The Cleveland Cavaliers have seen a lot of ups and downs this century, from an NBA championship and numerous Finals appearances to some truly abysmal seasons (some of which were then followed by incredible draft-lottery luck). Over a relatively short period, this franchise has experienced just about everything the league has to offer, good and bad. But the common element across the good times has tended to be just one man: LeBron James. Before James was drafted in 2003, the Cavs were very bad; within a few seasons with him, they were a playoff team — and soon thereafter, a Finals team. After he left in 2010, Cleveland was once again among the NBA’s worst teams; but it immediately returned to the Finals once James came back in 2014. And after James departed again in 2018, the Cavs fell apart once more.
From the 1999-2000 season through last year, Cleveland had a 280-633 record (or a .307 winning percentage) in games that LeBron did not start for the franchise, which would rank last in the league by a wide margin over that time period. But in games with James in the starting lineup, the Cavs went 642-358 (good for a winning percentage of .642),1 including the playoffs. Compared with the rest of the league, that success rate would trail only the dynastic San Antonio Spurs’ .667 mark. To put things even more simply, the Cavs had a winning record in all but one season in which they had James — his rookie year — and they had a losing record in every LeBron-less season this century. That’s the difference James made, and the dire situation Cleveland always found itself in without him.
But this could be the year that changes. In its second full season under coach J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland has been doing the unthinkable: winning games despite James not wearing a Cavs uniform. Including Monday night’s win over the Miami Heat, the Cavs have kicked off the year going 17-12, their best 29-game start in a non-LeBron season since starting out 18-11 in 1997-98. The Cavs also have a 1554 classic FiveThirtyEight Elo rating, the franchise’s best after 29 games of a non-LeBron season since 1997-98. No matter how you slice it, this is the most competitive Cleveland has looked without its famously prodigal son since James was still a child growing up in nearby Akron.
It hasn’t been a fluke, either. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Cleveland’s expected record — based on its point differential — is a game better than its actual record. The Cavs currently rank No. 4 in the NBA in efficiency margin and No. 4 in the Simple Rating System, which adjusts a team’s scoring differential for its strength of schedule. Despite being one of the youngest teams in the league, Cleveland is very much on schedule in its post-LeBron rebuild.
And in contrast to their heavy reliance on a singular all-time-great superstar during James’s heyday, these Cavaliers owe their success to an interesting, varied ensemble cast. Among Cleveland’s 10 regulars2 this season, nine have a positive RAPTOR plus/minus rating, which is tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for the most in the league.
Included among them are building blocks the Cavs drafted recently, like third-year guard Darius Garland, second-year wing Isaac Okoro and rookie forward Evan Mobley. Garland’s development from an overmatched rookie two years ago to one of the league’s more devastating combo playmaker/scorers this season has been one of the biggest factors in Cleveland’s renaissance, while Mobley, the No. 3 overall pick out of USC, is tied for No. 1 (with Toronto’s Scottie Barnes) among all first-year players in RAPTOR wins above replacement so far this season, thanks in part to his impressive rim-protecting value on defense. (Cleveland’s D is 12.0 points better per 100 possessions with Mobley in the game.) Add in Okoro, the 2020 No. 5 overall pick — whose total RAPTOR is much improved this season — and Cleveland boasts a trio of emerging talents, all under the age of 22.3
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But the Cavs have also gotten a lot out of players who were either recently snagged from elsewhere or were otherwise afterthoughts. Their most valuable player by RAPTOR WAR this year has been center Jarrett Allen, who arrived from Brooklyn early last season as one of the many moving pieces in the Nets’ marquee four-team trade for James Harden. Allen is a longtime RAPTOR darling, but he’s also setting career highs this season in minutes per game, points per game, rebounds per game, true shooting percentage and usage rate in his most expansive role yet. It’s no coincidence that Allen has been a part of almost all of the Cavs’ most effective lineups this season. No less important has been the acquisition of forward Lauri Markkanen from the Chicago Bulls late in the summer: The 7-footer has given Allen and Mobley a big, skilled frontcourt complement who can score, rebound and spread the floor with his shooting.
And the reunion of one-time Timberwolves pick-and-roll partners Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love is already paying dividends for the Cavs. The team is +4.7 per 100 possessions with both on the court together; Love is rebounding and scoring from the perimeter like in the olden days; Rubio is bringing his trademark mix of the little things to help make Cleveland significantly better when he’s in the game. Both have salvaged what looked like the twilight of their careers as recently as one season ago. (Love and Rubio both set new career lows in RAPTOR last year.) Throw in the underappreciated Cedi Osman, who is thriving in his role as a 3-point shooter off the bench, and undrafted third-year stretch-four Dean Wade, and the Cavs have pieced together a promising young roster that plays tough defense and creates efficient looks on offense. (According to Second Spectrum, only the Warriors, Rockets, Timberwolves and Jazz have generated more expected value with their shot selection than the Cavs this season.)
Granted, this doesn’t exactly mean that Cleveland is suddenly back to being an automatic Finals threat like it was during LeBron’s second stint with the club. That bar is much higher than simply being competitive without James, and clearing it is probably possible only sometime down the line. (The Warriors, as was almost always the case back in the James era, have the edge on Cleveland in that regard again.) But unlike Golden State, which has returned to prominence with familiar stars like Steph Curry and Draymond Green leading the way, the Cavs are building something new without the biggest hero in franchise history around to save them. At least, not until LeBron decides to come back to Cleveland a third time and retire a Cavalier.4
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