A Roller Coaster of Emotion
The 2021-2022 Cleveland Cavaliers season was a bit of an odd one. They went into the season with low expectations, with the assumption that the rebuild started in the 2018-2019 season would still be ongoing. NBA.com projected them to finish 30-52, ESPN’s preview had them at 26-56 while the Athletic had them ranked 26th out of 30. In open defiance of said previews however, the Cavaliers got off to a great start. They hovered between the fourth and eighth seeds for much of November before peaking in December, where they were knocking on the door of the second seed in the East. A 35-23 pre All-Star break changed expectations of what the team could accomplish.
Darius Garland was ascending the stairs to stardom and Evan Mobley was everything the Cavaliers could have hoped for when they drafted him, and he was solidly in the lead for Rookie of the Year at that point. Then injuries began to really kill the team’s momentum. A resurgent Ricky Rubio went down after just 34 games, Garland, Mobley and Lauri Markkanen all missed at least 10 games and Jarrett Allen missed 20+. Collin Sexton missed basically the entire season. The worst part is that many of those injuries happened basically at the same time, leaving them way too thin down the stretch. Despite being in the third seed as late as February 17th, they slid all the way to eighth by the end of the year, which meant they were forced to battle the Brooklyn Nets and the Atlanta Hawks in the play-in tournament, both of which resulted in losses.
Given the expectations set at the start of the year, the 2021-2022 Cavaliers were one of the biggest surprise success stories of the year. A team that no one thought would even sniff playoffs were one game away on two separate occasions to making the postseason and finished with a solid 44-38 record. That being said, considering where they were halfway through the year, to not achieve playoffs in the end was disappointing. In 2022-2023 things will be very different. The expectations are much higher now, and to not make the playoffs would be a true disappointment and some might say failure on the part of the Cavaliers.
Darius Garland hit a new level last year, showing he was one of the best point guards, and players in general, in the league. Beyond his excellent numbers where he averaged 21.7 points and 8.6 assists, it was the way he did it that was impressive. Just 33% of his buckets were assisted, meaning he was able to consistently create his own shot and score anyways. Considering the degree of difficulty of most of his looks, and the fact that he had to create them himself, shooting splits of 46/38/89 are really good. The point guard spot is Garland’s and it’s not a question. If he can take another step, he will join the upper echelon of NBA players, but it’s not an easy step to take. Even if he plays at the same level though, that’s still more than enough to be a playoff team.
The real point guard question is who plays when Garland needs a rest? Rubio was fantastic in the backup role last year, but he only managed 34 games before tearing his ACL. That same tear will also mean the Cavaliers won’t have his services for the start of the season. They signed Raul Neto to tide things over, or perhaps R.J. Nembhard can fill the role, but either way it’s a significant drop off. Outside of Garland, the Cavs don’t have a proven playmaker pretty much anywhere else on the roster, and the number of players that can score on their own is extremely limited outside of Garland yet again. Getting solid backup minutes will be crucial to tiding over the times Garland must sit.
This is probably the most interesting spot on the roster. There are quite a few people that could possibly take the role, but no clear choices. Collin Sexton is a popular trade candidate, but if he stays with the Cavaliers it will probably be him. The Garland-Sexton backcourt is quite small however, and neither are aces defensively which could make things hard. Having two elite defensive players in the paint does help things, but still their strengths and weaknesses do have more overlap than you might want. Sexton is the most self-sufficient scorer on the team besides Garland and likes the ball in his hands, but doesn’t do much assisting to others. He also doesn’t shoot many threes, with just 4.1 attempts per game. He would probably be best served coming off the bench, but internal politicking and chemistry/morale issues could torpedo that.
Caris LeVert is a similar player to Sexton in the type of role they occupy. He can score off the dribble, but isn’t a lights out shooter and he isn’t a star defensively. He’s also probably the second best playmaker on the team, so again would probably be best served off the bench. His size does give him an edge over Sexton, but Sexton is probably the better scorer at this point. If the starting spot were based on pure ability in a vacuum, it should be one of them.
The “dark horse” if you will, is rookie Ochai Agbaji. He was drafted to be the prototypical 3-and-D player, and so far that’s what he has been to a T. He shot a ton of threes in the Summer League, and while his defense wasn’t tested he shouldn’t be a slouch in that department. The size is also a great pairing with Garland. He also benefits the most from Garland’s passing, as creating his own shot is not a strong suit of his. In terms of pure fit, Agbaji’s the guy, but a rookie starting for a playoff hopeful team is not common (even if the Cavaliers had a great chance with Mobley last year). Agbaji probably won’t start in the beginning of the season, but if Sexton is moved or if Agbaji earns the minutes, he might take the role halfway through.
The incumbent here is Lauri Markannen. He is uncommonly tall for the position but the triple seven-footers “Tower City” lineup is what the Cavs trotted out at every opportunity last year and it worked quite well. Markannen is not a plus defensively but he’s not a sieve out there either, and most importantly he doesn’t demand the ball on offense. He’s a capable shooter, averaging 36.4% for his career from deep and he takes what the defense gives him or what Garland sets up for him (81.8% of his baskets were assisted). He’ll do his role, he’ll space the floor and he holds his own defensively enough to not get run off the court, at least in the regular season.
There are a couple of other options, but none are clear upgrades. LeVert, Agbaji and Isaac Okoro aren’t quite the right size, and only Agbaji would theoretically provide the spacing that Markannen does. Still, with the Agbaji’s length and the size at the four and five, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing to see him out there if that lineup can hold up defensively. Same with Okoro if his outside shooting improves. Not only that, but having three guys with center size does allow much more creative lineups and switching around, so whoever starts here may not matter at the end of the day.
Evan Mobley had the most starts on the Cavaliers in 2021-2022, and he didn’t show anything that would suggest he shouldn’t be starting every game when healthy. He’s already one of the best defenders in the league, and his offense is further along than expected, with his 15 points per game on 50.8% shooting nothing to scoff at. There is so much development that could happen with Mobley entering his second year. Getting stronger will only help him defensively and on the boards, he’s had another year to improve on all his offensive skills, and if he can add a three ball things will really take off. As is, he’s already good enough to start as a defensive anchor and inside threat. Being able to fairly easily slide over to the center spot also opens things up in the lineup if needed.
Jarrett Allen is another no-doubt starter for the Cavaliers as he’s the perfect center to pair with Garland. He’s excellent defensively, grabs boards, and finishes everything. He doesn’t ever need the ball in his hands or to put in on the ground really, but can still score 16 a game on 68% shooting. Allen is All-Star level and will continue to be an important cog on the team. There is one interesting wrinkle with Allen though, which is if Mobley bulks up and can effectively perform Allen’s role, might it be better to see if they can upgrade at the wings which are the weak spot on the team? It probably won’t happen, but in most ideal circumstances it might be a decent move. Still, the Cavs shouldn’t really be looking to move on from Allen, who they have locked up until 2026 on a very reasonable 20 million a year with Allen being easily a top ten center and just 24 years old.
Can they stay healthy would probably be the number one, as the Cavs were a playoff team before everyone got hurt last year. If they stay fit, there’s no reason for them not to contend for one of the lower seeds. They aren’t championship level yet, but a 4th-6th seed should be attainable, and if not at least making it through the play-in should be the expectation. Considering their youth though, this season will be about getting better, and getting more experience to make that real championship in 2024 and beyond. Seeing what extra steps Mobley, Garland and the other young guns (mainly Isaac Okoro) take will be the most interesting aspect, and seeing what moves they make to set up for 2024 (LeBron?) will be the other. It’s not the Cavs’ time quite yet, but it’s coming soon.
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