The Cleveland Cavaliers culture change is underway

Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff communicates with others in-game. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff communicates with others in-game. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be headed in the right direction.

The early-goings of the 2020-21 NBA season have seen the Cleveland Cavaliers burst onto the scene in dramatic fashion.

After being inactive for roughly nine-and-a-half months due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Cavaliers began their season with multiple strong performances.

Those included games such as a double-overtime, 128-119 victory over the Detroit Pistons, as well as a 96-91 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, a game in which the Cavs were down by 15 points in the second half. Now there have been ugly moments as well: a given when talking about a young team.

But overall it is clear to see, a change in the Cavaliers culture is underway.

The Cavs culture change is seemingly underway.

Changing the culture of the organization has been the message preached by head coach J.B. Bickerstaff for months, as’s Chris Fedor detailed at the outset of training camp back in early December. For a team like the Cavaliers who does not boast a mega-star like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Luka Doncic, accountability on the court is essential for every player.

There are no shortcuts or easy paths to success. Every player must give their maximum effort every moment they are on the court, whether it be a prolific scorer such as Collin Sexton, who has started out red-hot in averaging 25.7 points per game, or a veteran rim protector like JaVale McGee.

That is why J.B. Bickerstaff‘s coaching style is so often-termed “Grit and Grind,” as his teams tend to grind for every victory. And as a prior head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, who were all about the Grit and Grind in years past, him looking to apply some of that is understandable.

That Grit and Grind mentality shows through the Cavaliers much-improved defense, of which KJG’s Zane Harris hit on. The Cavaliers defense was terrible during the 2019-20 season. In 65 games, the Cavs boasted a 114.8 team defensive rating, which placed them at 30th in the league.

The current season is still young, but in the first set of games, the Cavaliers have had a team defensive rating of 102.8, which is currently the second-best in the league.

Those numbers show a massive improvement by the Cavaliers in terms of team defense and likely will be something that will prove to be unsustainable as the year goes along. But still, the Cavaliers improved defense shows not only that the team can be better on that end of the floor simply with better effort, but also that the players are buying into the message that their head coach is preaching.

One player who has been a shining example of this is Andre Drummond. When the Cavaliers traded for Drummond last season, a big question he brought with him was surrounding his effort levels it appeared.

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During his time with the Detroit Pistons, Drummond had built a reputation for putting up big stats in the scoring and rebound departments yet never really having a positive impact on his team in the grand scheme. There were also questions posed about Drummond’s effort levels.

But, through the first number of games of the 2020-21 season, Drummond has appeared to be a positive player for the Cavaliers, especially on defense.

In his role as defensive anchor, Drummond is currently averaging 2.0 blocks, 1.9 steals and 10.3 defensive rebounds per game.

While showing effort on defense may seem like a given for a player of Drummond’s caliber, that is not always the case. But the improved defense of Andre Drummond is a sign that he is buying into the Grit and Grind culture that J.B. Bickerstaff is trying to instill.

Something to look towards as the season progresses as a sign of the Cavaliers culture change is how the team responds to adversity. For as many positives the Cavaliers experience this season, there will likely be just as many if not more negatives. Injuries are a great example of this because of their inevitability.

Isaac Okoro, who has shown flashes of defensive ability in his rookie season, has not suited up since Dec. 26 due to a foot sprain and his placement in the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol. After losing Okoro, the Cavs initially installed a big lineup with Larry Nance Jr. starting at small forward next to Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Love and Andre Drummond; it does appear that Okoro could be in action on Wednesday at the Orlando Magic, though.

Albeit in that very game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Love went down with a calf injury that will hold him out for two-to-three more weeks, after which he’ll be re-evaluated. Another lineup change had to be made, and Bickerstaff decided to start Dante Exum at small forward, for matchups, reportedly.

The Cavaliers saw some success with this new starting lineup, but the injury bug bit again with Exum suffering a right calf strain in Monday’s matchup at the Orlando Magic, a game in which Damyean Dotson was already having to replace Darius Garland.

That was due to a Garland shoulder strain, and Garland will be out again on Wednesday. Exum, meanwhile, will reportedly likely be sidelined for one-to-two months due to that calf injury.

Nonetheless, injuries can destroy the momentum of any team, and the Cavaliers injuries are piling up. But if players are truly receiving Bickerstaff’s message, then we should continue to see a high level of effort no matter who the Cavaliers throw on the floor.

Establishing a culture was a clear goal for the Cavaliers when they entered the 2020-21 season. In the early portion of the year, we have seen glimpses of that through ball movement, improved defense and solid reactions to injuries.

Next. Collin Sexton just turned 22, which is frightening for Cavs opponents. dark

But there is still a lot of season left. And in order to prove that this new Cavaliers culture is for real, Bickerstaff and his team will need to show that it is sustainable.