5 reasons the Cavs have officially arrived as legitimate title contenders

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Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers have put together about as good of a start to the 2022-23 season as anyone could have asked for, going 8-2 through their first 10 games and putting together an eight-game winning streak after losing their season opener.

The most impressive part may be that the Cavs have done most of their winning without All-Star guard Darius Garland, who has played in just four games after suffering an eye injury in the season opener against the Toronto Raptors.

The loss of Garland may have been a good thing early in the season, as it allowed the Cavs to experiment with some different lineups. Caris LeVert has had some huge games as the No. 2 option, and Cedi Osman has thrived shooting the ball off the bench.

After nearly making the playoffs last season, Cleveland went all in during the offseason by acquiring Donovan Mitchell for a huge haul. Even though the team lost Lauri Markkanen and Collin Sexton in the deal, Mitchell has been as good as advertised this season.

Mitchell has played in nine of Cleveland’s 10 games this season and is averaging 31.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game while shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 45.1 percent from beyond the arc.

He carried the scoring and playmaking load for Cleveland while Garland was sidelined, proving that Cleveland can rely on him to carry the team at times.

However, with this impressive roster, the Cavs are hoping that Mitchell won’t have to do that on most nights. At 8-2, the Cavs are behind only the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference.

After this start to the season, it’s evident that Cleveland can set its sights on competing for a title and not just a playoff spot in the 2022-23 season.

Here are five reasons why the Cavs are title contenders:

1. Impressive depth

Garland’s injury may have been a blessing in disguise for the Cavs, as it gave the team confidence that it can compete regardless of who is on the floor.

“They’re talented enough,” former NBA head coach Sam Mitchell recently said of the Cavs. “They’re good enough. They check every box of a championship team except for experience. And I think experience sometimes is overrated. I really do. But they check every box.”

Cleveland has six players averaging double figures in points this season, and Osman (9.5 points per game) is close to being the seventh.

Dean Wade has stepped in seamlessly for Markkanen, shooting 48.6 percent from beyond the arc. That has allowed the Cavs to mix things up at the small forward spot in their starting lineup, playing Wade, Isaac Okoro and LeVert there to start the season.

Cleveland’s depth is only going to improve once guard Ricky Rubio (torn ACL) returns later this season.

The Cavs have lineups to play big with both Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley on the floor and small with just one of them in the game and shooters like Kevin Love, Wade, LeVert and Osman as options to flank Garland and Mitchell.

That should make them a tough team to match up with all season, especially in the playoffs.

2. Elite shot-creators

Last season, especially down the stretch and in the play-in tournament, it became evident that the Cavs struggled on offense when Garland was out of the game.

Already this season, the team has shown that won’t be a problem with Mitchell on the roster. Despite Garland missing six full games, the Cavs still rank fourth in the NBA in offensive rating and fifth in effective field-goal percentage.

Mitchell’s ability to create his own shot and for others cannot be understated after what he did to help Cleveland win eight straight early on this season.

Unlike last season, the Cavs have multiple options to run their offense through in crunch time with Garland, Mitchell and even LeVert at times.

That also opens up more open 3-point shots for the team’s role players, and the Cavs have cashed in so far in the 2022-23 campaign, shooting 39.9 percent from beyond the arc as a team, good for No. 2 in the NBA.

3. Top-tier defense

Even though Cleveland has two smaller guards in Mitchell and Garland, the team’s defense has not been an issue early on this season, ranking second in the NBA in defensive rating.

Having Allen, Mobley and Robin Lopez to protect the rim is a huge help, and Okoro, LeVert and Wade have held their own on the wing so far this season.

Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff deserves a ton of credit for his team’s start on defense despite having to use multiple starting lineups. Cleveland’s shot-blocking and interior defense should be huge advantages against smaller teams this season.

4. Abundance of snipers

Mitchell (6.0 assists per game) and Garland (8.5 assists per game) draw tons of attention on a nightly basis, and they are going to get their teammates plenty of open looks.

So far, Cleveland has knocked down 3-pointers at an elite rate (39.9 percent), averaging 13.4 made triples per game this season.

Mitchell, LeVert, Wade and Love are all shooting above 40.0 percent from beyond the arc, and Osman is shooting a solid 38.1 percent from beyond the arc. Shooting is as valuable as ever in the NBA, and the Cavs have it up and down their roster right now.

5. Weakened conference

Coming into the 2022-23 season, the Eastern Conference looked to be loaded with title contenders, but some teams have not gotten out to great starts.

The Brooklyn Nets are struggling on defense and have suspended guard Kyrie Irving. The Miami Heat are just 4-7, and the Philadelphia 76ers are dealing with an injury to guard James Harden.

While those teams have time to turn things around, the Cavs have taken advantage by getting out to a hot start. Cleveland has also shown it can compete with the class of the conference, beating last year’s Eastern Conference champions, the Boston Celtics, in both of their tilts so far.

The East might be a bit weaker than expected, and even if it isn’t, Cleveland has shown that it belongs in the upper echelon of the conference, especially since it has the best net rating in the NBA through its first 10 games.

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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.