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Could the Cavaliers Win the East’s No. 1 Seed?

With Kevin Durant now on the mend, the top spot in the East seems wide open. And one of the league’s biggest surprises could be the best candidate to reap the benefits.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a rule in journalism called Betteridge’s law of headlines, which states, “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’”

In other words: Beware posing a provocative hypothetical at the top of a piece, because it’s all too easy to shoot down right away. So, could the Cavaliers win the East’s no. 1 seed, as the headline to this piece asks? No, Betteridge says, of course not. And he probably doesn’t even know that the Cavaliers went 22-50 last season and entered this season with an over-under of 26.5 wins, or that this is a team with the following finishes in the Eastern Conference standings in the last dozen seasons it’s played without LeBron James:

  • 13th in 2020-21
  • 15th in 2019-20
  • 14th in 2018-19
  • 10th in 2013-14
  • 13th in 2012-13
  • 13th in 2011-12
  • 15th in 2010-11
  • 15th in 2002-03
  • 14th in 2001-02
  • 11th in 2000-01
  • 11th in 1999-00
  • 11th in 1998-99

In fact, the Cavaliers have never finished with the best record in the conference without LeBron on the roster. There’s no way one of the league’s youngest teams, with all five starters under the age of 25, could be the first.

Except.

Except the young Cavaliers have already exceeded that over-under projection with 27 wins, just more than halfway through the season. Except they hold the East’s best point differential, despite playing the hardest schedule of any contender, and sit just 2.5 games back of first. Except other Eastern teams are missing stars, including the favorites in Brooklyn, who recently lost Kevin Durant for four to six weeks. Except the Cavaliers have the easiest remaining slate in the league.

Basketball-Reference now projects Cleveland to finish with the second-best record in the conference, just a game behind Miami. ESPN projects them second as well, at two games back. So, with apologies to Betteridge, this seemingly provocative hypothetical is actually a question worth taking seriously.

The first argument in Cleveland’s favor centers on the remaining schedule, because based on analysis of Tankathon’s data on opponent strength, the Cavaliers should gain one to three games on all the other teams in the top six in the East based on this factor alone:

Remaining Strength of Schedule for Top Eastern Teams

Team Average Opponent Winning Percentage Projected Win Difference
Team Average Opponent Winning Percentage Projected Win Difference
Bucks 54.3% -1.5
Nets 51.4% -0.5
76ers 51.3% -0.5
Heat 50.4% -0.1
Bulls 49.3% +0.3
Cavaliers 46.3% +1.3

It’s difficult to overstate just how much easier Cleveland’s schedule is over the rest of the season than it has been to this point. The Cavaliers don’t have any more Western road trips, and they’ve already completed their season series with the Suns, Warriors, Grizzlies, and Jazz. Just look at their next 10 games, which are splendidly soft outside a date with the Bucks; they could rush into first place by the trade deadline.

That the Cavaliers have performed so startlingly well to date, with a 27-19 record and plus-4.9 net rating, is all the more impressive given this context. They’ve played 29 games against opponents that are .500 or better, tied for the highest number in the league.

Yet that challenge hasn’t prevented the Cavaliers from rocketing up the defensive rankings. With Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley, and Lauri Markkanen, Cleveland is the first team since the 2009-10 Kings—with the unforgettable trio of Spencer Hawes, Jason Thompson, and Donté Greene—to make a habit of starting three players who stand 6-foot-11 or taller. In a smaller, more guard-oriented league, that approach is incredibly heterodox—and tremendously effective.

When I wrote a feature about the challenges of modern NBA defense last season, a senior front office member told me, “A lot of centers tend to rate really well defensively. … But you can’t just say, ‘Well, we want to get better defensively, let’s just throw two centers out there that are both really good defensively.’ Because then it won’t actually work in real life, and their numbers aren’t going to stay as good when they’re now out of position and guarding on the perimeter.”

It’s actually working in real life in Cleveland, though. Allen and Mobley hold their own on the perimeter—the latter even serving as the point of attack in a ferocious 3-2 zone, inspired by a similar strategy with Kevin Garnett in the Mobley spot two decades ago—and rate as two of the best rim protectors in the league. Their combined powers mean that although the Cavaliers allow a high proportion of shots at the rim, they hold opponents to just 58.1 percent shooting from in close, according to Cleaning the Glass. No other team is below 61.5 percent.

Best Rim Defenders, 2021-22 (Min. 200 Attempts Defended)

Player Rim Attempts Defended Make Percentage
Player Rim Attempts Defended Make Percentage
Giannis Antetokounmpo 210 45.2%
Evan Mobley 306 48.0%
Jaren Jackson Jr. 241 48.1%
Jarrett Allen 258 48.4%
Rudy Gobert 318 51.3%

Allen’s and Mobley’s abilities also produce a trickle-down effect for the rest of the defense. “When you have your paint protected the way that we have it because of those two guys, it allows everybody to be more aggressive on the ball and on the perimeter,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said in Chicago Wednesday. “It makes the floor look extremely crowded.”

Allen, also shooting 70 percent from the field on offense, has a stronger claim on an All-Star spot, but his towering teammate looks poised for honors of his own. Mobley doesn’t just lead the Rookie of the Year race; he has a legitimate case for an All-Defense team, with ample support from both statistics and the eye test.

Advanced defensive stats are notoriously tricky, but every version agrees that Mobley is superlative. Estimated plus-minus pegs his defensive impact at 3.3 points per 100 possessions—third best in the entire NBA. Allen is close behind in a tie for fourth place.

Top Defenders by Estimated Plus-Minus

Player Defensive Impact Per 100 Possessions
Player Defensive Impact Per 100 Possessions
Draymond Green +4.6
Gary Payton II +4.1
Evan Mobley +3.3
Matisse Thybulle +2.9
Jarred Vanderbilt +2.9
Jarrett Allen +2.9
Derrick White +2.9
Rudy Gobert +2.8

Only six players have ever been named to an All-Defense team as a rookie: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bobby Jones (in the ABA), Hakeem Olajuwon, Manute Bol, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan. That’s quite a list—and one without a new member since Duncan 24 years ago, before Mobley was born.

As Bulls star DeMar DeRozan said about Mobley after Chicago hosted Cleveland this week: “Hell of a talent. He’s going to be special in this league for a long, long time. And I’m not just saying that because he went to USC.”

More than their shared alma mater, DeRozan was probably influenced by how easily Mobley bullied him to the rim early in the game—another benefit of the three-big lineup, as at least one of Cleveland’s starters is sure to have a size advantage against any opponent.

But size alone doesn’t create a productive offense, and Cleveland still needs an upgrade on that end. The greatest counterargument to the Cavaliers’ case for the no. 1 seed is that they rank third in defensive rating, per CtG, but just tied for 17th on offense.

At the moment, two starters shoulder a heavy offensive burden. With both Mobley and wing Isaac Okoro still discovering their shooting strokes from distance in the NBA, and with Allen making one 3-pointer all season, Markkanen must force defenses to respect his jumper. Allen and Mobley “are rim-running and having such a presence at the rim, inside the paint, so I do think spacing the floor, with me just being out there on the 3-point line ... I make their job easier,” Markkanen said.

For now, Markkanen’s 3-point potential generates positive ripple effects through the offense even though he’s shooting just 33.5 percent from 3 this season, the worst mark of his career. When the trio all plays together, Cleveland’s scoring is merely a bit below average; when Allen and Mobley play without their floor-spacing teammate, the offense completely craters. The Cavaliers’ defense remains just as potent in either circumstance.

Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, With and Without Lauri Markkanen

Phase With Markkanen Without Markkanen
Phase With Markkanen Without Markkanen
Offensive Rating (Percentile) 109.2 (36th) 99.8 (4th)
Defensive Rating (Percentile) 102.5 (96th) 102.6 (96th)
Net Rating +6.7 -2.8

Third-year point guard Darius Garland is charged with orchestrating the offense essentially by himself, with both Collin Sexton and a resurgent Ricky Rubio out for the season with injuries. Before Rubio’s injury in late December, Garland averaged 6.6 minutes of possession per game, which placed him near the middle of the pack of starting point guards. Since Rubio’s injury, however, Garland is up to 9.0 possession minutes per game, an increase of 36 percent—and a figure that places him second among all players in that span, behind only James Harden.

A Most Improved Player candidate, Garland has boosted his production to 19.8 points and 8.0 assists per game, while achieving the rare combination of increasing his volume and efficiency simultaneously. He bounces with verve in the pick-and-roll, delivering clever assists to his big men and creating better passing angles by rejecting picks.

He also oozes confidence as a shooter, canning 37 percent of his 3s on an increasingly difficult set of attempts. Garland has increased the distance of his average 3-point try from 25.9 feet last season to 27.1 feet this season. That’s the largest increase in the league this season, according to analysis of Second Spectrum data, and gives Garland the eighth-deepest attempts—one spot behind Steph Curry.

But beyond Garland—and ace reserve Kevin Love, currently wrecking opponent benches in limited minutes—the Cavaliers suffer from a dearth of playmaking and creativity. Aside from Garland and Rubio, the Cleveland ball handler who’s received the third-most picks this season is Kevin Pangos. And 35-year-old Rajon Rondo, acquired as a low-cost stopgap after Rubio’s injury, is not a long-term solution.

Three weeks out from the trade deadline, Cleveland looks like an inverse of the Bulls. Chicago has a dynamic offense and shaky defense, and needs another bigger wing; Cleveland has a dynamic defense and shaky offense, and needs another scoring guard.

“The Cavs are one of the most active teams,” Brian Windhorst said on ESPN in early January. “They want perimeter players; they want guards. … I would almost guarantee that they’re going to make deals beyond what they just did for Rajon Rondo.”

That’s another reason to believe in Cleveland’s chance at a no. 1 seed: The roster that’s posted the East’s best point differential so far will probably improve, too. Yet even now, Cleveland’s competition for the top seed all have warts too, from important injuries (Durant in Brooklyn, Lonzo Ball in Chicago, Brook Lopez in Milwaukee) to other absences (Kyrie Irving in home games, Ben Simmons in all games) to the sheer game-to-game inconsistency that has plagued so many of these teams.

No member of the sextet at the top of the conference is unimpeachably great right now. After all, no Eastern team is currently on pace for more than 53 wins, which would tie for the lowest total for a conference winner in a full season since 2002-03.

So, let’s ask the question again: Could the Cavaliers win the East’s no. 1 seed? The odds are against it, just because of the sheer number of competitors. But the answer isn’t an obvious no, either. As long as Cleveland’s starters stay healthy, this plucky surprise has as good a chance as any. Betteridge would be disappointed, but there’s just about nothing as entertaining in the NBA as a young contender arriving well ahead of schedule.