From rebuild to breakout: Why the Cavs are poised to prove the doubters wrong this season

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The Cleveland Cavaliers have consistently been near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings since LeBron James left to go to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Some of that has had to do with Cleveland’s roster construction around James, but a lot of it had to do with the simple fact that the Cavs needed an infusion of young talent.

The problem with bringing in a lot of young players is that the team usually has to go through some growing pains. To add to that, it’s important to have the right coach for the job. After the team hired John Beilein, it quickly became clear that it did not have the right man for the job.

However, Beilein is long gone now, and J.B. Bickerstaff has this Cavaliers team on the upswing even if the rest of the league doesn’t see it yet.

A season of misfortunes

Cleveland went just 22-50 during the 2020-21 season, but it struggled mightily when arguably its two best players, Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, were out of the lineup.

The Cavs went just 4-14 in the 18 games that Garland missed and 4-8 in the 12 games that Sexton was unable to suit up.

A big reason for the Cavs’ struggles was the fact that the team didn’t have a true backup point guard, as Matthew Dellavedova was sidelined for most of the season.

Not having a pure playmaker that can create offense will hurt any team, especially a young team.

However, Sexton and Garland weren’t the only players injured. Larry Nance Jr., who has been replaced by Lauri Markkanen, played in only 35 games. Kevin Love only appeared in 25 contests.

While players like Dean Wade and Isaiah Hartenstein stepped up last season, the Cavs simply could not compete with end-of-the-bench players being forced into significant minutes.

That should change this year.

What lies ahead

General manager Koby Altman went out and made sure he added a reliable backup point guard in Ricky Rubio in case Sexton or Garland miss time.

Losing either player would certainly hurt the Cavs, as they are both coming off the best seasons of their young careers, but Rubio is a proven backup that would help limit the damage.

The same goes for the frontcourt.

Markkanen, Jarrett Allen, Love and No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley form a formidable group at power forward and center.

The Cavs roster is deeper than the team that appeared in the 2020-21 season.

That’s important, but it isn’t the only reason the Cavs can turn things around and at least compete for a spot in the play-in tournament this season.

Cleveland isn’t going to finish with a top seed in the East, but it will at least be competitive, and it showed a little potential last season.

The Cavs started the year at 10-11 in the 2020-21 campaign, but the brutal 10-game losing streak that immediately followed that start effectively eliminated them from true playoff contention.

While it’s frustrating to see the team go through such poor slumps, it’s hard to expect much more from such an inexperienced roster.

Isaac Okoro, Sexton and Garland all have another year of experience under their belts.

If you look at Sexton’s numbers, he improved almost across the board last season. He upped his points per game from 20.8 to 24.3 while improving his field goal percentage from 47.2 to 47.5 percent.

He also showed that he can be a better playmaker, as he averaged a career-high 4.4 assists per game.

Garland followed a similar path, making a major leap from his rookie season.

Garland stats 2019-20 season: 12.3 points, 1.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 30.9 minutes per game, 40.1 percent from the field, 35.5 percent from 3-point range

Garland stats 2020-21 season: 17.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 33.1 minutes per game, 45.1 percent from the field, 39.5 percent from 3-point range

That’s a major leap, and if Garland continues to follow that trajectory, he’s going to be one of the NBA’s better young guards.

The fact that he was able to make such an improvement in just 2.2 more minutes per game is an even better sign for Cleveland. The hope has to be that Okoro can make a similar improvement and that Allen will take strides with a full offseason to work with Garland and Sexton.

Mobley, who already has the ability to become an elite defender, doesn’t have to be rushed into a huge role as fast as Garland, Sexton and Okoro were in their rookie seasons.

This doesn’t mean he shouldn’t play, in fact he should play a lot, but there will be less pressure on him offensively with more proven pieces around him.

Love and Markkanen will also help take the scoring load off of the rookie, and they offer a different play style than him as stretch big men.

The Cavs are still a young team that is getting better year by year, and they aren’t going to be a team that you can pencil into the top five in the 2022 NBA Draft a week into the regular season.

Cleveland showed some potential last season, and with even more young talent beginning to understand how to succeed in the NBA, J.B. Bickerstaff’s squad could surprise some people in the 2021-22 season.

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Peter is a graduate of Quinnipiac University where he covered the MAAC and college basketball for three years. He has worked for NBC Sports, the Connecticut Sun and the Meriden Record-Journal covering basketball and other major sports. Follow him on Twitter @peterdewey2.