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Cleveland Cavaliers: Conference Contenders or Playoff Pretenders?

USA Today

The Cleveland Cavaliers have outperformed expectations this season, but is their playoff projection plausible or ultimately a pipe dream?

Before the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were not considered threats to make the playoffs. Furthermore, their bizarre compilation of players countered the newest trends of small-ball basketball. However, their supersized lineup has surprisingly succeeded against basketball’s best. So much so, the Cavs’ record lands them in the middle of the eastern conference standings with promising signs of not slowing down anytime soon.

That said, the Cleveland Cavaliers are continually doubted and not respected to the level they deserve. That uncertainty, though, might be reasonable due to the immense injury issues plaguing the eastern conference. Similarly, the Cavs have endured several marquee injuries, too, with Ricky Rubio joining Collin Sexton on the sidelines for the remainder of the season. As a result, Cleveland suffered a detrimental hit to their playoff odds, but they could make some moves to remain hopeful. With almost have the season in the books, the question remains: Are the Cavs for real or faking it?

Cleveland Contenders:

According to ESPN, the Cavs entered this season as the 27th power ranked team in the NBA. And yet, here we are 35 games into their season, and they are sitting in fifth place in the east. Additionally, they are succeeding thus far against the 5th hardest schedule. The Cavs season has been engulfed by mystery, beginning with their interesting offseason signings. Unlike recent seasons where the focus was on small, scoring guards, the Cavs’ focus this year was on the big-man position.

With a starting lineup consisting of a 6’10” Jarret Allen, 6’11” Evan Mobley, and 6’11” Lauri Markkanen, the Cleveland Cavaliers are unlike any other team in the league. Their overwhelming height advantage forces opposing teams to concede unfavorable matchups, leading to easy buckets. The Cavs team field-goal percentage of 46% is the 10th best in the NBA. Their length also translates onto the defensive end, allowing the second-fewest points per night (101.8).

Nonetheless, losing Rubio for the season will hurt the Cavs on both ends of the court. Specifically, losing his 6.5 apg and team-leading 1.4 spg will reduce their offensive and defensive efficiencies. Furthermore, their guard depth is not spectacular, so finding a quality replacement will be essential. Some immediate names that come to mind include Rajon Rondo, Kemba Walker, Goran Dragic, and Coby White. The only downside with these potential additions is their poor defense. However, their experience and offensive input would undoubtedly take the burden off this young team.

With Rubio and Sexton out, the guard-pressure shifts onto Darius Garland. In his third year, Garland is putting up career-high numbers but will need to step it up to keep this Cavalier squad above water. Similarly, rookie Evan Mobley will need to sustain his production throughout the long, strenuous NBA season.

LeBron-Less Losers:

Contrarily, there are numerous issues hindering the Cleveland Cavaliers. First and foremost is their injury-ridden and underperforming eastern conference counterparts. In particular, teams like the 76ers, Celtics, and Hawks headline previously successful teams that are all performing well-below expectations. Injuries and team-wide covid setbacks have immensely hampered these team’s seasons. But, once fully healthy, each team has the on-paper talent to bounce back in time for the playoffs. Furthermore, seven teams sit within just 4.5 games of Cleveland’s five seed, with the 76ers just a game back. 

Therefore, Rubio’s injury and the Cavs’ demanding schedule might significantly shift the eastern conference standings. Moreover, the Cavaliers’ youth shines true through their poor handling of the basketball. Even with Rubio, one of the league’s elite distributors, the Cavs average 14.2 turnovers per game, which is the 7th most in the NBA. Therefore, without Rubio, an increase in sloppy passes and possessions should ensue. 

As for the team’s in-house issues, the Cavs’ have a somewhat ironic hole in their game. Despite their supersized lineup, the Cavs only average the 14th most rebounds per game in the NBA. Similarly, they also struggle in denying shots, as they average the 25th most blocks per night. These contradictory statistics illustrate their height is not as large of an advantage as it may seem.

Cleveland Cavaliers Season Outlook

Truthfully, this roster is adequate enough to make a playoff appearance. However, retaining the five seed might be a stretch. Such a young team without a proven leader will struggle to persevere the hardships of an 82 game season. This team direly needs a true, stand-alone takeover player like they had with LeBron. I am not suggesting a move of this caliber is impending nor a move they should desire since this team is built for the long-term. But, without a clear superstar, the Cleveland Cavaliers might simply make the playoffs and not actually contend for something greater. For now, though, the Cavs should be very pleased with the future they are building.

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