still very good
This may not be that shocking, but it turns out that Jarrett Allen is much better than his “bright lights” statement last April. Allen took quite a few punches over the summer as being too soft or not built for high-level basketball. In the first half of the season, that notion has hopefully been put to rest.
The aggregate numbers may not look impressive, but what Allen has done since Evan Mobley went down has been extraordinary. Allen has a double-double in 14 straight games and is averaging 18.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game since his front-court partner was put on the shelf.
Lineups with Allen are a net positive on both sides of the ball, especially on defense, where the Cavs are in the 88th percentile per Cleaning the Glass. His impact during the eight-game winning streak, and in general since the Cavs lost two of their best players, cannot be understated.
The playoffs will be a different ball game, but so far, Allen has shown that he is still one of the best and most under-appreciated bigs in the league.
J.B. Bickerstaff is, at least, a good regular-season coach
If Allen got the most flack this summer for his poor playoff showing, J.B. Bickerstaff was a close second.
Bickerstaff was thoroughly out-coached by Knicks leading man Tom Thibodeau in the playoffs last spring, leading some to believe that his seat was hot (it was). Even this season when the Cavs were hovering around .500 early on, Bickerstaff’s seat was notably warm.
However, traversing through injuries to Mobley and Darius Garland — not only surviving but thriving without two of his key players — has completely flipped Bickerstaff’s trajectory.
Whether you want to give the credit to the players or not, it is undeniable that Bickerstaff has pulled the right strings when needed this season. He has gotten good production out of rookie Craig Porter, an un-drafted rookie, normally a doomsday scenario.
Sam Merrill is being used like Kyle Korver or Steph Curry, flying off screens and shooting the ball within one second Dean Wade and Isaac Okoro have upped their game as well, especially on the defensive end.
Mitchell is fully bought back in on both sides of the ball after looking a little disinterested at the start of the season. Bickerstaff has asked the team to up their defensive intensity and even instilled a new metric called “suffocate”, which is three straight defensive stops. So far, the Cavs have responded with one of the best defenses in the league.
Like Allen’s situation, the playoffs are a different animal and Bickerstaff will be judged on how the Cavs fare there. But so far, the team looks bought in and should only get stronger as they get healthier.
The roster has redundancies
Losing Mobley and Garland seemed like a death sentence when their injuries were first announced, but yet the Cavs have responded by being even better than when they were healthy. Why is this? Well, it may be because the starting lineup has too many overlapping skill sets.
Allen and Mobley are two bigs who largely need to remain in the paint on offense, as they are not shooters. Garland and Mitchell are small, ball-dominant guards. By swapping out Mobley for Wade and Garland for Okoro, the Cavs reduce those redundancies and have more flexibility on both sides of the ball.
Wade has been one of the best wing defenders in the league while also being a three-point shooting threat on offense. Mobley is also a world-class defender, but he has no gravity on the offensive end. That lack of spacing crowds the paint and allows defenses to stifle the Cavs’ offense more easily.
Okoro has always been a good defender, unlike Garland, and he has played nicely next to Mitchell. Instead of the Cavs needing to hide one of Mitchell or Garland on defense, Okoro can be deployed with confidence to defend an opposing team’s best player.
On the offensive end, Okoro is not nearly as lethal as Garland, but he has been passable. By having other shooters on the floor in Mitchell, Wade, and Max Strus, Okoro can cut to the basket more easily and get better looks at the rim. The Cavs have worked without Mobley and Garland because their lineup replacements have been different.
That doesn’t mean the Cavs should be looking to trade Mobley and Garland, but it does raise questions about this team’s ceiling as currently constructed. There is too much positional and skillset overlap.
Here are a few other, smaller things that we have learned about the Cavs so far this season:
- The Cavs need Donovan Mitchell
No disrespect to Garland, but Mitchell just has that “it” factor that the Cavs have not had since LeBron James. Mitchell is the go-to guy for a bucket, can get wicked hot at any moment, and has enough playmaking chops to be the puppet master on offense.
He has upped the defensive intensity as of late, too, playing smarter team defense and buying into what Bickerstaff is laying down. Mitchell will be an All-Star again this season, and it is deserved, but his play shows that the Cavs do need to keep him.
- Craig Porter is good, but not that good...yet
The Cavs have had a gaping hole at backup point guard following the injury to Ty Jerome and the sudden retirement of Ricky Rubio, and Porter filled in admirably for some time. But when Caris LeVert is healthy, it is very clear that he is the go-to backup point guard. That isn’t to say that Porter is not good or isn’t part of the future, but his minutes have waned compared to the mania of late December.
- Backup big is still a problem
Following the suspension of Tristan Thompson, the Cavs are left with a hole at the backup center. Damian Jones is not good, and there is a reason Cleveland acquired him for essentially nothing. Thompson was playing some spirited basketball (now we might know why), and the Cavs will need to look for an upgrade on the free agency pile or via trade to help.