With their loss to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night, the 2020-2021 NBA season is all but over for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers are currently 20-36 with 16 games remaining, which puts them 13th in the Eastern Conference. The league’s new play-in mini-tournament has kept the Cavs in the playoff hunt this long, as the seventh through tenth seeds will battle for the final two playoff spots. Following their loss to Chicago, the Cavaliers are now three full games back of the Toronto Raptors, who currently own the tenth seed. Three games is a lot of ground to cover over 16 tries, which makes dropping a match to the Bulls, who are also vying for a play-in spot, all the more devastating. Still, this season has been a success for Cleveland, and regardless of what happens over these final 16 games, the team’s future looks much brighter than it did a few months ago.

Through 18 games, the Cavaliers had a respectable record of 9-9. They put together several quality performances, but given the stage of the rebuild that they are still in, many fans were just waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it did. Cleveland lost 10 straight games during an absolutely brutal stretch, facing many top teams. At this point, the Cavaliers could have bottomed out, given up, and secured the top lottery odds for the 2021 NBA Draft. Instead, the team fought back, winning their next four outings. That 10-game losing streak proved to be too much to overcome, however, and now the team sits 16 games below .500. That’s not great, but the Cavaliers have gone from the second-worst team in the league in 2019-2020 to sixth-worst this season. Baby steps.

For a good portion of the first quarter of the season, Cleveland led the NBA in defensive rating, a tremendous feat considering the team ranked 29th or 30th in that department each of the past three seasons. That level of play did not last, and the Cavs fell to the middling 18th they are now, but it’s still a significant improvement, and that first part of the season gave a glimpse into what this team will be capable of moving forward. Defensive rating is not a perfect metric, but it’s a good indicator to take into account for defensive performance.

One of the biggest reasons for that defensive improvement is the play of rookie wing Isaac Okoro. As expected, his shooting has been subpar (although his mechanics are clearly improving), but his defensive impact has been invaluable. He guards the opposing team’s best non-big-man each night with little help, something that rookies rarely have to deal with. It’s been a trial by fire for Okoro, and he’s risen to the challenge. Okoro is already one of the better perimeter defenders in the game, and his ceiling there is as high as anyone in the league. If he can continue to incrementally improve his offensive game, the Cavaliers could have a star on their hands.

Cavaliers Have Some Stars To Build Around

Speaking of stars, Cleveland swung one of the bigger heists in recent memory when they landed Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince for Dante Exum and Milwaukee’s 2021 first-round pick. They were unable to find a trade partner for Andre Drummond, but landing Allen more than made up for that. One of the best young big men in the league, Allen turns 23-years-old in just a few days. He provides quality rim protection, solid interior scoring, and free-throw shooting. He has also become Darius Garland’s preferred lob receiver. He’ll likely get a long-term deal done this offseason and his best days are ahead of him. Prior to the season, the Cavs had essentially zero young frontcourt talent. Now, with Allen and the surprising emergence of Dean Wade, there are some things to work with within that group.

Garland has improved significantly this season. Garland barely played in college and never got into a rhythm as a rookie while dealing with injuries. He’s averaging 17.1 points and 6.1 assists (11.1 potential assists) while shooting .446 from the floor and .403 from beyond the arc. His assist numbers relative to his 29.9% usage rate are quite impressive, and it’s been great to see him slowly become more confident and assertive with the ball in his hands. It’s not difficult to argue that his ceiling as a point guard is higher than that of Collin Sexton.

The third-year guard is averaging career-highs in points (24.2), assists (4.1), and shots per game. He’s also getting to the three-throw line at a higher rate which was a crucial step for him to take. Sexton has unfortunately not made a massive post-All-Star-break jump this season as he did in his first two campaigns. He is actually shooting just .317 from three-point range since the break, but when looking at his season as a whole, he did take a step forward. Being 19th in the league in scoring is no small feat, even if Sexton’s playmaking still leaves much to be desired (8.7 potential assists per game).

Their Role Players Have Stepped Up

The rest of the roster is encouraging as well. Lamar Stevens, initially a two-way player, has turned his quality defense and slashing into a full contract. Larry Nance Jr. has continued his all-around play in between injuries and illnesses. and is averaging career-highs in three-pointers taken (3.2) and three-point percentage (.373). He isn’t a stretch-four, but any floor spacing he can provide is welcomed. Taurean Prince is shooting .425 from beyond the arc with Clevland and provides some very nice wing play off the bench. Even the newest addition to the team, Isaiah “Towerkraut” Hartenstein is putting in solid minutes in relief.

There may not be a franchise cornerstone on the roster just yet, but the Cavs have talent everywhere. It’s just a matter of developing the young guys and landing an elite wing prospect in the draft. If both of those things happen, and they easily could, the Cavaliers could return to the playoffs next season. The record right now doesn’t look fantastic, but this year was a sizeable step in the right direction.