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The Cleveland Cavaliers’ surge into the NBA playoff picture has surprised many, but the data suggests this young Cavs team is right where it belongs.
At the midway point of the NBA season, few would have predicted that the Cleveland Cavaliers would sit with a top-10 record and the league’s sixth-best point differential.
The Cavs’ rotation is relatively young with a league-average age of 26.4 years, according to RealGM. However, aside from Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, and recent acquisition Rajon Rondo, no rotation player is older than 25.
Generally, youth translates to inexperience which correlates with inconsistency; young teams can muster wins over brief stretches of a season and then struggle on an extended road trip or during a midseason shooting slump.
None of the players receiving significant minutes are in their prime, a rarity for a competitive team with legitimate postseason aspirations. The two players that have made an All-Star appearance — Love and Rondo — have no such prospects this time around.
Then how have the Cavs achieved so much on paper with seemingly so little?
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ turning point
Cleveland’s season has been bifurcated between the play of its two young guards, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. In their respective first two years in the league, both prospects had similar profiles, though Sexton has been the primary fulcrum of the Cavs’ offensive attack throughout his career.
In three full seasons of play, Sexton’s had one of the highest usage rates among all Cavaliers and his scoring efficiency has hovered at or slightly above the league average. Last season his usage ranked in the 93rd percentile among guards and he scored a serviceable 1.15 points per shot attempt, according to Cleaning the Glass.
In early November, Sexton hurt his knee and was diagnosed with a torn meniscus that required season-ending surgery. Through the season’s first 11 games he’d maintained his elevated usage of 26 percent — one of the highest rates among players at his position — but his efficiency had dropped to a league-average 1.07 points per attempt.
Sexton’s absence meant that Garland would need to subsume the role as the Cavs’ primary offensive creator. And, by any measure, he hasn’t disappointed. Much of the team’s success this season has come from Garland blossoming into one of the league’s most-versatile offensive point guards.
Through 35 games, Garland’s scored at an efficient rate of 1.18 points per possession, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s also created for teammates, primarily Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley inside, by assisting on a third of all made Cavalier field goals when on the court.
His outside shot was already proven — Garland shot 40 percent on 3-point attempts last season — but through 40 games he’s improved his efficiency from other areas of the court. He’s an early-season candidate for the 50/40/90 club with efficiencies of 54 percent from the field, 38 percent outside, and 90 percent at the line.
In a league optimized for the outside shot, Garland’s efficiency from the midrange is one of the best marks leaguewide. Per Dunks and Threes, his midrange accuracy of 53 percent is in the 97th percentile among players at his position.
He’s also been an elite shot creator this season, a skill usually reserved for ultra-athletic forwards or savvy veteran guards. Garland takes 54 percent of his shots after three or more dribbles and shoots 51 percent on such shots, per NBA.com.
Compare those numbers to premier guards that live in the midrange: Chris Paul has taken 77 percent of shots on three-plus dribbles and has shot 54 percent on those attempts this season and Ja Morrant has taken 67 percent of his attempts in such situations and shot 50 percent.
Unlike these isolation-heavy guards, Garland doesn’t solely rely on creating off the dribble for midrange openings — he’s 33 for 53 on shots with a touch time of fewer than two seconds, which is nearly analogous to catching and shooting, according to NBA.com.
And, as the season has progressed his profile has become more legitimate. Last week, he earned NBA Player of the Week honors by averaging 20.5 points, 12.8 assists, and 6 rebounds per game.
The Cavaliers should be confident in Garland’s potential to lead the team into the postseason and possibly even contention for a conference championship crown, and even more confident in his projected growth beyond the 2021-22 season.
Cleveland Cavaliers’ Twin Towers
Although they’ve only played 40-plus games together, it’s clear the Cavaliers have found a frontcourt pairing that has the potential to wreak havoc in the Eastern Conference for years to come.
A year ago, Jarret Allen was traded to Cleveland in a four-team deal that allowed the Brooklyn Nets to acquire James Harden. In 51 games for the Cavaliers last season, Allen further bolstered his reputation as one of the league’s most-imposing interior defensive presences.
After a third failed attempt to make the postseason, the Cavs owned a top-three pick in a draft that was prognosticated to be one of the best in a decade or more. The majority of the top prospects were guards or small forwards, but Cleveland found itself with the opportunity to pick a 7-footer that they believed could accelerate the franchise’s timeline.
On the surface, selecting Evan Mobley was puzzling given the Cavaliers had just acquired the 7-foot Allen earlier that calendar year. But the Cavs believed that the two talented players would find a way to mesh; they were comfortable zigging when the rest of the league was zagging.
Mobley has delighted (or silenced) both those inside and outside of the organization with his stellar early-season play, which has firmly cemented him as the favorite for Rookie of the Year honors.
He’s compiled an impressive line of 15 points, 8 rebounds, and nearly 2 blocks per 34 minutes. Like most rookies, Mobley’s scoring efficiency could improve — he’s shooting 50 percent from the floor and 30 percent from beyond the arc.
Defensively, he already ranks as one of the best rim protectors in the league. Opponents shoot two-and-half percentage points worse at the rim when Mobley is on the court (that figure jumps to eight percent when both Mobley and Allen share the floor).
Allen’s impact has only increased with the scenery change in Cleveland. His value comes in protecting the rim while limiting fouls — he currently has the league’s lowest foul rate among players at his position, according to Cleaning the Glass.
A major area of development has come in resistance to not attempting to block all opponent attempts at the rim. At the start of his career, Allen’s seasonal block rate was a full percentage point higher than it is with the Cavaliers, but his foul rate was nearly double what it has been through forty games this season.
Offensively, Allen has been one of the most efficient players in the league this season. His nearly 70 percent effective field-goal percentage comes from his prowess scoring over defenders inside, Allen’s 81 percent figure at the rim is among the best for all big men.
For a player that rarely commits fouls, Allen draws a large number of them against opponents. He takes four free-throw attempts per game and converts 70 percent, a passable figure for a player that has taken 10 total field-goal attempts outside of the paint this season.
The allure of the pairing of Mobley and Allen comes from how well they complement one another — both protect the paint, Mobley offers playmaking versatility needed at the four and Allen works as a rim-running lob threat at the five. The eye test and numbers agree that when they’re both on the court the Cavaliers are an elite NBA team.
What is the ceiling for the Cleveland Cavaliers?
This year’s Cavaliers team has already exceeded expectations through the first half of the season, on the path to contending for homecourt advantage in an opening playoff series.
Cleveland fans should feel good that the Cavs have had the third-most difficult schedule of any team thus far. They have two matchups remaining with each of their highly-ranked divisional rivals, Milwaukee and Chicago, to further cement their place in the Eastern Conference hierarchy.
Cleveland’s record against teams .500 or above is somewhat concerning, a meager 12-15. This may highlight a weakness that could be exposed during the postseason, where the competition raises another level. Again, a first-round exit is still an overachievement given where these Cavaliers were expected to be before the season.
But now the timeline and expectations beyond this season have shifted. The Cavaliers have made it clear that their young trio is built to win at a high level going forward.
The future is bright given that all three will remain under contract with the Cavaliers through the foreseeable future. Allen is in the first year of a five-year extension, Mobley is on a rookie-scale contract with a four-year duration, and Garland becomes a restricted free agent in the summer of 2023.
This is a notice to the rest of the league: the Cavaliers are a real threat to the reigning NBA hierarchy.
The eye test and the numbers agree, Cleveland is back.