Cleveland Cavaliers may have finally found a way back into contention without LeBron James

·6 min read

The Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t get their 13th victory in 2018-19 until after the All-Star break on Feb. 21. The Cavs didn’t reach 13 victories until January of the 2019-20 season and it took 34 games to get 13 wins last season.

Cleveland hit No. 13 in just 24 games this season, a sign the franchise has emerged post-LeBron James with a bright future.

“It is a unique blend of guys whose character and makeup put the team bigger than themselves,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff told USA TODAY Sports. “They have talent, obviously. The long-lasting thing in this league that you learn, talent and chemistry gives you an opportunity to accomplish great things.”

Cleveland has a starting lineup that has an average age of 22 and potential All-Stars in the frontcourt (Jarrett Allen, rookie Evan Mobley) and backcourt (Darius Garland, Collin Sexton) and buy-in and valuable contributions from veterans Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.

The Cavs have shunned modern lineup convention, starting three bigs: 6-10 Allen at center, 6-11 Mobley at power forward and 6-11 Lauri Markkanen at small forward.

“It was a gamble to go and play this big lineup which is counter to what everybody else in the league is doing, but we knew we had to get those guys on the floor,” Bickerstaff said.

Allen said, “It’s been great. It’s not a traditional big, big. Evan can shoot 3s and make great passes. We’re flowing. We’re learning each other’s game as we go on, and it’s throwing teams off. They’re not expecting to guard three 7-footers.”

The Cavs' duo of Evan Mobley (left) and Jarrett Allen (right) has had a huge impact on the team's defense.
The Cavs' duo of Evan Mobley (left) and Jarrett Allen (right) has had a huge impact on the team's defense.

The result: The Cavs are 13-12, in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference, and have a foundation that extends for the next several seasons. Cleveland has not made the playoffs without James on the roster since 1998.

“We know that we have a long way to go,” Bickerstaff said. “You can find pockets of success and failure but it’s how consistent you are over the 82 (games). We have to find that consistency that has to last the remainder of the season. We’re not satisfied. We don’t believe we’ve accomplished anything yet. We’re still out earning the league’s respect.”

Heading into James’ final season in his second stint with the Cavs, Cleveland had few assets. They traded them to put a championship team together, and that’s what you do when you have James. But it also leaves a bleak future if he leaves, which he did following the 2017-18 season.

Just before that season, Kyrie Irving asked for a trade, giving general manager Koby Altman a chance to add draft picks, which they did, acquiring the No. 8 pick from the Boston Celtics (via the Brooklyn Nets).

Cleveland selected Collin Sexton with that pick. In that 2018 offseason, the Cavs also signed Love to an extension. Even without James and amid a rebuild, the Cavs wanted to remain competitive with a veteran presence. In 2019, Cleveland selected Darius Garland, Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter in the first round. In 2020, the Cavs took Isaac Okoro and in the last draft, they took Evan Mobley with the third pick.

The Cavs traded for Allen in 2019 and Rubio and Markkanen during this past offseason.

Sexton, who will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury, Garland, Mobley, Okoro, Allen and Markkanen have all been starters. Love and Rubio have been tremendous reserves.

There were also missteps, namely hiring John Beilein as coach from Michigan. He didn’t last a full season as an NBA coach. But hiring Bickerstaff as the associate head coach and then promoting him proved beneficial.

“Coaching these dudes is a blast,” Bickerstaff said.

If you’re looking for comparisons, look at Denver and what it did with drafting and player development and at Atlanta and what it did by putting some length and size alongside Trae Young. It doesn’t mean the Cavaliers will progress at the same pace; it means there’s a plan to build a playoff team and then a team that can compete for a conference title.

Garland, 23, averages 19.3 points, and since Sexton’s injury’s, Garland upped those stats to 22 points, 7.3 assists, 45.2% from the field and 36.7% from the 3-point line in the past 12 games.

“The growth that we’re seeing is Darius is now playing the game within the game,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s moments in the game where he’s got that feel where he needs to score. There’s moments in the game he knows where to set his teammate up because he knows later on in the game if he makes that lob to Jarrett or Evan, that big is going to be less likely to help and he’s going to be able to create his own shot. What you’re seeing is the maturation of a point guard with elite skills and talent.”

Allen, 23, is a guard’s pick-and-roll dream with his ability to screen, catch lobs and dunk. He’s at 17.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 71% from the field.

“It’s leadership,” Bickerstaff said of Allen. “He and I had a conversation last year about where I thought he could go, and the job we needed to do to get him there. Coming from where he was in Brooklyn, that wasn’t his role or responsibility, but we knew that moving forward that we were going to need that from him. We knew that was in him.

“He figured out the intangibles of leadership – how to embrace people, how to bring people together, how to carry people when the time is needed.”

The Cavaliers have most struggled without LeBron James on their roster. This year could be different.
The Cavaliers have most struggled without LeBron James on their roster. This year could be different.

Mobley is making a case for rookie of the year with his defense and expanding offense. He averages 14 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, and with time, the Cavs believe he can step out and make 3-pointers with efficiency.

“We said it from day one, all Evan wants to do is help this team win basketball games,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s not about him. There’s no selfish motives.”

Love and Rubio, who wasn’t sure he wanted to play for the Cavs when the trade was made, are a significant part on and off the court of what the Cavs are doing.

Walking out of the locker room after a recent road victory against the Washington Wizards, Garland said, “I give all the credit to our bigs – JA and Evan really hold it down on the defensive end. I saw it in training camp, seeing Evan’s length and protecting the rim with JA and bringing in Lauri. It was tough to score on them in practice.”

The Cavs have established a collegial dynamic, and that makes sense given their youth. They share credit and accept criticism.

“It’s just a feeling of how we’re playing for each other,” Allen said. “Last year we were playing for each other but it was just a different energy. All the new guys can feel just how more we’re bought in, how more it’s flowing different.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cavaliers may finally end long playoff drought without LeBron James

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