The Cleveland Cavaliers are the surprise story of the NBA season thus far. Entering play on Christmas, they’re the No. 5 seed in the East with a 19-13 record, and even that doesn’t reflect how good they’ve been with the top point differential in their conference and the fourth-best overall.
It starts with Cleveland’s defense, which, in turn, starts with J.B. Bickerstaff, who ran that end of the court as an assistant with the Cavs before he was bumped up to interim head coach upon the departure of John Beilein midway through the 2019-20 season.
The interim tag was nothing new to Bickerstaff. He’d worn that hat in Memphis and Houston. Now, finally, Bickerstaff has long-term security as the Cavs announced on Christmas that they have signed their coach to a multi-year extension that will run through 2027.
Under Bickerstaff — and certainly the additions of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley have played the biggest role in this — Cleveland has gone from the 25th-ranked defense last season to No. 3 this year. Credit GM Koby Altman, too, who had the guts to trade for, and commit long-term to Lauri Markannen on a four-year, $67 million contract, which pretty much everyone felt was a big overpay.
Altman also bucked modern convention when he signed Allen to a five-year, $100 million contract even after drafting Mobley, thus committing to a tall-ball approach in a small-ball era when plenty of GMs would’ve either ditched Allen or not drafted Mobley, on account of redundancy.
It’s working. When those three seven-footers are on the court together, the Cavs, who’ve now won 10 of their last 13 games, are outscoring opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, with a positively stifling 98.1 defensive rating.
Most defenses prioritize limiting at-rim attempts, but the Cavs, knowing they have Allen and Mobley as human windshield wipers, invite them — 34.7 percent of shot attempts the Cavs allow come in the restricted area, per CTG, which ranks as the sixth-highest frequency in the league, but teams are converting those shots at a league-low 58.6-percent clip.
Per NBA.com, opponents are shooting just 57.7 percent on restricted-area attempts when being defended by Allen. When defended by Mobley, that number drops to 55.4 percent. Among all players that have defended at least 400 restricted-area attempts this year, those are the two stingiest marks in the league.
Mobley should be the Rookie of the Year.
Allen should be an All-Star.
Darius Garland, Cleveland’s third-year point guard, deserves the latter designation as well. His trigger is as quick as it is confident, he’s taking a career-high 6.7 3-pointers per game and hitting them at a 39-percent clip. Garland’s 61-percent at-rim and 52-percent midrange conversion rates are career highs as well, as are his 56.6 effective field-goal percentage (92nd percentile, per CTG) and 120.6 points per 100 shot attempts (also 92nd percentile).
For the season, the Cavs are outscoring opponents by 7.4 points per game with Garland on the floor, the same number the Nuggets sport with Nikola Jokic, who’s probably been the league’s best player thus far. For the month of December, the Cavs have outscored opponents by a total of 149 points with Garland on the floor, the best mark in the league. Allen and Markannen are second and third at plus-121 and plus-118, respectively.
The Cavs are doing this despite playing one of the toughest schedules to this point.
Garland, who is one of just eight players averaging at least 19 points and seven assists, is one of the most entertaining watches in the league. Do not go under a ball screen for him. His handle is constantly on the verge of dazzling you, yet it’s entirely practical. He knows where he wants to get, and he gets there in a flash, the embodiment of a budding star empowered by a rock-steady presence in Ricky Rubio and a coach to which he’s now connected for the long haul in Bickerstaff.
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Indeed, the Cavs are just getting started. Mobley, Allen, Garland, Isaac Okoro and Collin Sexton are all 23 or younger. Markannen is 24. There are trade candidates in there, namely Sexton, that could bolster wing depth. Garland and Mobley are the future, and Allen looks pretty cemented as well, though I wonder if the multi-big attack — and certainly the three-big attack — will be as fruitful once Cleveland’s postseason expectations rise above simply making the field.
Say this: These Cavs clearly enjoy playing with one another and they happily share the love; Cleveland is one of just seven teams averaging at least 300 passes per game this season. Defense. Ball movement. These are classic signs of not just a well-coached team.
The connection between bench and floor is palpable. It’s the honeymoon period in Cleveland. This is house money for now. But it won’t be long before we are saddling real expectations upon the shoulders of this team, and that’s when Bickerstaff’s job will get really tough. Good on the Cavs for committing to giving him the opportunity to grow alongside this roster. He’s earned it.