It's only been seven games into the regular season, but honestly, what's not to like about the Cleveland Cavaliers?
They're young and talented, and if the last few games are any indication, they're resilient as well. Don't let the sub-.500 record fool you either; they play hard and with a rejuvenated Kyrie Irving leading the way, they're still a trendy pick to storm one of the East's playoff spots.
So with Saturday night's double-overtime thriller against the Philadelphia 76ers in the books, it's a good time to re-evaluate the team and see just what surprises the Cavs have shown in the early going.
Admit it: It would have been a shame if head coach Mike Brown didn't have his Cavs making a surprise splash on the defensive end.
The 2012-2013 squad's defense was among the league's worst. Cleveland's defensive rating of 110.16 points allowed per 100 possessions placed it between the Orlando Magic (109.79) and New Orleans Hornets (110.97) as the fourth-worst defense in the league.
Enter Coach Brown.
Through seven games this season, the Cavs' defensive rating stands at a sterling 102.61, which is good for 11th. That figure is slightly more impressive when adjusted for opponent offense, bumping the Cavs to nearly within the top 10.
To put that difference in perspective: Their 7.55-point improvement is just a shade less than the difference in defensive rating between the league-leading Indiana Pacers (93.22) and the New York Knicks (101.44).
So how are they doing it? For one, the team has become better at defending the pick-and-roll. Per Synergy Sports, in 104 plays so far this season, the Cavs are hounding the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll to 31 percent shooting for a measly 0.68 points per possession.
In this video, watch as Evan Turner (No. 12) brings the ball up against C.J. Miles. With Brandon Davies (No. 20) preparing the pick, Anthony Bennett takes the switch as Miles works around Davies to trap Turner. Bennett backs off, allowing Turner room to operate, but not before his teammates have locked up the passing lanes, which forces Turner to drive into a waiting Tyler Zeller.
In addition to defending the league's bread and butter, the Cavs have also become a top-five team at defending spot-ups and post-ups. Against the latter, they rank fourth in the league in terms of points per possession, at 0.72, per Synergy Sports.
The New Crunch-Time Lineup
With 9:14 left in the fourth quarter on Saturday night, Coach Brown took a chance on the substitution that ultimately broke open the game.
Featuring a three-guard lineup of Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack, here's the abridged version of the next five possessions for the Cavs: Irving step-back jump shot, Jack three-pointer, Waiters dunk, Jack jump shot and Irving layup and-1.
In about two minutes, the trio combined for 12 points without a miss. They would go on to score 29 of the team's final 34 points, sharing the floor through the very last Cavs possession.
While your eyes were rightfully glued to Irving, you may not have noticed Jack straddling the right corner, literally waving his arms for a wide-open shot attempt.
That's what makes this lineup intriguing: These three guards are all willing and able to score in the clutch.
Irving's credentials have already been well-documented. Waiters is still a gunner, but at least he's fearless and has been connecting on 41.7 percent of his threes. And Jack, in his lone season as a Golden State Warrior, broke through as one of the bench's key offensive cogs with 12.9 points and 5.6 assists per game and finished third in the Sixth Man of the Year voting.
The trio finished the 76ers with a combined 83 points on 31-of-66 shooting. They scored four more points than the team as a whole scored during the previous night's 94-79 letdown at the Wells Fargo Center.
Should Brown consider the trio a long-term solution, the potential dividends could be huge for a team that has had its defensive progress hamstrung by a sputtering offense. Currently, the Cavs' offensive rating has seemingly fallen off a cliff, from last season's 105.09 points to 97.22 points, with only the Utah Jazz's 94.78 points topping out as the league's worst.
The Return of Andrew Bynum
Consider this more of a sentimental surprise than anything.
After sitting out the entire 2012-2013 season—and earning the ire of every 76ers fan this past weekend—the former Los Angeles Lakers big man has become the latest reclamation project for the Cavs. As with Shaquille O'Neal during the 2009-2010 season, Cleveland signed Bynum this past offseason in hopes that his size alone would offer a modicum of rim protection.
The sample size is minuscule given the Cavs' cautious approach, but the upside is tantalizing. Bynum is averaging 13.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per 36 minutes. And in doses, he has proved that he can offer Cleveland exactly what it hoped for in signing him.
Case in point: The Cavs' November 4 home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
At 6'11" and 285 pounds, Nikola Pekovic is no pushover. The center has a deserved reputation as one of the league's bigger bruisers. But posting up against Bynum, that added bulk accounted for very little as he fought for an extra inch or two that simply weren't there.
Pekovic had to settle for a deft over-the-shoulder hook shot, but only after Bynum had won the battle and then some, with a later block on Pekovic's jumper to close the third quarter. Bynum finished that game with his best line of the season so far: 10 points, 6-of-6 free throws, four rebounds, one assist and three blocks.
Of course, this could all mean nothing if Bynum decides that an early retirement is what his body needs. But until then, there's no reason why the Cavs shouldn't continue to invest in extending his tenure with the team as long as he's willing and able.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.