On December 15th, the Cleveland Cavaliers were hit with a double whammy of terrible news. Franchise point guard Darius Garland was declared out for a few weeks with a fractured jaw. Then Evan Mobley, often considered the franchise’s future, was declared out for 4-6 weeks with knee surgery. They were 13-12 at the time, having lost three straight when expectations were much higher. The season seemed sort of doomed. Fans were calling to trade Donovan Mitchell and to tank for next year. It’s hard to blame them, considering how injured the Cavaliers were and have been this season.
Since then, though, the short-handed Cavaliers have put together a bit of a run. Not only that but after winning twice, they also lost their best player in, Mitchell. To put it briefly, since losing Garland and Mobley, they are 5-1, and since losing Mitchell, they are 3-1, including wins against the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks. How have they pulled this off, and who has stepped up?
The Key to Success
When ball-dominant stars go out, ball movement generally increases. This has been true for the Cavaliers as well. Without Garland and Mitchell, who are the best at getting their own shot, the ball is forced to move to get open shots. In the six games since Mobley and Garland have been out, they’ve beaten their average season assists of 26.2 every time. They often beat it by a lot, with 30+ assist games in four of the six.
The ball moves quickly now, with only Caris LeVert comfortable dribbling the ball for any extended period. It’s great to see in regular-season games. The ball swings from side to side, sometimes multiple times per possession, in search of a better shot. It’d be great to see that implemented when Garland and Mitchell return, both of whom can gun it from deep. It’s not terribly likely, but hey, who knows?
Jarrett Allen is the only remaining of the Cavs’ core four these past few games. Allen has stepped up significantly, an often mentioned name in trade talks and seen as the least essential name by far. The offense often runs through him, and he has responded incredibly well. In the six-game run, he’s averaging 18.2 points and 12.5 boards on 66% shooting, with those shooting and rebounding numbers far above his career averages with no drop in efficiency.
His defense has stayed strong, too, doing an admirable job on Luka Doncic when they visited the Mavericks on Wednesday. He held him to 3/13 shooting when switched onto him in the second half, with many of those possessions coming on the perimeter. When everyone comes back, Allen should be a higher priority on offense, but that would hinder Mobley’s growth even further. Whether Mobley has offensive potential worth nurturing is a serious question, but that’s a question for another time.
When given the chance to start, Isaac Okoro has been quite good. It’s been no different in this run, scoring 14 a game on 53/42/68 splits. Again, those are far beyond his career averages, and the three-point shooting is incredibly encouraging, considering it’s on a healthy five attempts per game. He looks like a very strong piece when starting. The problem is Okoro seems to play much worse coming off the bench, and there’s no room for him when everyone comes back. The recent stretch might increase his trade value, but losing a solid player like Okoro is a shame.
Craig Porter Jr.
Finally, Craig Porter Jr. has been an overall revelation this season. After showing a do-it-all game in the Summer League, he played great in the few minutes he got early in the season. J.B. Bickerstaff said he earned his place on the rotation before bafflingly banishing Porter Jr. into DNP land. He’s been forced to play Porter Jr. again, and he’s playing very well. In his 11 starts, he’s averaging 11/6/7, which are really nice numbers for an undrafted rookie. He plugs a lot of holes when he’s in and plays with high energy and intelligence. He has performed pretty well off the bench and earned his minutes again, even when the Cavaliers’ are at full strength. Of course, that was true before, too, but hopefully, this time it sticks.
It’s been a fantastic run for the injury-ridden Cavaliers. Coach Bickerstaff has proven excellent at getting a lot out of underdog squads, as seen in 2021-2022. There are still questions about whether he can take a great team to the top, but he’s definitely great at squeezing every last drop out of lesser talent. Unfortunately, that is a trait also shared with the infamous Doc Rivers. Not an amazing company to be in these days. Still, some real revelations have been made in these last few games, and the Cavs are reinserting themselves in the Eastern Conference conversation.
Patrick Yen is a contributor on Back Sports Page. He has written for NBC, SB Nation, and a few more websites in his four-year sports journalism career. He has been the Back Sports Page beat writer for the Philadelphia 76ers and now the Cleveland Cavaliers. Patrick, a graduate from the Ohio State University, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but moved to Columbus, Ohio early in his life and has lived there ever since. You can find more of Patrick on Twitter @pyen117.
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