The Cavaliers were the epitome of a hurry-up-and-wait team last season. They got themselves and everyone else excited with an unexpected 9-5 start, then steadied themselves with Darius Garland and Evan Mobley emerging as two pillars for the new Cavs. By the end, Cleveland had doubled its victory total from the previous season, leaping from 22 to 44. But injuries and other struggles let the air out of their year, with a 9-17 regular-season finish followed by back-to-back losses in the Play-In Tournament to Brooklyn and Atlanta.
Then, Donovan Mitchell enters. The three-time All-Star commanded a hefty price, yet the single greatest asset cashed in by Cleveland – guard Collin Sexton – who missed 70 games in 2021-22 anyway. He’s off to assist with Utah’s rebuild project while Mitchell, a legitimate scoring star, proves capable of helping his new team where it’s most needed.
Cleveland ranked 5th in defensive rating last season, a nod to coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s priorities and a pair of intimidating 7-footers up front in Mobley and Jarrett Allen. But the team finished 20th on the offensive end, sorely in need of Mitchell’s potential cavalry impact. Garland and the new guy will have to sort out ball privileges, while Mobley and Allen help cover for Mitchell’s errant defense the way Rudy Gobert did in Utah.
If there’s any urgency for the Cavs now, it’s not to chase a title right away but avoid a swoon and take a big stride in the springtime.
Who steps into the small forward/wing spot? Cleveland got a lot of attention and mileage out of its front line of redwoods last season, with Mobley and Allen teaming with Lauri Markkanen to good effect. But Markkanen went out in the Mitchell trade, leaving Caris LeVert or Isaac Okoro as the top candidates to play the three spot. Okoro would be better as a designated shadow of other teams’ premier scorers, while LeVert could boost the starters’ scoring punch to elite levels.
SEASON PREDICTION: Swooning is out in Cleveland. Adding Mitchell to the team that hiked up its performance and reinvigorated fans’ hopes – the first real post-post-LeBron success – was a winning move. It will require adjustments but Bickerstaff and staff are up to that challenge. Meanwhile, we get to see Mobley’s burgeoning two-way game and Garland’s maturation at the point. A top-four seed is a proper target. Projection: Playoffs
1 KEY STAT TO KNOW
10.4 — The Cavs were 10.4 points per 100 possessions better last season (plus-2.1) than they were in 2020-21 (minus-8.3). That was the fourth biggest season-to-season improvement in the last 25 years, trailing only those of the 2007-08 Celtics (14.3), 1997-98 Spurs (13.2) and 2004-05 Suns (10.8).
— John Schuhmann
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Darius Garland: The first-time All-Star was one of only three players (with Nikola Jokic and Dejounte Murray) to average at least 19 points and seven assists while shooting 46% or better.
Donovan Mitchell: Keep an eye on Cleveland’s pick-and-roll play, with Mitchell averaging 12.4 points as a ballhandler in such action (second in the NBA among qualified players).
Isaac Okoro: After making less than 30% of his 3-pointers through his first 106 NBA games, Okoro shot 46% from the arc over the last 28 games of last season.
Evan Mobley: Nothing short of a revelation as a rookie, this future Defensive Player of the Year also reached thresholds only Rudy Gobert achieved last season (14 ppg, 8 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 50% shooting).
Jarrett Allen: This animated shot swatter set a franchise record with his 67.7% shooting rate, part of the reason Cleveland went 35-21 when he played and 9-17 when he did not.
Caris LeVert: Just beginning and ending the season with the same team would be a success for the volume shooter, after splitting the past two with Brooklyn, Indiana and the Cavs.
Robin Lopez: Newcomer had 40 DNP-CDs with Orlando but in his 14th season posted 13.3 points in nine starts with the Cavaliers.
Kevin Love: The veteran big man led the NBA in double-doubles among reserves (12) and tied for tops in the league overall by drawing 26 charges.
Ricky Rubio: Might be out a few more months from the left ACL tear he suffered in December, but his playmaking, defense and leadership earned him a ticket back to Cleveland.
Cedi Osman: Veteran forward ranks 9th in Cavs history for 3-point field goals (512).
LAST 5 SEASONS
How the Cavaliers have fared stats-wise over the last 5 seasons …
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
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