Cleveland Cavaliers: Inside the Cavs’ unlikely hot start to the season

Darius Garland (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Darius Garland (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports) /

Inside the Cleveland Cavaliers’ hot start to the season. 

One of the many surprising developments of the 2021-22 NBA season thus far has been the impressive play of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Cleveland has a record of 7-4, good for fifth in a shockingly stacked Eastern Conference. Since starting the season with two losses, the Cavs have won seven of their last nine games. J.B. Bickerstaff’s squad is currently on a four-game winning streak with notable road victories over the New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors, and Charlotte Hornets.

The Cavs success has been from a multitude of factors. Veteran point guard Ricky Rubio has provided much-needed veteran leadership to a Cavs team that’s average age is 25.0 years old — the seventh youngest in the NBA.

The “SexLand” backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland has seemingly found a way to play together, which wasn’t the case last season. Granted, Garland is averaging 15.4 points per game and 7.6 assists per game on 47.6 field goal percentage. Sexton is expected to miss time with a knee injury and will almost certainly call for a step forward from Garland statistically.

Jarret Allen has been a rebounding machine and has really helped secure up the Cavs’ defense, and last, but certainly not least, rookie big man Evan Mobley has been even better than advertised.

It’s very early in the NBA season but the question needs to be asked: Are the Cleveland Cavaliers legit?

Well, it depends on how you define legit. If you define it as being a championship-contending team then no, the Cavs are not legit. But if you define it as being a playoff-contending team then yes, the Cavs are definitely legit.

Even if the season turns sour for Cleveland, at the very least, they are better than they were last season which is a huge step forward for a franchise that has been stuck in mediocrity since LeBron James left town.

So what has changed in Cleveland to make them a winning basketball team? Well, as mentioned before, there has been the veteran leadership of Rubio, the gelling of Sexton and Garland, Jarrett Allen’s big start, and Mobley’s emergence. All of that has been great, but the biggest reason for the Cavs success this season has been their defensive efforts.

Through 11 games, the Cavs are 10th in the NBA in points allowed per game (104.9). The more impressive statistic though is that they rank second in opponents’ attempted free throws per game (15.5). So not only are the Cavs playing exceptional defense, but they are also not giving away ticky-tack fouls that lead to easy points for their opponents.

The reason for this new look Cavs defense success has been in large part due to their unique three-big lineup. This lineup, featuring Jarret Allen at center, Evan Mobley as the four, and Lauri Markkanen as the three, gives the Cavs an advantage on the glass against seemingly every team they play.

Not many NBA teams, if any, have three bigs over seven feet that can play together at the same time. With the combination of their size and athleticism, these three bigs pose immense difficulties for their opponents.

All three — Allen, Mobley, and Markkanen — possess the ability to guard every position. Granted Markkanen is not the defender that Allen or Mobley is but he still is capable of holding his own out on the perimeter.

With that all being said about the Cavs’ improved team defense, rookie Evan Mobley has sparked really optimism for Cavs fans for the first time in a while.

"“He’s special and he will be special,” Ricky Rubio said of Mobley after the Cavs’ 126-109 victory over the Knicks. “We don’t even know how (high) his potential can be.”"

If you’ve watched a second of Cavs basketball this season, you know that Rubio is not exaggerating when he calls Mobley “special.”

In the Cavs’ latest victory over the Knicks, Mobley had a performance for the ages at Madison Square Garden. In his first game at the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” the rookie big man finished with 26 points on 11-15 shooting, nine rebounds, five assists, one steal, one block, and a plus/minus of +26. Mobley also anchored Cleveland’s defense by playing atop the Cavs 3-2 zone. The rookie just tore up a talented Knicks team all night long, on both ends of the floor.

The terms “rare,” “special,” and “once in a generation” get tossed around way too often but in the case of Evan Mobley, those are all fitting descriptions of the former USC Trojan.

His incredible defensive instincts and ability to erase defensive mistakes, his advanced footwork and basketball IQ, his guard-like ball-handling skills, his ability to space the floor, and aptitude for not fouling when contesting shots at the rim, all combine to make Mobley a future star in this league. There’s a reason people are dubbing him “baby Anthony Davis.”

The Cavs will still go through their ups and downs, as every young team does, but don’t expect them to fall to the bottom of the Eastern Conference as they did a season ago. The difference between this year’s team and last year’s is vast.

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Their depth, their defense, and their improved decision-making will all contribute to making this team a play-in team at the very least. However, even if they collapse mid-way through the season, they still have Evan Mobley aka “baby AD.”