Yes, the Surprising Cleveland Cavaliers Can Be a Title Contender This Season

Greg Swartz@@GregSwartzBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterJanuary 26, 2022

CLEVELAND, OHIO - DECEMBER 15: Jarrett Allen #31 and Darius Garland #10 of the Cleveland Cavaliers brings the ball up court during the first half against the Houston Rockets at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on December 15, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Rockets 124-89. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers weren't supposed to be here.

The last three years of rebuilding saw the Cavs win less than 38 percent of their games while members of the 2016 championship team were stripped away either via trade or free agency. The only remaining member, Kevin Love, was retained only because of his massive contract while Cleveland cycled through four different head coaches.

Entering Year 4 of the rebuild, the playoffs still looked like a long shot, especially after finishing 13th in the East just a season ago. Starting center Jarrett Allen even stated that his goal for the team was to fight for the fifth seed in two or three years.

Fast forward to late January, and the Cavs already sit in that fifth seed, with just a game-and-a-half separating them from the Eastern conference's first-place team, the Miami Heat. Allen's projections, along with nearly everyone else's, have been blown out of the water already.

It's time we stop pretending these young Cavaliers are just a feel-good story. It's time to recognize them for what they actually are: a true contender that belongs in the title conversation.


Defense Wins Championships

After ranking 30th, 30th and 25th in defensive rating the past three seasons, the Cavs have jumped all the way to third this season, trailing only the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns.

After returning on a five-year, $100 million deal, Allen has anchored the defense with his rim protection. Swapping Love out of the starting unit in favor of Evan Mobley has created arguably the best frontcourt defensive duo in the NBA.

Saying Mobley is an elite defender for a rookie is like saying Nikola Jokic is an elite passer for a center. The last three words aren't needed.

The Cavs use Mobley in a variety of ways. As a help defender, he's averaging 1.7 blocks per game, using his 7'4" wingspan to deny opponents at the rim and on the wing. When Cleveland turns to a 3-2 or 1-2-2 zone for stretches, Mobley is often front and center, stopping dribble penetration and making it difficult for guards to pass over someone his size. In a role almost exclusively designed for guards like Jrue Holiday or Marcus Smart, it's almost unfair the Cavs can use a 7-footer who can defend anywhere on the floor.

Second-year forward Isaac Okoro was thrown into the fire last season while regularly being asked to defend the opponent's best player as a rookie. This year, he's one of the best wing stoppers in the NBA, a skill-set every playoff team needs.

Championship teams in recent years have focused their defensive efforts on protecting the paint and not allowing easy layups, forcing teams to have to settle for mid-range looks instead. The Milwaukee Bucks were joint-second in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (61.3 percent) last season en route to a title. The Los Angeles Lakers ranked fifth overall in 2019-20 (60.9 percent) and the Toronto Raptors were joint-fifth (60.9 percent) in 2018-19.

This year, the Cavs are allowing teams to shoot just 58.5 percent in the restricted area, first overall in the league and a better mark than any of the recent title teams. Opponents are only making 34.0 percent of their three-pointers against the Cavaliers as well, good for eighth-best in the league.

Even with so many young pieces, this has been an elite defense all season long, and its ability to challenge shots suggests it will transfer over to the playoffs.


Chemistry Matters

Too often, talented teams fall apart because of chemistry issues, selfish play or outside noise that leaks into the locker room. Those factors have plagued the Philadelphia 76ers with Ben Simmons and could be affecting James Harden with the Brooklyn Nets as well. The Los Angeles Lakers are struggling to stay around .500 this season despite having three of the most talented players in the league.

Those who point to the Cavs' lack of star power as a reason they can't be taken seriously as a contender underestimate just how good the chemistry in Cleveland seems to be.

"We're one of the teams in the league, and maybe the team in the league, that's the ultimate share-the-wealth team, and I think that's beautiful," said Love, who largely looked miserable over the past three years.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

The Cavs have eight players in the rotation averaging at least 9.0 points or more and getting seven shot attempts or more per night. The ball zips around the court at all times, with an assist percentage of 64.2 percent ranking fourth in the NBA.

"Our message to the guys to start the year was, every night we have to be the best team on the floor. It's not about individual accomplishments for us, it's about the entire group doing what they need to do when their number is called or when the team needs them to," head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said.

The Cavaliers could choose to not care about individual accolades, but there could be some serious recognition coming for this group.

Cleveland has a chance at having two players selected to the All-Star Game this year with Darius Garland and Allen, especially given its 29-19 start to the season. Love, a five-time All-Star, is now a serious candidate for Sixth Man of the Year with his averages of 14.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 40.2 percent mark from three in just 21.4 minutes, and Mobley should be the favorite for Rookie of the Year.

There's no top-10 player on this roster (although Mobley could make his case in a few years), but rather a collection of unselfish, talented players who truly only care about winning.

"We are an emotional, energetic team," Bickerstaff said. "And when we out-scrap people and we outwork people, those are the things that get us going."


Trade Deadline Possibilities

Losing Ricky Rubio to a torn ACL was a big blow to the second unit, and it inspired Cleveland to trade for Rajon Rondo, who's been excellent so far (9.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 47.1 percent from three in 20.8 minutes).

Rubio's contract still holds a lot of value for the Cavs at the deadline. The expiring $17.8 million deal matches up with many of the top targets on the market. As The Athletic's Shams Charania noted, "the Cavaliers continue to discuss improving their backcourt, with rival teams showing interest in a package around Ricky Rubio's expiring deal and draft picks."

Cleveland owns all of its future first-rounders to offer in a trade, along with the attractive 2022 second-round picks due from the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs.

The Cavs could use another shot-creator to replace Rubio, someone Bickerstaff liked to play alongside Garland as well.

"Without that secondary ball-handler, there's 10 eyes on Darius all the time," Bickerstaff noted.

Caris LeVert and Eric Gordon would both give the Cavs another scorer and playmaking presence to take pressure off Garland, who's averaging 38.0 minutes over his past six games. Cleveland's been mentioned as a potential suitor for Ben Simmons since last summer, and Dejounte Murray would be a dream target if the San Antonio Spurs were to make him available.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - MAY 10: Caris LeVert #22 of the Indiana Pacers passes during the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on May 10, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cavs could get another dynamic backcourt player with time alone. Collin Sexton won't rule out a return to the court from a torn meniscus suffered on Nov. 7 if Cleveland makes a playoff run.

Still, the Cavaliers probably need to do something at the deadline. While the defense is title-ready, this offense needs another playmaking threat.


Question Marks Surrounding Other Contenders

While the Cavs have navigated through injuries to Sexton and Garland (and Lauri Markkanen now out with a high ankle sprain) to go 8-2 in their last 10 games (the best record in the East), other teams are dealing with some serious injury concerns of their own.

The No. 2-seeded Chicago Bulls will be missing Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Derrick Jones Jr. for the next six to eight weeks. The No. 3-seeded Brooklyn Nets won't have Kevin Durant until at least the end of February with a sprained MCL and still don't get Kyrie Irving for home games. The No. 4-seeded Milwaukee Bucks are still without Brook Lopez as he recovers from back surgery. Out West, Draymond Green is out indefinitely for the Golden State Warriors with related back and calf injuries.

The East, and possibly the NBA in general, is wide-open, especially for a Cavs team that has posted the fourth-best net rating (plus-4.9) this season.


Keeping an Edge and Adding Experience

The Cavs have adopted an underdog mentality this season, likely a result of extremely low expectations from essentially every media outlet heading into the year.

But teams are starting to take notice of their place in the standings, and it's important for the Cavs to keep this edge.

"We've got a target on our back now," Darius Garland said following a narrow win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday. "We're the hunted. Everyone wants to beat us now."

"I still think we're the underdogs. We have to compete like that, like we've got no respect. Since we got 28 wins I think that we think that we cool and stuff, like we’re big dogs, but we’re not. We haven't had 28 wins in I don't know how long, but we haven't done anything yet," Garland added.

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 26: Darius Garland #10 and Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers high five during the game against the Toronto Raptors on December 26, 2021 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowle
Lauren Bacho/Getty Images

For a player like Love who's won a title, keeping this young team level-headed while also continuing to reset expectations higher and higher is a tricky rope to walk.

"Staying present is huge for this group. Continuing to feel like we haven't arrived and haven't done anything and wanting to gain respect in the league. That underdog mentality we have, we can't lose that. We have to bottle that and do anything we can to keep that. If teams start circling us on their calendar then fine but we need to keep whatever we have right now," Love said.

Landing in the 7-10 seeds as a play-in team would have been a reasonable goal for the Cavs heading into the season, but it would be viewed as a disappointment now. Getting a top-six seed in the East would guarantee a playoff spot, with a top-four seed rewarding the Cavs with at least one round of home-court advantage.

Young teams making their first playoff appearance rarely go far, but this is a group that's rapidly improving and has multiple vets who have won championships.

"Seeing the success that we've had and understand, first of all we're not perfect, but we can grow so much even with where we are right now and grow together because we have, outside of me, (Rajon Rondo) and Ed (Davis), so much youth, I think that's allowing us to hopefully not look too far down the line but stay present and realize we can get a lot better," Love said.

The Cavs have an elite defense, one of the best young rosters in the NBA, the ability to acquire significant help at the trade deadline and an ownership group that is willing to spend.

It's time we give the Cavaliers the respect they deserve as one of the elite teams in the league today.