Along with Sixers, the Cavs have a growing rivalry with Hawks

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks and Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks and Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images /

When the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers had their four-year rivalry (2015-2018), which was great but it could have been spectacular, not only did they meet in the NBA Finals four times but they also met on Christmas three times.

The NBA unveiled its slate of games which will be played on Christmas this coming season, and the Cavaliers will not be part of it.

Considering the Atlanta Hawks played the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Christmas this past season after Atlanta eliminated New York in the first round of the playoffs the season prior (2021), there was a thought the schedule makers would continue the trend by having the Hawks travel to Cleveland to play the Cavaliers on Dec. 25.

If the play-in tournament was any indication, then we very well could be on the verge of seeing a rivalry develop. Trae Young and the Hawks vs. Darius Garland and the Cavaliers; this could be another budding rivalry for Cleveland, with the other being with the Philadelphia 76ers, after last season.

Along with the Sixers, the Cavs could have a rivalry developing with the Hawks.

Prior to tipoff of the 2021-2022 NBA season, the Cavs were projected to be part of the draft lottery once again. While the Hawks were expected to follow up on their cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021 (where they lost to the eventual NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks).

In 2022, Cleveland overachieved as they qualified for the play-in tournament, though they could’ve made the playoffs had it not been for injuries and not lost eight of 11 games down the stretch. Atlanta underachieved as they were eliminated in the first round by the Miami Heat; injuries didn’t help them throughout last season, though.

Including the play-in game, then the Hawks won four of the five games against the Cavaliers this past season. The lone victory for the Cavs against the Hawks was on Oct. 23, by a score of 101-95.

The play-in tournament defeat against Atlanta was the most excruciating because it meant the Cavs’ aspirations of getting to the playoffs were erased. Similar to someone hitting the backspace key on a keyboard.

During this crazy offseason which had multiple twists and turns, the Hawks acquired Dejounte Murray in a trade from the San Antonio Spurs. Atlanta will pair Murray with Trae Young to form a lethal backcourt. Moreover, the addition of Murray creates a formidable trio of youth for the Hawks- Young, Murray, and Clint Capela at the center position. The Cavaliers counter with a young and formidable trio of their own. Darius Garland at point guard, Evan Mobley at power forward, and Jarrett Allen at center.

During the regular season last year, Trae Young averaged 28.4 points and 9.7 assists. He had a three-point percentage of 38.2% and a field goal percentage of 46.0%. Meanwhile, Garland averaged 21.7 points and 8.6 assists. He had a three-point percentage of 38.3% and a field goal percentage of 46.2%. Statistically, the two are similar, feasibly. Yet Trae seems to receive more attention and high praise; granted, Young has done it over a longer period.

Based on what I saw from Young in last season’s play-in game against the Cavaliers as well in the 2021 first round series against the Knicks, he definitely likes playing the role of villain. Given Garland had to be the primary guy offensively last season, it seemed like he took on the hero role. So right there, you’ve got contrasting psychology.

As stated above, the Hawks went out and made a trade with the Spurs to acquire Murray and they will pair Murray with  Young in the starting backcourt. The Cavaliers starting backcourt isn’t quite as definitive.

Collin Sexton is seemingly likely returning from a season-ending injury that he suffered on Nov. 7 against the New York Knicks; he is currently a restricted free agent, though.

Based on what I’ve seen thus far, Garland and Sexton aren’t a good pairing. Sexton and Garland are like water and oil. When Sexton has the ball in his hand, it seems like the rest of the offense is walking in mud. Whereas when Garland is out there, guys are cutting to the basket looking for the ball. Jarrett Allen is posting up and looking for the ball. Evan Mobley gets involved in the pick-and-roll some with Garland, and makes plays in the high post; it gives the opposing defense headaches.

Isaac Okoro, who took Sexton’s place in the starting lineup, is more of a defensive guy and he needs to develop the offensive side of his game. He would have individual games where his scoring would reach double digits and have an impact offensively. But it felt like he couldn’t put it together on a consistent basis.

The Cavaliers drafted Ochai Agbaji 14th overall in this year’s NBA Draft. His style of play would be good yang to Garland’s ying. Garland likes to drive to the basket, which Agbaji can also do a bit, but Agbaji seems to like shooting the mid-range shot and he can shoot the three-pointer off-the-catch. However, it’s unlikely that the Cavaliers would throw a rookie right into the starting lineup. For what it’s worth, Caris LeVert is reportedly expected to start at the outset of next season at shooting guard.

There’s another similarity between the Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks. They both utilize the point guard-center pick-and-roll often. The Jarrett Allen-Darius Garland PnR was very effective last season as it gave opposing defenses headaches. Based on what I saw last season, Garland liked to come off the pick and hit the mid-range shot. There were other times when Garland would come off the pick and pass it to the rolling Allen for the easy basket.

Meanwhile in Atlanta, the Trae Young-Clint Capela PnR drove opponents crazy. Sometimes, Young would come off the pick and shoot a deep three-pointer. Other times, Young would come off the pick and hit a floater.

Both teams use the point guard-center pick & roll efficiently.

This season, it feels like there are four teams who we know will be near the top of the Eastern Conference. The Bucks (the 2021 NBA champions), the Boston Celtics (2022 Eastern Conference champions), the aforementioned 76ers (who have the dynamic duo of James Harden and Joel Embiid), and the Miami Heat (they were the No.1 seed in the playoffs this past season). This means there are two more spots open in the actual playoffs so that teams can avoid the play-in tournament.

The 2022-2023 schedule was unveiled on Wednesday (which you can view here regarding the Cavs, and here, via the printable version). The Hawks and Cavs will play each other three times this season. Two times in Atlanta on Feb. 24 and March 28 and once in Cleveland on Nov. 21.

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Although there will be other teams such as the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, and Brooklyn Nets who will be in the mix for those final two guaranteed playoff spots, those three matchups between the Hawks and Cavs could determine who goes to the playoffs and who has to fight their way in via the play-in tournament.