How the Cleveland Cavaliers have evolved this season in the face of defeat

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks
Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks / Stacy Revere/GettyImages
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On January 13, 2023, the Cleveland Cavaliers had a  27-16 record. Through 43 games this season, this version of the Cavaliers is also 27-16. 

Coincidentally, the Cavaliers again sit fourth in the Eastern Conference, and Cleveland's recent playoff rival New York Knicks sit in fifth place. The Cavs have regained their momentum following devastating long-term injuries to Darius Garland and Evan Mobley announced on the same day. That day seemed like a doomsday for Cleveland's season as trade buzz around Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen instantly seized hold of NBA fanbases. Now with both players nearing return, the Cavaliers currently hold homecourt advantage for the postseason and are on a roll.

Solely based on the record alone, it could be justified to think that the Wine and Gold are in the midst of identical back-to-back seasons. Given the roster turnover in the summer and the offensive changes, this could not be farther from the truth. This version of the Cavaliers is likely better than last season for both the regular season and the playoffs. Regardless of the final regular season record, this iteration of Cavs basketball is better than the last. 

Fire power from the reserves

There has always been a narrative that Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is fiercely loyal to his guys, especially the "core four" of Mobley, Mitchell, Allen and Garland. Last year’s stats back that up. The core group all played at least 68 games and averaged at least 33 minutes per game. This stat would not seem outlandish in past eras of NBA basketball in which players were more often appearing in all 82 contests. In the modern NBA load management often reigns supreme, but these four Cavs starters were logging heavy minutes nonetheless.

The main starters last year were burnt out by the time the playoffs came around because they had to carry the offensive load. In the 2022/23 regular season, Cavaliers averaged 112.3 points per game. Out of those 112 points, the starters averaged 96.2 of those points, accounting for 85 percent of the total offense. Last season, the bench averaged 16.1 points per game, which was ranked 28th out of the Association's 30 teams. In short, that is horrendous.

In today’s game, teams need at least a competent and efficient bench to allow their stars reasonable rest. This is especially important in the playoffs, where opposing teams game plan to take away your starters' strengths. This season, the Cavaliers are averaging 36.3 points per game off the bench, which is the 12th best in the league. Simply, the bench guys have raised their game.

One player that has raised his game off the bench is Caris LeVert. Caris last season was a big part of the rotation, playing in 74 games and starting in 30 of them. Verty can get hot off the bench and help carry the offensive load from time to time, making him the perfect sixth man for the Cavaliers. In 2022/23, he averaged 30.2 minutes and 12.1 points per game.

This season he has fully embraced being the first guy off the bench and has even closed out some games with some big shots down the stretch (Knicks game at the Garden comes to mind). He has also made the most of his role, averaging 28.7 minutes per game, while also bringing his scoring average up to 15.6 points per game.

Across the board, shooting efficiency has been a marked improvement for these Cavaliers.