For the Cleveland Cavaliers, wallowing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference won't cut it in 2021-22.
The Cavs have won 60 games and cycled through four head coaches in the three seasons since LeBron James left for a second time. Now, they seemed poised to turn a corner.
Collin Sexton averaged 20-plus points per game for the second consecutive season. Darius Garland (17.4 points, 6.1 assists) made nice strides in Year 2. Cleveland has the services of Jarrett Allen for a full season and now has Evan Mobley to pair with him inside.
Handing Allen a five-year, $100 million extension and adding Ricky Rubio were two moves that symbolized ownership's expectations for progress in the year ahead. Anything short of qualifying for the play-in tournament will be a disappointment.
2021-22 Cavaliers Schedule Details
Season Opener: at Memphis Grizzlies, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. ET
Championship Odds: +25000 (via FanDuel)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
Detroit Pistons (First matchup: Nov. 12)
The Detroit Pistons had a great offseason by virtue of the fact they landed Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft. The 19-year-old averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game in his only season with the Cowboys.
Cunningham can serve as the foundational cornerstone to guide Detroit's future.
Rookies don't often transform a team overnight, though, especially when they are put in a role where they have to initiate the offense.
Because of that, the Pistons might struggle to climb out of the East cellar. Detroit is a team the Cavaliers need to beat in order to improve upon their 22-50 record.
Beyond those implications, it's always fun to watch top-five picks such as Cunningham and Mobley face off.
Charlotte Hornets (First matchup: Oct. 22)
When it comes to earning at least a play-in bid, one issue for the Cavs is that a lot of the teams above them in the standings last season either improved or didn't take a big step backward.
The Chicago Bulls, for example, finished 11th and signed Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan. The Toronto Raptors lost Kyle Lowry but still have a solid playmaker in Goran Dragic alongside Fred VanVleet. The Washington Wizards may be collectively stronger after swapping Russell Westbrook for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell.
The Charlotte Hornets might be the most vulnerable of the playoff contenders from 2020-21.
Opposing defenses could have more success in slowing down LaMelo Ball having had more time to study his weaknesses. Gordon Hayward has missed time due to injuries in each of the last two seasons. Kelly Oubre Jr. is a bit of a wild card on the heels of a disappointing stint with the Golden State Warriors.
Heading into 2021-22, the Hornets look like a better team than Cleveland. Maybe the Cavs can prove the skeptics wrong.
Rubio is the team's biggest veteran addition, so the Cavs must be counting on a lot of improvement from their young players to catapult them up the standings. Nobody could be more important in that respect than Isaac Okoro.
Okoro struggled as a rookie, shooting just 29.0 percent on three-pointers while allowing opponents to hit 40.5 percent of their long-range opportunities, per NBA.com.
"It's fun for me," Okoro said of those assignments. "I've been doing it my whole life. So I mean, it's nothing new for me. I'm always having fun playing defense. That's what I'm here for. I take the blessing of guarding the greatest players in the world every single night."
He has drawn comparisons to Jimmy Butler, and the Miami Heat star had praised him last season. Butler didn't have his breakthrough until his fourth season, so perhaps Okoro's development could be similarly slow burning.
If Okoro becomes more of a genuine three-and-D threat, though, it unlocks a lot for the Cavs on both ends of the floor. On defense, he can cover some of Garland and Sexton's flaws, and on offense, he'd bring much-needed spacing since Cleveland seems primed to go big at times with Allen, Mobley, Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr. all in the frontcourt.
In general, failing to get to 30 wins will likely mean something went terribly wrong for Cleveland. A .500 season, meanwhile, would require a leap that probably isn't possible with this roster right now. Somewhere in the middle is the likeliest outcome.
Record Prediction: 35-47
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