The Cleveland Cavaliers’ three-game winning streak to tip off the 2020-2021 NBA season was fun, but the past two games have brought everyone back to reality. It turns out that the Cavs aren’t actually legitimate NBA Finals contenders, and are closer to another top-five draft pick than they are the eighth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Still, there are plenty of positives with this team through five games; it’s just important to keep everything in perspective.
Five games is still an awfully small sample size, but it’s impossible not to be encouraged by the play of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. Again, sample size, but the duo have increased their combined potential assist total from 13.9 in 2019-2020 to 20.4 this season with the Cavs.
Garland is averaging 19.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game to go along with 1.4 steals. He is shooting 50% from the floor and an impressive 52% from beyond the arc on 5.8 attempts per game. He’s been a surprisingly solid defender both on-ball and in help with his active hands always trying to strip the ball. It was hard to expect even average defensive play from Garland given his frame and lack of experience, but he has surpassed expectations in that department for the Cavs, especially when considering he’s had some tough assignments.
Sexton is well on his way to an All-Star selection with the Cavs. His 25.8 points per game rank 11th in the league and third among players with five games under their belts. He’s shooting 57% from the floor and 60% from three-point range on 3.0 attempts. He’s also averaging 3.8 assists (0.8 more than his first two seasons) and 1.2 steals.
His potential assists have increased from 6.6 to 10.0 on a lower usage rate, which is encouraging. There are still questions about Garland and Sexton’s long-term sustainability, but the duo has been very good for the Cavs, and there’s reason to think that will continue.
Drummond is in the final year of his contract with the Cavs, and seems to be extra motivated to show off his skills to his next team.
He’ll be traded before the March 25 deadline, but while he’s on the Cavs, he’ll continue to be the focal point of the offense (and defense). His shot selection can get far too aggressive and his temper can flare, but there’s no denying that Drummond is one of the most talented big men in the league. He is averaging a career-high 18.0 points and a league-leading 14.8 rebounds per game (surprise). He’s also first in defensive rating at 90.4 and currently owns career-highs in blocks and steals at 2.4 each.
His .444 field goal percentage is by far a career-low, so that will need to change. He’s getting force-fed the ball and is forcing up shots that are rarely how the Cavs’ possession should have ended. In other words, he’s still Andre Drummond.
Role players playing their roles
The Cavs’ roster is filled with decent to solid role players. Damyean Dotson is entirely capable of scoring 10 points off the bench, if that’s what the team needs. Cedi Osman has had a very rough time over the past two games, but he’s a good backup wing. Dante Exum provides positional versatility at both ends of the floor. JaVale McGee is averaging 9.8 points and 7.4 rebounds off the bench, and is shooting 50% on 1.2 three-point attempts per game for some reason. And Larry Nance Jr. is adding 9.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists while hitting 35% of his attempts from deep.
A lot of role players for the Cavs don’t necessarily have a singular defined role; they can do multiple things on offensive and defense, which has helped head coach J.B. Bickerstaff gameplan through multiple key injuries already.
Kevin Porter Jr. has yet to play this season as he attempts to earn back the trust of the Cavs after his multiple legal issues this past offseason. That leaves the team without its highest-ceiling player and primary bench scorer.
Matthew Dellavedova has also yet to make his Cavs debut this season due to a concussion. Kevin Love played a reduced role in two games and is now out for three to four weeks due to a calf strain. Dylan Windler made his NBA debut, playing nine minutes before fracturing his wrist. Isaac Okoro impressed in two outings before suffering a foot injury and landing in the health and safety protocol.
Cleveland is far from full strength at this point, which makes their 3-2 start all the more unexpected. The shooting consistency is not there right now, and the players are still developing chemistry with other. But the team shows consistent effort, and appears much improved on the defensive end. This season is still likely to end with a high draft pick, but at the very least, the Cavs will be play hard and be fun to watch, while providing reasons for optimism moving forward.