The Cleveland Cavaliers are a young team with high aspirations, and they are building toward a true championship identity.
For the first time since LeBron James joined Cleveland in 2003, the Cavaliers are a reckoning force in the Eastern Conference without James at the helm. Since his second departure in 2018, the Cavaliers have built themselves through the draft. With Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro as top five picks for Cleveland over the past few years, the Cavaliers are primarily a homegrown contender.
Though the Cavs have built a foundation around their draft selections, they have not shied away from strategic trade acquisitions, most notably Jarrett Allen in 2018 and the blockbuster trade for Donovan Mitchell in 2022. These moves have elevated the Cavaliers from a rebuilding team to an exciting squad with a young, growing core.
The team has made steady growth every year since 2018. After the embarrassing playoff loss to the New York Knicks this past postseason, Cleveland focused their free agency period on 3-point shooting and wing depth. Max Strus, the most noteworthy addition, joined Cleveland’s starting five on opening night and set a franchise record by knocking down seven long range shots in his franchise debut. His heroics have already earned him love across northeast Ohio, including comparisons to a former Cavaliers legendary shooter.
Even with constant growth, the road to the Finals is never going to be easy. If Cleveland hopes to reach that highest tier of contention, they will need one person to take control and lead them to that promised land the same way LeBron did in 2016. The Cavalier to take that mantle seems to be the youngest tenured member, 23-year-old Darius Garland.
Evan Dammarell of Right Down Euclid recently demonstrated how a handful of Cavaliers team members were so bullish on Garland as a growing leader.
Upon his return to Cleveland, 2016 Champion Tristan Thompson praised Garland for his development since his rookie season.
"“I paid it forward to [Darius Garland], and he’s done a great job taking the gems that I’ve given him. It’s called holding each other accountable. And that’s what you want from your point guard, to be an extension of J.B. [Bickerstaff], and that’s what he’s done this year… I’m so happy with his progression.”– Tristan Thompson"
Thompson left the Cavaliers in free agency after Garland’s rookie season concluded, but in that time Thompson had served as a mentor for the All-Star point guard. The trust Garland holds from his teammates is monumental for the Cavaliers’ future, especially as Garland continues to garner comparisons to historic NBA legendary guards.
Donovan Mitchell, Garland’s All-NBA backcourt running mate, further complimented Garland’s leadership. Commenting on his “playful and joyful” demeanor, the constant smile on Garland’s face inspires the rest of the Cavaliers to push themselves past their limitations.
The work Garland shows and inspires in practice and in the locker room transfers to the court, too.
Last season, Garland averaged 21.6 points and 7.8 assists and shot a career-high 41 percent from deep. Although he was snubbed from the All-Star game after making it a year prior, Garland showed another step in his improvement.
While Garland has become the focal point in Cleveland, his road to stardom has not been perfect. In his earliest seasons, Darius Garland faced heavy criticism by the fanbase and analysts. After being named the worst player in the NBA in his first season, Garland did not surrender or take a step back. Rather, he has powered through and continually evolved his skillset.
In his first two seasons, Garland played next to 2018 first-round pick Collin Sexton in the backcourt. Sexton had already built his reputation in Cleveland as a score-first guard, which pushed Garland’s develop behind in the gameplan. Both players had undeniable talent and had unforgettable moments together, especially in their blow-for-blow matchups against the Brooklyn Nets.
Sexton’s score-first playstyle never directly hurt Garland’s play in itself, but the combination of the two defensive liabilities and lack of true chemistry made for an awkward pairing. In Garland’s breakout 2021-22 season, he only began to shine after a devastating season-ending injury for Sexton.
Garland had a near instantaneous development, becoming the best player on the team. He had the best season of his career, learning from veteran point guard Ricky Rubio along the way. Garland’s willingness to step up in the face of adversity might have been the first sign of his leadership traits. Since then, he has never let up on the gas and perpetually works to make the team better.
Crafty playmaking from Garland opened doorways for both Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen to illustrate their greatness as two-way interior threats. During Evan Mobley’s rookie campaign, Garland and he cultivated a deep partnership as one of the league’s best young duos, and that partnership has remained ever since, leading to endless highlights between the two young stars.
If somebody is open, Garland is going to find them. That was a major factor in his assumption of leadership. Each and every teammate can trust him both on and off the court. His obvious enthusiastic love for basketball infects everybody else, including those watching at home. Whether Garland skips back to defense as he celebrates a lob pass or a perfect 3-point shot of his own, he is fully committed to seeing his team thrive and does whatever he can to make that happen.
That is the essence of the leader Garland has become. Every moment he spends as a member of the Cavaliers organization is spent building up those around him, and by extension, himself. With the improved long range shooting added to Cleveland’s ranks this summer, it is hard to overestimate how well Garland will set them up for success.
In the first two games this season, Garland has battled a hamstring strain and missed the home opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Once he is fully healthy, there is no limit to the heights Darius Garland can take the Cleveland Cavaliers.