There is plenty of reason for optimism when it comes to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After all, they finished with a winning record in 2021-22, marking the first time they had done so since LeBron James left to join the Los Angeles Lakers after the 2017-18 season.
While the Cavaliers lost to the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks in the play-in tournament, the effort represented significant progress.
That progress may continue in 2022-23 with the core of Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert and Lauri Markkanen all back to compete in what figures to be a challenging Eastern Conference.
Then there is Collin Sexton, who is a restricted free agent and is yet to sign a new deal with the team. But he could represent a major return after he appeared in just 11 games during the 2021-22 campaign because of a knee injury.
Here is a look at the schedule the Cavaliers will have to navigate if they are going to take the next step and reach the playoffs after falling just short last season.
2022-23 Cavaliers Schedule Details
Season Opener: at Toronto Raptors, Oct. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET
Championship Odds: 120-1 (FanDuel)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
Chicago Bulls (First game: Oct. 22)
If the Cavaliers are going to go from play-in team to playoff team, they will likely need to leapfrog one of the top six seeds in the Eastern Conference.
The Chicago Bulls are a natural candidate to be that team considering they were the No. 6 seed and the final postseason squad to avoid the play-in tournament. They didn't make any drastic improvements this offseason and added role players in Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic following their first-round playoff loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Chicago will still revolve around the trio of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, with Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball key pieces in the backcourt. It may also benefit from internal improvements from younger players such as Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmu.
The most important thing for the Bulls will be Ball remaining healthy after he appeared in just 35 games in 2021-22 because of a knee injury.
Cleveland's ability to compete with its Central Division rival figures to be critical in its efforts to make the playoffs by avoiding the play-in tournament.
The head-to-head games could determine tiebreakers and seeding, which will be all the more important in the efforts to avoid the Eastern Conference's top teams and realistic championship contenders.
Atlanta Hawks (First game: Nov. 21)
Cleveland doesn't only have to leapfrog at least one playoff team to avoid the play-in tournament, it likely also has to hold off the other squads that were in the same position as it a season ago.
The Hawks are a natural candidate to make a deeper run in 2022-23 after they emerged from last season's play-in tournament with wins over the Charlotte Hornets and Cavaliers just to lose in the first round to the Miami Heat.
They seemed to be on the verge of long-term contention when they reached the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals with Trae Young as the primary building block, but they took a step back the following campaign.
However, they made a significant change to rectify that when they traded for Dejounte Murray this offseason.
Murray was a first-time All-Star last season who averaged a career-best 21.1 points, 9.2 assists, 8.3 rebounds and a league-best 2.0 steals per game for the San Antonio Spurs. His presence alongside Young in the backcourt will make life particularly difficult for opposing defenses, who will be unable to solely focus on one or the other.
The matchups between the Cavaliers and Hawks will feature intriguing backcourt showdowns with Garland and LeVert on one side and Murray and Young on the other.
They could also be important in the race for playoff positioning as Cleveland attempts to finish ahead of the team that ended its 2021-22 season.
Cleveland went 44-38 last season, but it is reasonable to expect improvement in 2022-23.
The young core has more experience together, LeVert will be there for an entire season after the Cavaliers acquired him from the Indiana Pacers in February, and Mobley is one of the league's top candidates to take a second-year jump.
The USC product was an All-Rookie first-team selection last season and also seemed to bring out the best in Allen, who was a first-time All-Star playing in the same frontcourt. Throw in Garland, who made his first All-Star Game in part because of his ability to set the big men up for success, and the playoffs should be the expectation in Cleveland.
However, the Eastern Conference is again a logjam.
The Heat, Boston Celtics, Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers are all realistic title contenders. The Toronto Raptors, Bulls and Hawks are also in playoff-or-bust mode. And the Brooklyn Nets are something of a wild card with enough talent to challenge for a championship but question marks after a turbulent offseason.
With expected improvement on the roster but a challenging road ahead in the conference, look for a slight bump in Cleveland's record.
Record Prediction: 46-36
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