Cleveland has hope — and a pretty good basketball team

Cleveland has hope — and a pretty good basketball team

Darius Garland + Collin Sexton = SexLand.
Image: Getty Images

If there was a way to slyly tell you that Cleveland has the second best scoring defense in the NBA behind the Warriors, I would do that. But me doing the whole, “I bet you couldn’t guess who the second best scoring defense in the league is” bit isn’t clever, because Cleveland is in the headline of the article.

However, I feel like simply stating the fact that the Cavs’ 101.8 points allowed per game is the second-stingiest mark in the NBA is impactful enough. And it’s definitely better than insulting the city as a baseline way of starting any piece on Cleveland. (Cleve-land! That was for you! Even if that was LeBron James trying and failing to replicate Kevin Garnett’s “Anything is possible!”)

The defense isn’t the only aspect of the Cavaliers that’s surprising, either. They’re 17-12 and sitting at fourth in the East more than a quarter of the way through the season. They have a better record than the Heat, 76ers, Hawks, Knicks, and Celtics. That may say more about those teams not playing up to expectations than the Cavs exceeding their own, but regardless of how poorly the latter teams are playing, Cleveland’s success is more than a little shocking.

The 2021-22 season was supposed to be another rebuilding year for the Cavs, where Evan Mobley could get accustomed to the NBA, the front office could figure out if Sex-Land was a viable backcourt and not just a great nickname, and Kevin Love could get traded or get bought out. Well, Mobley is playing like a young Garnett, Collin Sexton’s season-ending injury opened the door for Darius Garland — who seems determined to shut it on Sexton — and Love is playing instead of pouting.

I’m not going to focus too much on Mobley because I’ve written about how polished he already looks offensively and defensively, so let me throw a bouquet or two Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro’s way. Allen, as usual, is rebounding and protecting the rim well, but he also is averaging 17 points on 71 percent shooting, mostly in the paint. He’s attempting 65 percent of his shots from 0-3 feet, making 84 percent of them, and leading the league in dunks with 89.

Okoro doesn’t have any individual stats as impressive as those of Allen which I just mentioned, and defensive metrics are unreliable/extremely easy to gloss over, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say he’s active and knows where to be within the framework of an NBA defense. The Cavs’ starting five of Allen, Okoro, Mobley, Garland, and Lauri Markkanen — which, incidentally enough, is the lineup they’ve gone with over the past 10 games — is 8-2. They’ve also allowed just 98 points per game in that stretch.

I don’t want to get too far into this before acknowledging the work coach J.B. Bickerstaff has put in. He’s handled adversity, not only with Sexton getting hurt, but also working around Mobley’s injury. The Cavs lost five in a row at one point during Mobley’s absence, but Bickerstaff’s team didn’t crater. They play together and play smart. Having the second best defense in the NBA when you don’t force a ton of turnovers means you’re disciplined, and that tracks as they foul less than every team besides the Spurs.

I also want to shout out Markkanen and Ricky Rubio, and begrudgingly pat Love on the back. If you’re paying Markkanen to play the four, space the floor, rebound and rim protect, he’s overpaid. If you’re paying him to play the three, space the floor, score and play good help defense, he’s slightly less overpaid.

Rubio has stepped up in place of Sexton, and that’s enabled him to share his point guard wisdom with Garland on the floor and from the bench. Like Sex-Land, Rubio and Garland do share the floor at times, but with Garland assuming the responsibilities of full-time point guard he’s been able to further develop as a playmaker, upping his assists from 6 last season to 7.5 this year. His turnovers also have increased — up almost a full turnover to 4 per game — the more the ball is in his hands, but the team as a whole needs to be better at protecting the rock (fifth most turnovers per game as a team).

However, we don’t know what Garland’s ascendance means for Sexton’s future in Cleveland or for the future of the Sex-Land moniker, because the team looks more cohesive with players in their proper roles, and Rub-Land/Gar-Bio don’t have the same ring to them. In addition to turnovers and a quality nickname on the verge of extinction, the Cavs will need to figure out their offense, too. It’s sitting at 21st in the league, but who really cares because they weren’t even supposed to be in playoff contention, let alone vying for home court in the first round.

We’ve also had a Kevin Love sighting. He scored all 23 of his points in the second half against Miami on Monday to help the Cavs beat the Heat for the second time this month. My guess is winning cured what’s been irking him because you can only sit on the sidelines out of spite for so long. Eventually, you’re going to get sick of everyone doing cannonballs and telling you the water is great and, however reluctantly, jump in. It was weird seeing highlights from Monday night where Love is hitting big threes and smiling.

It’s also weird looking at the standings in the East and seeing three teams from the Central division — Bucks, Bulls and Cavs — in the top four. No one is stunned Milwaukee is good again, and perhaps Chicago’s gambles paying off have overshadowed Cleveland’s success, but I bet you couldn’t guess which team was abandoned by LeBron, left as a wreckage, destined to pick in the bottom four for eternity or until the next Chosen One comes along?

Oh, wait, I’m doing it again. It hasn’t been an eternity or really that long since James went to Los Angeles, and thank god because this team doesn’t deserve to be, and is definitely not, a punchline. 

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.