With Evan Mobley and Darius Garland finally on the verge of return, the Cleveland Cavaliers enter the latter half of the regular season with no reason not to continue climbing the East standings.
The Cavaliers went 14-4 over the 18 games without either Mobley or Garland. As Mobley gears up for his return against the Los Angeles Clippers, the transitional period of reintegrating both young stars will be a proving ground for head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. After an embarrassing five-game series in the first round of the playoffs last year, Bickerstaff has been under much public scrutiny for his confusing rotations and stagnant offense.
If nothing else, Bickerstaff has proven himself as a genuinely positive offensive coach in the recent 18-game stretch. While Bickerstaff had seemingly grown complacent with a shallow eight-man rotation early in the season, the loss of Mobley and Garland led to an active bench, often playing 10 or 11 men in a night.
After a season of lackluster perimeter shooting, the Cavs rank second in the Association in three-pointers attempted (41.9) in the last 18 games. By the time last season ended, the Cavaliers sat twenty-fourth with 31.6 three-point attempts per contest. The 10+ attempts leap did not come by chance; Bickerstaff drastically reinvented Cleveland's offense in the wake of the injury news.
Nobody will question Bickerstaff's defensive instincts. He has proven again and again he is one of the league's premier defensive minds. He exemplified an element of his defensive prowess in the latest Coaches Corner with the NBA. his choices on offense will dictate how he is viewed once the team is at full strength.
Cleveland needs to see J.B. Bickerstaff improve when both stars return
A temporary slump will be expected when both Mobley and Garland reenter the nightly lineup. As both stars readjust to playing NBA basketball, the Cavaliers will look janky at times and will lose games they should have won. It will be Bickerstaff's obligation, however, to maintain the offensive flow and versatility rather than reverting back to a predictable isolation-heavy approach.
Over their last 10 games, the Cavs are tied for the eleventh-most assists per game at 28.2. Before the injuries, Cleveland had the sixth-fewest assists with only 24.9 per game. While the difference is fewer than four per contest, the Cavaliers have depended on selfless offense, looking for the extra pass to an open shooter or cutter. Clearly, rising from 13-12 at the time of the injury news to 26-17 18 games later suggests the new-look offense is a recipe for greater success compared to the old one. Losing that when the team should theoretically be adding more talent would reflect poorly on Bickerstaff's leadership abilities.
In the 2023 playoff loss, the Cavalier's shallow depth and offensive versatility were on full display. Rather than pitting all blame on Bickerstaff, Cavs President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman focused his efforts in the offseason on giving the team the necessary offensive tools to avoid similar flaws again. Now that Bickerstaff has realized the team's perimeter potential, his next challenge will be maintaining the production with every possible tool at his disposal.
The rotation with no doubt change, and certain players who have shined in the absence of Garland and Mobley will see their minutes cut. Both players should conceptually improve the Cavaliers rather than hurt them, though. Garland especially should benefit from the new-look Cavs, given his shooting talent and willingness to move off the ball.
Bickerstaff's Cavaliers will play 10 games against teams with losing records throughout February. While their schedule this month also includes games against the Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland should have more than enough opportunity to integrate a healthy young core in low-risk games.
Bickerstaff's recent growth and choices suggest that he will be capable of keeping Cleveland's dominance. February should not be a reason to move on from Bickerstaff; instead, it is a chance for him to prove he can lead the Cavs to a deep playoff berth. The Cavaliers also have the third-easiest remaining schedule, meaning Bickerstaff has ample opportunity to prepare his squad for a healthy performance in the playoffs.
While the Cavaliers have plenty of questions and concerns when Garland and Mobley join again after a slow start to their seasons, their respective returns should be a cause of excitement, even if they lose easy games as they adjust. Bickerstaff has discovered a formula for success in Cleveland, and he will have everything he needs for a tremendous final stretch before the postseason.