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A complete enigma: Why Cavaliers' approach makes them hardest NBA team to predict

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Roar Guru
7th March, 2023

How do you define a sleeper team in the NBA? Is it just exceeding expectations based off where they end up in the regular season? Does the team have to go deep in the playoffs? Perhaps win it all? Or can we only predict a sleeper based on the potential they have, rather than whether they actualise that potential or not?

It’s an open term that we affix to a couple of teams every season. Cleveland, enter the chat if you please.

The Cavaliers are such an odd team in a loaded Eastern Conference. If you told me a few months from now that they made a deep playoff run and got to the East finals or even survived the inevitable bloodbath and made it out, I wouldn’t be overly surprised.

The same can be said of the inverse, for if they were to bow out in the first round, I don’t think I’d replicate LeBron James’ incredulous no-call antics (we’ve all seen it by now). Apart from projecting the end of their season, there are a number of reasons as to why this team defies the NBA norm.

There are some very odd statistical anomalies that the Cavs hold, but we’ll get to them later.

Let’s start with the basics. Twin towers, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, playing heavy minutes next to each other; who the hell does that today? They’ve spent the most time on the floor of all big men combinations in the league this season, 1199 minutes. This throwback style lends itself to the next point, but nonetheless, displaying a defensive identity first and foremost in a league that is all about getting buckets is inherently odd, as sad as that sounds.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - DECEMBER 23: Darius Garland #10 and Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talk during a free-throw against the Toronto Raptors during the fourth quarter at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on December 23, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Raptors defeated the Cavaliers 118-107. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

The Cavs sport a league leading 106.7 opponent points per game, due to their phenomenal rim protection.


Interchanging the paint presence between Allen and Mobley, lends their defence a unique identity as the other of the two can operate as a high level weak side or roaming rim protector, interjecting themselves into any defensive possession at a moment’s notice. The sophomore big man, Mobley, will be a perennial defensive player of the candidate and leads the league in defensive real plus minus (DRPM), which weighs a player’s defensive impact on his team per 100 possessions.

The Bucks and Grizzlies have a similar look with their big men, however, they usually have a rubric where there is less shifting in the roles. This makes it more difficult for offences to predict how to attack the paint, not knowing who they’ll have to get past on a possession to possession basis.

Their young guards in Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell have improved their passing lane escapades, both averaging over a steal per game. It’s good to see the latter especially more locked in on this end of the floor considering his defensively disappointing final season in Utah.

This leaves us with the small forward position. It’s clear to the whole basketball community that if there is a chink in the armour, then this is it. To play a twin towers style, you need three elite perimeter shooters to offset the loss in spacing from the two bigs, but the Cavs don’t have this outside of their guards.

The alternation between Isaac Okoro and Caris LeVert has been the recipe for Coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Yet there are some statistical oddities as the former is primarily a defensive player and the latter owns the tag of a defensive liability.


In line-ups when Okoro plays with the other four starters, the Cavs maintain a 118.2 defensive rating (DRTG). When LeVert is in Okoro’s spot: 99.7 DRTG. Odd, no?

To Bickerstaff’s credit, this has meant LeVert will usually play in the end of games in Okoro’s stead, but this leads to another conundrum. The offensive ratings (ORTG) also flip in the opposite direction from what would normally be expected. Okoro-based line-ups have a 121.3 ORTG whilst LeVert-based line-ups have a 112.7 ORTG. What the hell is going on?

This drop in ORTG has led to offensive struggles late in games, the biggest bane of the Cavs’ season.

On a more positive note, the level of squad chemistry throughout the franchise is remarkable. A whole team celebration on February 15 exemplifies this; when the Cavs played the Sixers before the All-Star break, Allen was called for a defensive three seconds infringement and proceeded to raise his hand and shout out to his bench, celebrating his miscue!

Their morale and in-squad unity is mentioned incessantly whenever you watch a Cavs home broadcast; the excellent chemistry is devoid of distracting antics that other closely unified teams sometimes exhibit (*cough* … *Memphis*).

Because of this, the team identity has trickled down into the players’ selfless style, epitomised by their 23-year-old point guard Garland. His willingness to distribute the ball is counterintuitively uncommon among young guards (or even guards in general in today’s league).


Making the right play is inherent to his basketball personality; it imparts itself among the rest of the squad and could be a large reason as to why the Cavs have the second-heaviest offensive share in pick and roll schemes in the league at 35%.

All this is to say, that the Cavaliers are a complete enigma when trying to predict the outcome of their season. Their abnormalities typify the reason why they can be so exciting and, at times, frustrating to watch.

If they match up against Boston or Milwaukee in the playoffs they have the talent and ability to hang with either team, respectively tying the regular season series 2-2 with the Bucks and leading the Celtics 2-1. The adversities of those series are not exempt in a first-round match-up either.

They are down 2-1 in a season series with the Knicks, lost their first game to the Hawks and have yet to play the un-killable Heat.

Regardless, their unpredictability, embodying itself in a dark horse or sleeper model, is most likely a boon in a conference that will spare no team, making a deep playoff run extremely difficult.