The Cleveland Cavaliers begin their 52nd season on Wednesday night in Memphis against the Grizzlies. Cleveland is hoping to make the playoffs this season, and the last time that happened without LeBron James was the 1997-98 season.
Last season, Cleveland won 22 games, and that was in a 72-game season. This season, they will play a full 82-game schedule, so there is a good chance they will win more than 22 games.
The Cavaliers have a very young team. The oldest player in their expectant starting lineup of Darius Garland(21), Collin Sexton(22), Isaac Okoro(20), Evan Mobley(20), and Jarrett Allen(23) is 23. In fact, Okoro and Mobley are not even 21, so there could be some growing pains. The Cavaliers will have to figure out if the undersized backcourt of Garland(6-1) and Sexton(6-1) can work. The two can work on offense. Sexton is a gifted scorer((24.5 PPG last season), Garland is a decent shooter, and he came on strong last season. Garland, who spent time with the U.S. National team this summer, could take that next step after having career-highs in points(17.4) and assists(6.1) per game last season.
However, defensively, Cleveland struggled. They were 17th in points allowed, which is not awful, but they allowed teams to shoot 48% from the field, which was 29th in the NBA. Maybe, things could get better defensively with Allen(1.4 BPG last season) and Mobley(1.6 BPG led all rookies in preseason) in the lineup.
Regarding Mobley, the number three overall pick, he has shown flashes in the preseason, but Cleveland will need him to be very good if they want to make the playoffs. Allen should be solid after signing a five-year, $100 million deal in the offseason. Allen, who Cleveland acquired from the Nets in January, averaged a double-double last season (12.8 PPG and 10.0 RPG) for the first time in his career. Okoro, the fifth overall pick in last year’s draft, came on strong near the end of last season as he scored in double-digits in 12 of the final 13 games. However, Cleveland has to find a way to integrate him into the offense.
The Cavaliers will have a better bench this season. The addition of Ricky Rubio helps the second unit and the team. Rubio is a professional point guard, and there will be many times where he will close games for Cleveland. In addition, Kevin Love seems to be buying into his role with Cleveland; if Love(played in only 25 games last season due to calf injury) is healthy, which was an issue last season, he can still knock down shots and give this team good minutes. Also, Cleveland acquired Lauri Markkanen in a sign and trade from the Bulls in a three-team deal that sent Larry Nance Jr. to Portland. Markkanen can score the basketball and averaged a career-high 18.7 PPG in his second season in the league. Markkanen was the only 7-footer in the NBA last season to make 100+ three-pointers (118). He should be instant offense off the bench for Cleveland. The Cavs will have a lot of size this season. They can and will feature a lineup, at times, with three 7-footers in Markkanen, Allen, and Mobley, so that should be interesting.
Getting to the playoffs won’t be easy for Cleveland. The Eastern Conference is expected to be very good this season. The top six teams from last season, the 76ers, Nets, Bucks, Knicks, Hawks, and Heat, could be better or close to what they were last season. In addition, the last four teams to make the playoff, the Celtics, Wizards, Pacers, and Hornets, could be around the same or better as well. Furthermore, the Chicago Bulls, who added Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan, could be a high-seed in the East.
For Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to keep his job, Cleveland will have to be better, which they should be. However, better will probably not mean the playoffs. Cleveland does not defend or score well enough for that to happen. But, if Sexton, who the team did not extend before Monday’s deadline, can play with a chip on his shoulder and be better, if Garland takes that next step, if Markkanen shows the league that he can play, if Allen continues to be steady, if Mobley plays like a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate, if Okoro gets better in year two, if Love stays healthy and plays well; maybe Cleveland will get into the play-in tournament.
However, don’t bet on it. Expect this team to win between 25-30 games this season.