The 2021-22 NBA campaign is young, but the Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the season’s best stories so far.
After being given virtually no shot to sniff the playoffs before the season started, the Cavs’ 9-7 record currently has them firmly in the postseason mix in the Eastern Conference. That’s a pretty impressive record for a squad that some executives thought had a chance to be the worst team in the NBA this season.
From coaches to players, a handful of folks deserve credit for Cleveland’s success so far, but a few individuals stand out above the rest. Here’s who:
Honorable Mention: J.B. Bickerstaff
While not a player, J.B. Bickerstaff has undeniably had a huge hand in the Cavs’ success so far this season. The 42-year-old head coach earned his fair share of criticism after Cleveland went 22-50 in the 2020-21 campaign, but he’s silencing the doubters in a big way this season.
The Cavs seemingly have a fantastic culture in place, one that Bickerstaff deserves a lot of credit for. Cleveland’s players seem to share a common belief: They’re the underdogs. They take pride in it too, which is made clear by the fact that they literally bark at each other to embrace the “dog mentality.”
“Coming in as underdogs, I think we’re fine with that,” Darius Garland said recently. “That’s where the barking comes in — that dog mentality. We always talk about that underdog feeling that gets us going. I like it, us being the underdogs.”
Bickerstaff has also done a fantastic job keeping the squad afloat despite health issues. Injuries and COVID-19 problems have ravaged the Cavs lately, but the team is still battling and has won six of its last nine games.
Moreover, it seems like this club believes it can compete with anyone in the league. Cleveland has some very quality wins on its resume, including victories over the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks and more.
3. Ricky Rubio
In September, Ricky Rubio was pretty honest about the fact that Cleveland wasn’t his preferred landing spot.
"I wish and I can hope I can play for a team one day that's playing for a championship right away. That's not the case right now but I want to help this team get there someday."
Ricky Rubio on being traded to the Cavaliers and not a contender.
— Evan Dammarell (@AmNotEvan) September 9, 2021
Anytime a player feels that way, it’s valid for fans to be concerned about whether or not that guy is going to be motivated enough to make a positive impact. But Rubio has bought in completely, and he definitely seems happier to be in Cleveland today than he was a couple of months ago. That’s evident on the floor and off it as well.
🚨 Wholesome Content 🚨
The 31-year-old has been playing out of his mind lately. Over his last six games, he’s averaging 21.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists per contest. Over that same span, he’s shooting 43.3 percent from the field and a whopping 42.2 percent from deep.
Five of those six games have come with Collin Sexton sidelined, so the veteran is stepping up at the perfect time. MVP chants even broke out for him recently.
"Before I woke up, I guess."#Cavs guard Ricky Rubio on the last time he heard MVP chants.
— Evan Dammarell (@AmNotEvan) November 11, 2021
Rubio’s presence as a veteran leader has also been fantastic. He’s accountable and holds himself to a high standard, which was made especially clear when he completely shouldered the blame for a loss earlier in the season.
“It was all on me,” Rubio said following a defeat to the Charlotte Hornets. “It was bad passes. There’s nothing to blame on them. It was all on me and I take that blame and I take this loss. It’s something that, as a veteran, I have to lead the way and know that if there’s one or two turnovers, the next play you can’t really rush it. I pushed it too much. Something I will learn and it won’t happen again.”
There’s no telling where the Cavs would be without Rubio this season.
2. Jarrett Allen
When Cleveland inked Jarrett Allen to a monster deal in August, the team put a lot of faith in him.
The big man impressed the Cavs over a 51-game sample in the 2020-21 campaign, and that was all the organization needed to see to make a huge investment in him this past offseason.
Although it was certainly a calculated move by the Cavaliers to re-sign Allen, it carried its fair share of risk. The deal ended up being for five years and $100 million, and that type of financial commitment can obviously backfire if the player doesn’t live up to expectations.
That hasn’t been a problem whatsoever, though. Allen has given the Cavs everything they could have hoped for this season.
The 6-foot-11 giant is averaging 14.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists per contest over 14 games. Amazingly, he’s knocking down 69.4 percent of his shots from the field.
Jarrett Allen gave Luka Garza his welcome to the league moment 😨 pic.twitter.com/rpDkrBBtJt
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 13, 2021
Allen is adding a lot of value on the glass, which is a relief for Cleveland. Despite rolling with a massive frontcourt as often as possible, the team averages just 44.1 rebounds per game. Only four teams have lower averages per game so far this season.
Thankfully, Allen is carrying his weight by grabbing 10.9 boards per contest (including 3.1 per game on the offensive glass). This would likely be an even bigger area of weakness without him.
The 23-year-old is also proving to be an extremely valuable defender. He averages 11.3 contested shots per game, which ranks in the top 15 of the NBA.
Terrific defense by Jarrett Allen to bust up a pick-and-roll lob from Dinwiddie to Gafford. Basically guarded two players. This is a play I feel like Gafford could be really good at the more he develops. pic.twitter.com/b2pjEuwYGe
— Chase Hughes (@chasedcsports) November 11, 2021
1. Evan Mobley
Going into the 2021 NBA Draft, Evan Mobley was often regarded as a guy that wasn’t as ready for the professional level as some of the draft’s other elite prospects. Many folks felt that he wasn’t going to join an NBA squad and immediately flourish.
That narrative died after Mobley’s first week in the league.
The 20-year-old has already proven to be one of the NBA’s most promising youngsters.
Mobley is already an elite defender. His versatility and ability to blow up plays are fascinating things to watch.
Players are currently shooting 10.1% worse at the rim with Evan Mobley as their defender than their usual average.
Already one of the NBA’s best and most versatile defenders and he’s only a rookie. pic.twitter.com/DW8D4iPwnt
— AlexHoops (@AlexHoops_) November 15, 2021
While Allen ranks in the top 15 of all NBA players in terms of contested shots per game, the top spot on that list belongs to Mobley. He averages 14.8 contested shots per game.
Evan Mobley was incredibly dominant on defense tonight. He deterred and affect so many shots.
A sampling I promise is worth the watch: pic.twitter.com/Qs82fdYKGT
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) October 28, 2021
Defense aside, Mobley has made a huge impact offensively this season. Over 15 games, he’s averaging 14.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists per contest. He’s knocking down 49.4 percent of his shots from the field.
Perhaps the most exciting thing that Mobley has showcased offensively this season is an element of his game that is still in the works: his 3-point shot. Mobley’s willingness to pull up from beyond the arc is an extremely good sign, and it’s an equally good sign that his long balls are falling at a decent rate.
He’s currently shooting 30.8 percent from deep. That’s not an elite mark by any means, but for a rookie 7-footer, a 3-point shooting clip above 30.0 percent is worth celebrating. He has plenty of time to improve in that department.
Of course, he’s also a great finisher. His athleticism helps him a great deal in that regard.
DG to Mobley…OMG 😍 pic.twitter.com/TRLfyutNA6
Unfortunately for Cavs fans, it was revealed earlier this week that the rising star will be sidelined for a little while due to an elbow sprain.
Cleveland will hope to get the University of Southern California product back as soon as possible, as the team is going to need him on the floor in order to stay in the playoff mix this season.