The Cleveland Cavaliers are the hottest team in the NBA, winners of nine of their last 10 games. Holding a 27-16 record and the fifth spot in the Easter Conference, the outfit is on pace to win as many games as last season (51) while being without two starters, Darius Garland (broken jaw) and Evan Mobley (knee), for a crucial chunk of the year.
The players available, led by Donovan Mitchell, deserve tons of credit. But so does coach J.B. Bickerstaff, whose efforts warrant consideration for Coach of the Year honors.
J.B. Bickerstaff deserves to win Coach of the Year
He believed in Sam Merrill, an unwanted sharpshooter waived twice in 2022. Look at him now: a renowned drop coverage destroyer and the Cavaliers’ eighth man in the rotation.
Last season, Merrill appeared in just five matches for the Cavs and 22 for the Cleveland Charge, the Cavaliers’ G-League affiliate. Lately, he's splashed 58 triples in his last 16 appearances.
Bickerstaff could have moved up Caris LeVert to point guard, as he is a veteran option that gets inside the lane, and it would have allowed Mitchell to play off-ball sooner. Yet his decision to keep him as a backup has helped maximize other reserves.
For example, when LeVert is surrounded by Merrill, Georges Niang, Max Strus (starter) and Tristan Thompson (recently suspended for violating the NBA's anti-drug policy), he sucks in the defense, giving the snipers more space. This is a lineup the Cavaliers have used in seven matches for 5.3 minutes per game, producing 12.7 points and converting 40.5 percent of 3-point attempts.
Another five-man unit, including LeVert next to Craig Porter Jr., Niang, Merrill and Thompson, scores 13.9 points per contest in 4.4 minutes on 54 percent of attempted triples.
Trusting Mitchell, the nuclear option at the one, instead of keeping him at shooting guard after the Garland injury, was a sharp call. It worked by inserting Isaac Okoro, a bothersome defender at small forward, and Dean Wade, a 6-foot-9 three-and-D player at power forward.
In Mitchell’s 14 outings at QB since Dec. 16, he is supplying 28 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, with 7.6 assists and five rebounds. In his 16 games up to Dec. 6, the last match the regular starters logged together, Mitchell was logging 27.6 points, making 45.1 percent of field goals with 5.3 assists and 5.4 rebounds.
Additionally, before Bickerstaff’s emergency lineup change that saved the Cavs’ season, the unit averaged 25.6 assists nightly. In the absence of Garland and Mobley, the squad is recording 29.2 dimes per game. Notably, the Cavaliers have 12 road wins for the season, but five have come after Dec. 16 without those two Cavalier heavyweights.
Eventually, DG and Mobley will come back. The ball movement staying at its current level is a must for the Cavs because it has made its offense harder to shut down. In November, the offensive rating was 112.1, good enough for 24th of 30 teams. In December, the rating was 116.5 (17th), and in January, it’s 120.4 (sixth).
If Bickerstaff can find a way to blend the talents of his All-Star point guard and emerging big man into the revamped attack, the squad’s “ceiling is the roof,” but there’s a chance he gets recognized for it. This stretch since mid-December has proven the Cavaliers are a deeper squad than they were given credit for.
The Wine and Gold won’t snap a playoff drought like last campaign’s Sacramento Kings or significantly surpass last year’s win total like the current Oklahoma City Thunder. But Bickerstaff guiding the team as it takes off for the best stretch of the year while facing adversity is commendable.