Can the Cavaliers keep up their hot start?

Cleveland fans have had a lot to cheer about early this NBA season with the Cavaliers starting 3-1. But can they keep it up?

While the 2020-21 NBA season has been full of surprises, the Cleveland Cavaliers starting the season 3-1 is one of the biggest. Their best win was against a Sixers team lacking Joel Embiid, but their young guard combo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland is starting to look like they may potentially be a duo worth building around. Of course, it’s only been four games, but it does lead one to wonder who the Cavaliers are hoping to be and if their promising start is a misleading chimera.

Sexton is the Cavaliers leading scorer and has consistently looked like the team’s best player so far. He improved from his first season to his second, taking more shots at the rim, while converting them at a higher percentage in addition to taking far fewer deep two’s. His overall field goal percentage jumped from 43 to 47 percent even as his 3-point shooting fell from 40 to 38 percent, showing just how much he’s improved from within the arc. This season, his third, those percentages have risen again, though in a way that is both promising and clearly unsustainable. He’s not going to keep making two out of every three shots from behind the arc, but if he can continue to attack the paint and score efficiently there, that will be yet another marked improvement.

The problem with Sexton is that while he is a talented scorer, it is unclear how much he helps the team when the ball is not in his hands. He is a mediocre playmaker and passer for someone who initiates the offense as much as he does. In his first two seasons, he had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.3, showcasing lackluster decision-making ability which is not ideal for someone with as much ball-handling responsibility as him. Thankfully, this shortcoming has been made up for with the blossoming of Darius Garland. Garland is much more of a true point guard than Sexton, and his ability to create good looks for others — he is averaging nearly eight assists-per-game so far this season — helps compensate for Sexton’s occasional lapses of myopia.

Garland is the perfect compliment to Sexton so far this season

Garland has also taken a big leap early in his second season. He joined the Cavaliers last season after playing just five games at Vanderbilt due to injury and the long layoff often impacted his comfort level as he struggled to adjust not only to the NBA, but to playing competitive basketball at all. While confidence has never been a problem for Sexton, it sometimes appeared to be one for Garland last year. Though even on the nights he struggled last year, his smooth shooting stroke and feel for the game were apparent. This year, he is making far more of his shots while his assist numbers have doubled in only a few more minutes per night. Sexton may be the more dynamic and proficient scorer at this point, but Garland may still end up the better and more versatile player in the long run.

These young players have been aided by Andre Drummond, who looks rejuvenated so far this year. In addition to leading the league in rebounding, he is currently averaging career highs in scoring, assists, steals, and blocks. Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff has prioritized Andre Drummond’s strengths this year. And while those averages are all sure to fall more in line with his career marks as the season progresses, it indicates that Drummond’s best days may not be behind him as commonly assumed. Drummond is still just 27 years old and remains a very good defender who can potentially help instill solid principles into the team’s young players on that end, while also covering for their inevitable mistakes

The Cavaliers’ other former All-Star, Kevin Love, is currently out for at least three weeks with a calf injury. It’s really hard to know what to expect or hope for from him at this point in his career. He is 32 years old and has not played more than 60 games in a season since 2015-16. There was some hope he would return to his All-NBA self when LeBron decamped for Los Angeles, but injuries and age have prevented that from happening. He remains a valuable player, with his shooting and rebounding abilities, but one wonders how important he is to this particular team if management sees Sexton, Garland, and rookie Isaac Okoro as the future of the franchise. Does GM Koby Altman see Love more as a potential trade piece or as a veteran mentor to the team’s young players? One could see the logic in either belief.

Even with all the offensive improvement by Garland and Sexton, the Cavaliers are winning so far with a stout defense. Currently, they have the second-best defense in the league, giving up just 99.5 points per 100 possessions. Drummond has long been one of the league’s better interior defenders, leading the NBA in individual defensive rating and defensive win shares twice each in his career and his presence is making a difference for the Cavs so far in the paint.

Last year, the Cavaliers were a mess. Former coach John Beilein was often overmatched strategically. As a man in his late 60’s leading an NBA team for the first time, he was apparently unable to break the habit of treating his players the same way he had treated his college teams. It was a predictable disaster. While Beilein’s replacement J.B. Bickerstaff has yet to really prove himself as a head coach — he is 90-137 entering this season — the mere fact that he can provide stability that his predecessor was unable to should be a boon for the team. Roles already appear to be more clearly defined, and he’s not likely to accuse any of his players of being ‘thugs’ or ‘slugs.’

The Cavaliers want to be able to compete and build for the future simultaneously. It feels like they want to be the Celtics after their infamous 2013 trade with the Nets, rebuilding from an era that saw them consistently competing for championships without truly bottoming out. Yet attempting to both develop young talent and win now simultaneously is a tricky feat to pull off. Cleveland is not likely to sustain this hot start to the season. Their defense and shooting will regress a bit — they currently have five players making 40 percent of their 3’s, including Javale McGee which doesn’t seem likely to last for a whole season — but it does appear Cavaliers fans will have more to cheer about this season than they have since LeBron left for the Lakers in 2018.

While a playoff spot is not probable, it appears to be a possibility which more optimistic than initially thought to open the season. It’s still not quite obvious who the Cavaliers want or hope to be long-term, but any success is sure to make such questions less urgent for now.