The Cleveland Cavaliers were a really great team last year, as they went 51-31 in the regular season. This earned them the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. They did lose in the first round, but that’s fine, it was the first season that Donovan Mitchell donned (did you see what I did there?) a jersey for Cleveland. It was the first season that the Cavs made the playoffs since LeBron James played for them.
The main reason for the Cavs’ success during the regular season was their stifling defense. The Cavs had the best defensive rating last season as a team, at a 110.6 rating overall. The year prior, when the Cavs missed the playoffs and lost in the Play-In Tournament, they had the seventh-best defensive rating, at a 109.7 rating overall.
It’s crazy to see that even though the Cavs had a worse defensive rating than the 2021-22 season, they still had the best defensive rating. This is mainly because the NBA’s scoring had a huge uptick, which made everyone’s defensive rating and defense in general get worse.
Let’s flash back to a few years ago. The Cleveland Cavaliers had the second-worst defensive rating in the 2019-20 season. Darius Garland had the worst defensive rating, while Collin Sexton had the second-worst. To make matters worse, Cedi Osman had the eighth-worst rating. The team overall was just a really bad defensive team.
Because the Cavaliers were such a poor defensive team, they decided to improve on that end. During the 2020 NBA Draft, they selected Auburn small forward Isaac Okoro. He was considered the best perimeter defender in that whole draft, and still is one of the best perimeter defenders from that draft.
The next season, the Cavaliers were still a bad team. They went 22-50, and had the 13th seed in the Eastern Conference. Defensively, they still were ways away from being a team that could actually win games off of their defense. The Cavs did have the sixth-worst defensive rating, but it was improvement.
In the middle of this season, the Cavs were able to get into a four-team trade, and trade for former Brooklyn Nets players in Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince, while really only having to get rid of Dante Exum and a 2022 first-round pick that turned out to be MarJon Beauchamp. This gave the Cavs a great anchor on defense, as well as a good center for the foreseeable future.
In the 2021 NBA Draft, the Cavaliers jumped up in the lottery, and earned the third pick. They took USC big man Evan Mobley, and decided to play him at the power forward spot next to Jarrett Allen. The Cavs re-signed Allen, as well as bringing in Lauri Markkanen from Chicago. This gave the Cavs a lineup with Markkanen at the small forward, Mobley at the power forward, and Allen manning the middle, quite the tall-ball lineup.
During the regular season, Collin Sexton got injured early on in the year, and was forced to miss nearly the entire season. This made Okoro start at the shooting guard, adding in more defense to the starting lineup. Like I mentioned, the Cavs’ defensive rating for the 2021-22 season was one of the league’s best, which was due in part to the team.
There is more to the Cavs’ defense than just the team, though. The Cavs’ head coach, J.B. Bickerstaff, is known to run a grit-and-grind style offense. To put it in simpler terms, grit-and-grind practically means just a slower offense, which in turn means a better defense. The Cavs’ pace wasn’t the fastest, but the defense was really strong. Bickerstaff was promoted to head coach on Feb. 19, 2020, after John Beilein decided to step down as the Cavs’ head coach.
To this day, he’s been a great head coach, and has been in the running for the Coach of the Year Award for the past two seasons. Even though he’s been a successful coach for the Cavs, there is still people wanting him to get fired. This is understandable, but he’s still a great coach, and deserves to be the Cavs’ head coach for a while.
Now, we get to last season. Evan Mobley had a great season on defense, as he earned a spot on the All-Defense First Team, and was a finalist for the DPOY award. He was the youngest player to ever be in the final three candidates for the award, which is really special. He has the potential to become one of the NBA’s greatest defenders of all-time, based on how his career has played out so far. Jarrett Allen proved to be a solid big man, and also did his fair share of help in protecting the rim last season.
The Cavs made a swing for the fences, and traded for former Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. In his last few years playing for the Jazz, Mitchell was known to be a net-negative defender, and wasn’t as effective defending out on the perimeter as he was in college at Louisville. He upped his defensive intensity in Cleveland, and once again proved that he’s capable of being a solid defender.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were once in the bottom of the NBA, trying to make it up to being a contender, or even sniffing the playoffs, at the bare minimum. The Cavs were able to quickly become a great defensive team, as well as a great team overall, in just a few seasons. Their drafting, as well as trades, and even their coaching, led to them becoming a top-notch defensive unit all together.
The Cavaliers are probably going to be a great team once again next season, and probably will have a big-time defense, as well. Next year, Evan Mobley could become the Cavs’ first ever Defensive Player of the Year. Until the season starts, we just have to wait and speculate.