Nine games into the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are very mediocre, and that’s outstanding. The Cavs were expected to be one of the worst teams in the NBA after winning 19 games last year and failing to sign impact free agents. Yet, Cleveland would be in the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference if they started today.
The Cavs, at 4-5, have given the reins to their youngest pieces and overhauled their system with new head coach John Beilein. A few holdover veterans from the LeBron James era are still around and playing some of the best basketball of their career. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s recent picks in the NBA Draft are starting to show signs of promise.
Will the Cavaliers maintain this level of play? It doesn’t seem likely, but the glimmer of hope Cleveland has given its fans still counts for something. Cleveland has already beaten the Pacers and the Bulls, and knocked out Eastern Conference cellar dwellers in the Wizards and the Knicks. The Cavs have even fought hard in their losses: their point differential of -0.9 is also the seventh best in the 15-team conference.
These Cavs aren’t the pit of misery from last season. They’re a fun team!
What’s different about these Cavs as a whole? Let Fear the Sword writer Chris Manning explain
The Cavs being as solid as they’ve been is frankly startling. I think the quality starts with John Beilein and the whole coaching staff he has around him. The offense flows better than it did last year, the team plays hard all the time and the defense isn’t hemorrhaging points anymore. Tristan Thompson is playing arguably the best basketball of his career, Kevin Love is playing at an All-Star level again and Collin Sexton is shining as a scorer while showing defensive improvement. Almost everyone who is playing is contributing in some way, which just wasn’t the case last year. Even Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr., two very raw rookies, are having their moments as they adjust to this league.
Is all of this sustainable? Probably not, especially for the young guys. But this is a well-coached group that plays hard and has its key vets playing well. That means a lot.
Collin Sexton is having a much improved sophomore season
Sexton was the Cavs’ first draft pick in the post-LeBron era, selected at No. 8. There’s no understating just how disappointing his rookie year was. The Alabama product who was touted as a strong defender was porous on that end, and the scorer known for carrying his college team in a three-on-five game wasn’t finishing as well.
This year, Sexton still isn’t good defensively, but he has the luxury of playing off the ball on the offensive end, and that’s helped. A year after he was point guard 100 percent of the time, that’s been reduced to 25 percent next to rookie guard Darius Garland, according to basketball reference. Sexton can do what he does best now: score.
The 6’3 guard leads the team in points at 19 per game on an improved 44 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep on five tries per night. He leads the team in shot attempts, and he’s gotten smarter about where he takes them from. A year after 21 percent of his shots came from 16 feet to the three-point line (long-two range), he’s only taking seven percent of his shots from there. He’s getting to the free throw line four times per game, too.
Sexton looks like a player. His 31-point night against the Knicks showed why.
Tristan Thompson is playing at an All-Star level
Thompson’s game has never screamed All-Star because he can’t handle the ball or shoot from distance, but he’s been incredibly valuable for this Cavs team. He’s averaging career-highs in scoring (16 per game), rebounding (11 per game), and assists (three per game) while cleaning up the boards and finishing down low as well as ever. He’s taking a career-high 13 shots per game, and shooting 54 percent from the field. Thompson’s also grabbing five boards on the offensive end, his most ever, too. He’s been hard to stop in the post.
Thompson is just 28 years old, enjoying the middle of his prime years, and that’s doing wonders for his young teammates. Garland, Sexton and Kevin Porter Jr. aren’t concerned with crashing the boards — they have a big man to do the dirty work and clean up their mistakes.
So will this last?
The Cavaliers have a funny mix of talent. Kevin Love is at the backend of his prime, Thompson is peaking, and everyone else is on the road to development. John Beilein, a first-time 66-year-old NBA coach out of Michigan, is as much a veteran as he is a rookie. He’s getting the most out of the talent they have. Overall, the Cavaliers are assessing their wide-ranging talent.
The Cavs are likely to be trade deadline sellers. Now is probably the time to deal Love, and Thompson’s value may never be higher either. But if the team stays in tact through February, it’s reasonable to think Cleveland can exceed expectations and win around 35 or so games. That might be enough to hang around the playoff picture in the East.
Regardless, Cleveland fans have to be pretty happy with what they’re seeing. The Cavs are coming along quicker than we thought.