The Cleveland Cavaliers may still have the third-worst record in the NBA, but there are plenty of positives to take away from this season, even beyond the upcoming first-round draft pick. Although it may have taken most of the season to happen, Cleveland’s young players are finally showing improvement, and perhaps most importantly, the team as a whole is having fun. The players are enjoying themselves, and although it hasn’t resulted in many wins, it has created some entertaining basketball for the organization and the fans.
It should come as no surprise, but Kevin Love’s return from injury has done wonders for this team. Since he made his way back into the starting lineup, the Cavs have gone 5-5, 6-6 in their last 12 games overall. There was a time earlier this season when the Cavaliers were far and away the NBA’s worst team, yet they are now somewhat respectable. Love is largely responsible, but the improvement of Cleveland’s young core has been instrumental, and very encouraging for the future.
Collin Sexton is the obvious example, as while he still has far to go, he has made significant strides as of late. He has scored 26 or more points in three straight games, shooting 65%, 56%, and 55% in those contests. He hit 11 of his 19 attempts from beyond the arc during that time, bringing his season average to 40% from deep on 3.1 attempts per game. Playmaking has been his biggest issue thus far, but before his one-assist performance against the 76ers, had 16 over three games, his best stretch of the season. Sexton’s primary goal for the rest of the season should be to become a better distributor; it’s perfectly clear he can score very well.
Even though Sexton’s assist numbers aren’t ideal, other members of the Cavs rotation are filling the void. Larry Nance Jr. is averaging three per game, just 0.1 fewer than Sexton. Nance’s all-around game is very similar to that of Draymond Green, except Nance doesn’t make his teammates and coaches want to pull their hair out each night. Nance is also developing a respectable three-point shot that helps with the Cavaliers’ offensive spacing.
Cedi Osman is averaging 2.6 assists per game (and has had four or more in four straight games) to go along with his 13 points and 4.8 rebounds. He is becoming a more consistent player, and learning to help the offense without having the ball in his hands. Osman’s development is the most important aside from Sexton, so it’s good to see him steadily improving.
David Nwaba has provided excellent defense all season and can contribute in different ways depending on how the game is going. He scored a career-high 22 points against the Nets, and then attempted just one shot in the next game against the Heat, while adding four assists and two steals. The Cavaliers seem to be interested in bringing him back for next season, and for good reason; an elite perimeter defender is something they didn’t have during the past four years, and even for a rebuilding team, defense is invaluable.
Even Ante Zizic is coming along nicely. He still doesn’t have a consistent role, at least as far as touches go, but he put up 17 points and seven rebounds against Marc Gasol and the Toronto Raptors. Dating back to his rookie season he has a tendency to perform well against the better centers in the league, which is encouraging, to say the least. Even if the Cavs aren’t going to run a system that makes use of a classic center, Zizic is great to have for certain situations, as his offensive game is polished beyond his years.
None of this means all that much if the locker room is in shambles, as it was a year ago. But according to Channing Frye, who will retire after the season, the camaraderie is possibly the best it’s been since he arrived in Cleveland. That’s not just talk; anyone can see it when watching a game, especially when the team is winning. Plays are celebrated, interviews are pranked, and the team just feels like a family for the first time in a while.
Maybe that’s due to the addition of personalities this year, and maybe it’s related to the absence of others. But in any case, these players are no longer bogged down by the pressure and toxicity that came from playing with LeBron James and contending for a championship.
This roster has a good mix of respected veterans and energetic young guys, and the rebuild is off to a fine start, especially culture-wise. Getting good players is very important, but those players’ personalities must also mesh well together. The Cavaliers are doing well with the latter, now they need to address the former, and that will start this offseason when they add a high draft pick to a team that plays basketball for fun.