NBA

Cavaliers out to prove they have turned the corner

By Sports Desk December 31, 2021

Moreso than any other team in the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers have lived at opposite ends of the league over the last two decades. 

Since 2002-03, Cleveland has finished with 25 or fewer wins in seven different seasons, tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the most in basketball.

But those seven dreadful seasons have also yielded some generational talents in the NBA Draft, most notably LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, leading to eight seasons with 50 or more wins over that span, the most in the Eastern Conference and the fourth most in the NBA. 

In the three full campaigns since James left Cleveland for the second time, the Cavs have gone an NBA-worst 60-159, but fans in Ohio are hopeful that this season's 20-15 start is evidence that those lean years have produced enough talent to fuel a franchise turnaround yet again.

Last season the Cavs accrued 34 losses before earning their 20th win, but their improvement runs even deeper. 

Cleveland has improved in almost every significant statistical category, but the growth on defense has been dramatic. Last year's squad had one of the league's five worst defenses, allowing 112.1 points per 100 possessions. This year, the Cavaliers are allowing 102.2 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the league and the top in the East.

When combined with an offense that has shown incremental improvement, the Cavaliers have a net rating of +5.2 per 100 possessions, the fourth best in the NBA and ahead of fellow Eastern contenders like the Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks.

All of this has come with Cleveland facing the NBA's third-toughest schedule so far, with an average opponents' win percentage of .526. 

While some predicted that the Cavs' hot start would fizzle out into another losing season, the team has maintained its wining ways through nearly half the season and looks to be in position to continue.

Despite playing in a division with the Bucks and surprisingly good Chicago Bulls, Cleveland's remaining schedule is the easiest in the NBA by opponents’ average win percentage, with a majority of the upcoming being played at home.

Rookie Evan Mobley, selected with the third overall pick in July's draft, has been the catalyst for Cleveland's transformation this season. The 20-year-old big man is fourth in rookie scoring at 14.3 points per game but has made an all-around impact more typical of a veteran than a player who was in high school two years ago.

 

The Cavs' selection of the seven-footer Mobley was criticized by some pundits as redundant after the franchise had just re-signed center Jarrett Allen to a contract worth $100million earlier last offseason. 

Mobley and Allen have answered critics by forging one of the most formidable frontcourt defenses in the NBA. When Mobley and Allen are on the court together, the Cavaliers have a preposterous 95.3 defensive rating and opponents are shooting just 40.7 percent from the floor.

In a league that continues to downsize, Mobley has started most of his games at power forward, but the Cavs have found they do not sacrifice much offensively because their young star is so skilled and versatile.

While Allen has thrived around the rim this season, Mobley has the skill and athleticism to play everywhere, spacing the floor and keeping the ball moving on offense while smothering all sizes of players on defense.

Credit is due to head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who identified early on that his frontcourt players were talented enough that he could buck the league's small-ball trend by starting his twin towers lineup.

Bickerstaff also had the courage to tell Kevin Love, the team's highest-paid player, that he would be coming off the bench. Love, who has been openly disgruntled about Cleveland's losing records in previous years, has embraced his new role and has seen a resurgence in both enthusiasm and efficiency.

The Cavaliers have been so pleased with Bickerstaff's leadership, in fact, that the parties agreed to a multiyear extension last week that keeps him under contract through the 2026-27 season.

Bickerstaff, Mobley and Allen – who is still just 23 years old – form a foundation that Cleveland intends to build upon for the next several years.

The Cavs' other unquestioned franchise staple is point guard Darius Garland, who has continued to improve in his third year. Garland is on pace for career-highs with 19.5 points per game, 7.3 assists per game and 47.9-percent shooting from the field. 

 

Garland has been forced to shoulder a heavy offensive burden and will be an even more vital player as the Cavs entered the second half of the season.

Backcourt mate and last year's leading scorer Collin Sexton was lost for the season after tearing cartilage in his left knee on Nov. 7.

Sexton's injury forced veteran guard Ricky Rubio into a more prominent role, a combination that worked very well for several weeks until Rubio suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Tuesday, ending his season as well.

The thinning of their backcourt led to the Cavs trading for the 16th-year veteran as an experienced floor general just before the calendar flipped to 2022.

It looks as if the 2021-22 season will be one of attrition, and a lack of depth may ultimately prevent the Cavaliers from maintaining an elite point differential in the East. But with a team so young, the franchise would have to be pleased just to play in the postseason again.

Going forward, however, Cleveland faces a crossroads decision in the coming offseason with Sexton's contract. The fourth-year guard is in the final year of his rookie deal, and the front office must decide if the Garland-Sexton backcourt combination is the best long-term option.

Sexton averaged 24.3 points per game last season, making it seem like offering him an extension would be the obvious solution. But high-scoring numbers like that typically demand a maximum contract – in this case, $173million over five years.

Garland and Sexton both stand just 6ft1, creating some flexibility issues. Since the latter was drafted in 2018, the Cavaliers have been wiling to live with a defensive liability in the backcourt as they focused on collecting talent and developing young players.

But now that Cleveland appears ready to make a run at the playoffs, more serious questions must be answered.

During Sexton's four-season tenure, the Cavs have allowed a staggering 115.5 points per 100 possessions while he is on the court versus 107.2 when he sits.

And despite Sexton's impressive scoring numbers, Cleveland's offensive numbers while he his on and off the court are virtually identical – over a sample size of over 12,000 minutes.

Paying Sexton long-term could lock in a future where the Cavs have the league's smallest backcourt and largest frontcourt, making them vulnerable to perimeter shot creators with size, the kind that has proven to be invaluable in postseason play.

All of that said, any team would be foolish to surrender a talented scorer like Sexton for nothing. A small-market team like Cleveland would be outright negligent. He is likely to get his extension, especially with the entire core being so young.

Garland, Sexton, Mobley and Allen have played less than 120 minutes on the floor together, and Cleveland's brass is likely to want to see them grow a bit more together.

Plus, teams in markets that are not free agency destinations simply do not have the luxury of being so choosy about trying to construct the ideal roster.

Although this Cavs team has some quirks that might project into a playoff ceiling in the future, Cleveland's front office has organically built a fun team – and one that appears to be a winner.

That is something the Cavs haven't done without LeBron James since last century.

Related items

  • Irving fined $25,000 for using obscene language towards fan Irving fined $25,000 for using obscene language towards fan

    Brooklyn Nets' All-Star Kyrie Irving has been fined $25,000 by the NBA for directing obscene language toward a fan.

    The NBA announced the fine on Thursday with the incident occurring in the second quarter of Monday's 114-107 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    Irving responded with obscene language to a fan who could be heard heckling the 29-year-old former Cavaliers point guard. He said: “Got y’all a championship and m***********s still ungrateful.”

    Nets teammate Kevin Durant along with New York Knicks' Julius Randle have also been fined for obscene language this season as the NBA attempts to crack down on the use of profanity.

    Irving was making his fifth appearance in the NBA this season, due to his vaccination status which meant he could not play home games in New York City, with the Nets not wanting him on a part-time basis. The Nets reversed that decision last month, allowing him to play in road games.

    Irving has averaged 22.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists since his return this season.

  • Sacramento sadness: Why the Kings cannot afford to do nothing Sacramento sadness: Why the Kings cannot afford to do nothing

    Professional sports are usually cyclical with teams rising and falling at one point or another. Some franchises, however, seem to be stuck in a never-ending loop of nothingness.

    That is where the Sacramento Kings have resided for far too long. 

    The Kings own the NBA's longest active playoff drought at 15 seasons with the next closest team (Charlotte Hornets) at just five years. At 18-29 and 11th in the Western Conference, it doesn't appear likely that Sacramento will end that run of futility this year with the 16-season drought becoming the longest in NBA history. The Clippers went 15 seasons without a playoff appearance from 1977-1992.

    Those Clippers at least had a winning season during their dearth of postseason basketball, going 43-39 in 1978-79. The Kings' best record in their sad stretch was 39-43 in 2018-19. Sacramento's last winning season came in 2005-06 (44-38), at the end of a streak of eight consecutive playoff appearances that included the league's best record in 2001-02 (61-21). 

    That success must seem like a century ago to the Kings' beaten-down fanbase.

    The Kings have been something of a vagabond franchise throughout their history, starting as the Rochester Royals in 1948 and winning their only championship two seasons later. 

    The team moved to Cincinnati in 1957-58 and then was shifted to Kansas City-Omaha in 1972, when they were renamed the Kings. Finally, they became the fourth NBA team in the state of California with the move to Sacramento in 1985. 

    Over the last five seasons, including the current one, the Kings rank 24th in winning percentage (.411). Trailing them are Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Orlando, all teams that have experienced the playoffs in that span except for the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls who are headed there this season. 

    That Sacramento have only been moderately awful lately is one of the franchise's biggest problems. While other teams have bottomed out and rebuilt (Cavaliers, Hawks and Bulls), the Kings have wallowed near the bottom without much of a plan to lead them back to their long-forgotten glory days.

    There is a myriad of reasons why the Kings have been unable to reach the playoffs since George Walker Bush was in the White House, but chief among them is an 11-man coaching carousel.

    David Joerger (2016-17-2018-19) coached the most games in that span (246) and had the most wins (98), recently fired Luke Walton had the best winning percentage (.422) and Kenny Natt had the worst (.190).

    Walton was fired on November 21, 2021, after a 6-11 start and a 68-93 record, and replaced on an interim basis by Alvin Gentry. That move hasn't provided much of a spark with Sacramento going 12-18 under Gentry.

    While coaching, of course, plays a major role in any team's fortunes, players are truly what defines a franchise. Because impact free agents aren't flocking to Sacramento the way they do to Los Angeles or Miami, the Kings must hit on their draft picks, and they simply have had too many misses. 

    It can be unfair to look at a specific team's drafts and pick apart what they should or shouldn't have done in hindsight, but in Sacramento's case, the misses have contributed to a lack of stars and therefore success.

    The most egregious mistake came in 2018, when the Kings picked Marvin Bagley III second right before Dallas selected Luka Doncic and three picks before Trae Young went to Atlanta. While Bagley is a decent player, he's never averaged more than 14.9 points and is down to 9.4 this season as a part-time starter.

    Doncic, meanwhile, was a star right from the jump and has ascended into one of the greatest players of his generation, while Young's career has followed a similar path. 

    Other big blunders were taking Thomas Robinson fifth overall in 2012, one spot ahead of Damian Lillard, choosing Nick Stauskas eighth in 2014 instead of Zach LaVine, who went 14th to Minnesota, and picking Willie Cauley-Stein sixth the following year while Devin Booker lasted until pick number 13. 

    Scoring points hasn't been a big problem for the Kings over the years, ranking 10th in points per game (103.5) since 2006-07. The opposite end of the court is where they have failed. During that span, Sacramento is last in defensive scoring (107.6), 29th in opponent field-goal percentage (47.0) and 29th in opponent three-point percentage (36.5).

    Even more so than the defensive failures, the Kings have lacked an identity for what seems like forever. It's impossible to say what exactly is Kings basketball and what is it supposed to look like. The lack of star power, draft misses and a never-ending run of coaches has largely been responsible for that.

    The franchise's best player over the past decade and a half was DeMarcus Cousins, selected fifth overall in 2010. Cousins wasn't only the Kings' best player for several years but was among the league's elite for a while, particularly from 2014-17 before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in July 2017.

    From 2014-2017, over a 196-game span, Cousins ranked fifth in the NBA in both scoring (26.1) and rebounding (11.7) while also adding 3.9 assists and 1.47 blocks with five triple-doubles. He was named to the All-NBA Second Team in consecutive seasons (2014-15, 2015-16) and was an All-Star in three straight years. 

    Cousins, though, had several incidents with the Kings, including being suspended from the team for unprofessional behaviour and conduct detrimental to the team in 2012. By 2017, the relationship had run its course and he was traded to the Pelicans for three players and two draft picks. Buddy Hield remains from that deal and the 2017 first-round pick turned into Zach Collins, who was dealt to Portland. 

    The best player on the current Kings is De'Aaron Fox, who is in his fifth season with the team after he was drafted five picks before Collins. 

    Fox had a breakout campaign in 2020-21 with 25.2 points and 7.2 assists but has dropped off to 21.0 points and 5.2 assists this season while his three-point percentage is down to a career-worst 24.8.

    Fox has a world of talent but has been plagued by inconsistency, and his disappointing play surely played a role in Walton's firing. The idea of trading him for a package of picks and players can't be completely dismissed anymore.

    Trading Fox would signal that the Kings are ready to do a complete rebuild, and if that was the case, why not also deal Bagley, Harrison Barnes and others?

    Second-year point guard Tyrese Haliburton has a very bright future and rookie guard Davion Mitchell has elite defensive skills, but neither is ready to lead a team without ample veteran help. Hield is a terrific shooter but doesn’t offer a whole lot more so likely has more value on a contending team. 

    The Kings are at a crossroads right now because they aren't competing for championships anytime soon and even making the playoffs soon seems unlikely. It could be time for a total rebuild similar to what Detroit and Houston are doing now, but that could be a hard sell for a fanbase that hasn't seen a playoff game in forever. 

    With the franchise teetering on the edge of basketball irrelevance, the worst thing the Kings could do now is nothing. Continuing down the same path would be foolish, and general manager Monte McNair, who has only held the position since September 2020, needs to go in a discernible direction to end the perennial losing.

  • Bulls guard Lonzo Ball out for up to eight weeks Bulls guard Lonzo Ball out for up to eight weeks

    Lonzo Ball will be out for up to eight weeks after he undergoes knee surgery this week, the Chicago Bulls announced on Thursday. 

    After sitting out the past three games, the decision has been made for Ball to have arthroscopic surgery on his left knee – reportedly to repair a torn meniscus. 

    A statement from the Bulls read: "Following an initial period of rest and targeted intervention, Bulls guard Lonzo Ball will undergo arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and is expected to return in 6-8 weeks." 

    Ball is averaging 13 points, 5.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds for the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls this season. 

    Chicago were 6-2 in the eight games Ball has missed this campaign, all of which have come since Boxing Day. 

    The Bulls ended a four-game losing streak against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday and take on the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. 

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.