After their 119-90 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Cleveland Cavaliers are 19-12 and have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Let's say that again. Cleveland, who Vegas predicted would win around 26 games this year, is currently in third place in the East and are on pace to win 54 games this season.
This win over Milwaukee is the sixth in a row for the team. That, and the Cavaliers have won 14 games by double-digits, which is third-best in the league. Nobody saw this coming unless you happen to split your time working between Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Cleveland Clinic Courts and wherever the team happens to be playing on the road.
It's been a collective team effort on Cleveland's part from top to bottom. There's plenty many have been wrong about when it comes to this Cavaliers team, this author included. One of the biggest has to be Kevin Love thriving in his new role, which has become a staple in Cleveland's success. But, will the good times keep rolling for the Cavaliers as COVID ravages the league and Cleveland's roster? Today, we'll be breaking down that, and more, in takeaways from week 9 of Cavaliers basketball.
Coming into this season, nearly everyone was down on veteran forward and former All-Star Kevin Love. Love, who is now in his eighth season with Cleveland, was coming off a frustrating 2020-21 campaign that saw him dealing with a nagging calf injury. On top of that, during his time with Team USA, it looked like Love was still dealing with said injury and that his days of playing meaningful basketball were behind him if he didn't rest and recover.
Love eventually elected not to join the United States during the Tokyo Olympics due to his injury. Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo openly criticized Love and it just made the public perception around the former NBA Champion even lower.
"He wanted something to point his finger at if they lost," said Love on an episode of HBO's The Shop. "In case it didn't go right, which it was looking bad. It was just wrong in so many ways. And for me, I'm sitting up here being the nice guy right now but honestly fuck that. Fuck him."
That mentality Love carried about Colangelo embodies what the Cavaliers are about this season. Who cares what everyone thinks? It's Cleveland against the world and the Cavaliers, as well as Love, have to go out there and prove them wrong.
So far, Love has been proving plenty of people wrong this season. This season Love has averaged 12.1 points on 42.6% shooting along with 7.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists and is connecting on 40.2% of his three-pointers in only 19.9 minutes per game. During the team's latest win streak, Love has averaged 15.5 points on 48.1% shooting to go with 7.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists and is hitting on 39.9% of his three-pointers.
Love's also doing this damage exclusively off the bench for Cleveland as well. Right now, there aren't any betting odds for Love for Sixth Man of the Year Honors. But, if Love keeps up this strong play he should be in the conversation alongside Ricky Rubio for the honors.
Speaking of Rubio, Love has also stepped up as a veteran leader in this locker room and has made a concerted effort to take key young stars under his wing. Given how Love has been generally a grump in the second post-LeBron era, this is even more surprising than his strong bench play. Love has made an effort to be a veteran leader for this young and impressionable team and, in turn, leave a lasting impact with the cultural changes he's helping build.
That's why Love might be untradable for the Cavaliers. No, it isn't because of his injury history or his mammoth contract. But, instead, it's because he's vital to the team's success right now and what they're building going forward. For what it's worth, Love is extension eligible this offseason. Maybe Cleveland signs him to one more deal to make sure he can retire as a Cavalier.
As of Saturday's game between the Cavaliers and the Bucks, 61 players have entered the NBA's health and safety protocols due to COVID-19. There are roughly 450 active players in the league so that means nearly 13.5% of the league is sidelined due to the pandemic. Two of those players include Cleveland forward Isaac Okoro and rookie phenom Evan Mobley.
This isn't the first time Cleveland has had to deal with health and safety protocols either. Kevin Love and Lauri Markkanen were both sidelined for nearly ten games due to COVID. The Cavaliers weathered that storm, going 5-4 during the stretch without Love or Markkanen. But, it's still hard for Cleveland to plan on whether or players will be available any given night.
"You can't. What you do is you have to a system in place on both sides of the ball that you can bank on," said head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to Right Down Euclid after Wednesday's win over Houston. "Then, the guys that you do have have to understand that system and have a clear picture of exactly what you're trying to do.
"I think, again, when you're missing key pieces of your team that your offense is built around, you're gonna have a hard time. There are dynamic players in this league that when they're missing, they don't have people who can pick up that slack. So, you have to bank that your system is deep enough and that the guys have a good enough understanding that you can go out and execute it."
To Bickerstaff's credit, the Cavaliers are still executing despite the absence of Okoro and Mobley - two key players in Cleveland's rotation. Against Houston, the Cavaliers were without Mobley, who was out with hip soreness at the time and asked Dean Wade to step up in Mobley's absence. Wade responded with 16 points on 75% shooting and 10 rebounds in 34 minutes of play. The former undrafted Kansas State star knew his role and understood what was needed of him within Cleveland's system.
Against Milwaukee, meanwhile, the Cavaliers again took care of business this time without Mobley or Okoro. Wade again drew the start in Mobley's place and stepped up, as did Markkanen and Love. All three combined for 32 points, 14 rebounds and 9 assists. In Okoro's place, meanwhile, Lamar Stevens drew the start but Turkish forward Cedi Osman was the one who filled his void - chipping in 23 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steal. Granted, the Bucks were without MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as well as star forward Khris Middleton. But, it is impressive how this Cleveland team can keep winning despite the adversity they face and more importantly, keeping every player prepared.
"Our coaching staff and our assistant coaches have done a great job spending time with guys both individually and collectively on both sides of the ball really teaching what we're trying to get done," said Bickerstaff. "Guys haven't played in long periods of time but when they come in they understand exactly what we're trying to get done. That's a credit to our assistant coaches and the time that they put in with the guys on film sessions and break downs and one-on-one situations."
Until everyone is vaccinated and COVID is no longer as serious a threat as it is currently, the Cavaliers will just have to keep adapting. Thankfully, they can rest on the laurels of their system - not many other teams can say they have that comfort. But, hopefully, there's an end in sight when everyone comes to their senses on the pandemic.
Nobody is truly perfect - this writer included. At the top, it's clear that the Cavaliers are exceeding everyone's expectations and today, I just want to give a quick list of things I was wrong about when it comes to them this season:
Lauri Markkanen was the best player in the Larry Nance Jr. trade and Cleveland made the right call.
The "big ass lineup" as J.B. Bickerstaff calls it makes no sense by any means of conventional basketball sense. But, they keep winning and are sticking to it because of how successful it is.
Evan Mobley was the real deal right out of the gates and didn't need a full season to grow and adapt to playing NBA basketball.
Losing Collin Sexton wasn't as serious a blow to Cleveland as initially feared. (More on that soon - subscribe!)
Isaac Okoro has the ability to be a starting two-guard for this team long-term.
The Cavaliers are a playoff team and could make it into the second round depending on who they play to start things.
Cleveland can be a contender in a year or two depending on what moves they make this offseason.
This Cavaliers team is young, fun and exciting. If you look at the price of tickets on Seat Geek, you'll be surprised by how cheap it is to go watch them play. Cleveland is a good basketball team that is teetering on being great. Come check them out if you're able to.