The Cleveland Cavaliers were one of the best teams in the NBA last season. The quick playoff exit certainly hurts and seems to undercut that statement, but by any metric other than postseason success the Cavs rank quite highly. They won 51 games, fifth-most in the league, and their +5.5 net rating was second-best in the entire league.
That’s what having the league’s best defense and the No. 8 offense will do for you. Only two other teams, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, were top-10 in both. The Cavaliers have a strong starting spot from which to improve this season.
Even so, the discourse around the Eastern Conference has seemed to revolve around two clear teams at the top and everyone else just fighting for scraps below. The blockbuster trades the Celtics and Bucks might make that view correct for the playoffs, but in the regular season there’s at least one team ready to break up the pairing at the top, and that’s the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Kevin Pelton at ESPN (subscription required) has a sterling track record of applying his statistical system and basketball knowledge to projecting team performance each season, and his stats-based projections were just released on ESPN.com. He has the Boston Celtics finishing first in the Eastern Conference.
Just behind them, however, is not the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat, but the Cleveland Cavaliers, projected to finish second in the Eastern Conference with 48.6 wins (Pelton’s model is conservative with win totals; good teams usually win more and bad teams less).
That second-place standing is certainly where this team sees itself. While teams are generally positive heading into a new season, this Cavs group in particular is talking big heading into next year. They clearly see themselves as a team that can contend in the Eastern Conference.
The Cavaliers lost none of their top eight players from last season’s successful group, then added Max Strus, Georges Niang and Ty Jerome this summer. Other teams underwent major shakeups, lost major pieces, or are in a state of flux between the two (hello 76ers).
Those additions can be plugged into a core that is still young and improving. Evan Mobley is ready to take a step forward, Darius Garland is coming into his own, and players like Max Strus are ideal fits to improve the offense. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is planning for a more dynamic team to improve on last season and be even more dangerous this year.
Pelton’s model agrees, and that’s a solid vote of confidence for this season. It places the Cavs right in the mix at the top of the Conference, with other teams spread out behind. The Milwaukee Bucks are right behind Cleveland at No. 3, then the 76ers and New York Knicks.
The Miami Heat are down in seventh, which makes sense for a team that finished last season just 44-38 with a negative point differential, then lost two key rotation players in Max Strus and Georges Niang. Surprisingly, just behind them are the Toronto Raptors, a team that is both underrated heading into the season and ready to explode at any moment.
For those interested, Pelton has the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves in the top two slots of the Western Conference, suggesting the public is sleeping on both teams heading into next season. Both teams join the Cavs in trying to make a contending team work with two bigs, although the players are certainly very different.
These projections are for the regular season, not the playoffs, so it’s still to be seen how the Cavs will project when it comes to the playoffs. A strong regular season helps them out by giving them homecourt advantage and a softer Round 1 opponent; finishing second would line up a Play-In foe instead of a similarly-tiered team.
Projections are helpful and interesting, but in the end the Cavaliers are in control of their own fate. They seem ready to hit the ground running and seize the season; will it end with a top seed and a paved path into the postseason?