The Rise of The Cleveland Cavaliers

The Emergence of The Land

Nearly four years ago, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors in a 4-0 sweep in the NBA Finals. After winning the championship in 2016 for the first time in franchise history, James and the Cavaliers were not able to get past Golden State for the second straight year. This led to James leaving the Cavaliers for the second time in his career to join the Los Angeles Lakers. His tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers will always be remembered for 2016, when the Cavs fought back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals to beat the historic 73-9 Warriors.

The Cavaliers Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love were a force to be reckoned with in the 2016 finals. In game five, James and Irving scored 41 points apiece in a 112-97 victory against the Warriors. In game seven, the Cavs closed out the Warriors in a 93-89 nail biter victory. James, Irving, and Love combined for 62 points.

James leaving the Cavs put the franchise in a tough position. He was committed to bringing another championship to Cleveland, but faced an almost impossible task in defeating the Warriors. The Warriors had a collection of four All Stars in Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. After leaving the Cavs, James went on Instagram to thank the franchise for their four year run.

The Rebuild 

In the summer of 2018, not many people knew what direction Cleveland was headed in. They were fortunate enough to get the #8 pick in the NBA Draft, where they selected Collin Sexton from the University of Alabama. Sexton went on to average 16 points in his rookie season and joined Larry Bird and Stephen Curry as the only rookies to shoot 40% from three and 80% from the foul line. However, the season for the Cavs was a disaster and they fell to the bottom of the standings. Ty Lue was fired after an 0-6 start to the regular season and the Associate head coach, Larry Drew, was promoted to become the new head coach.

Larry Drew was also not the answer at head coach as the Cavs went on to finish the season 19-63 , which was tied for the second worst record in the NBA after finishing 50-32 the previous year. The Cavs finished in the bottom five in offense and field goal percentage after finishing in the top five the previous year. The Cavs also had the worst defensive efficiency in the league. Love missed around 50 games this season after suffering a toe injury on his left foot that required surgery.

Cleveland struggled to fill the void of James and it showed tremendously during the season. After building a team around him, it was a struggle to pick up the pieces after LeBron’s departure. The change from advancing to the NBA Finals for four straight years to becoming one of the worst teams in the league was a tough pill to swallow. At the end of the season, Larry Drew and the Cavaliers mutually agreed to part ways, and once again the Cavaliers were in the hunt for another head coach.

Growing Pains

The Cleveland Cavaliers went on to hire Michigan coach John Beilein on May 14, 2019. The 65-year-old Beilein coached at Michigan for 12 seasons, leading the team to the NCAA tournament nine times. He had a 270-150 record and led Michigan to the championship game twice where he lost in each matchup. Many people were unsure of how Beilein would adapt to the NBA after coaching college basketball his whole career.

In the 2019 NBA draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Darius Garland from the University of Vanderbilt as the 5th pick. Garland went on to average 12 points, 3 assists, while shooting 40% from the field. However, the team did not perform or respond well to the first year coach Beilein. He decided to resign as head coach after 54 games and had a record of 14-40.

There were reports of problems from the start of training camp for Beilein in Cleveland. “The Cavs didn’t embrace Beilein’s practice methods — he had his big men doing grade-school level fundamental “Mikan” drills — and players grumbled that he was treating them like kids and not paid professionals,” reported from Shams Charania @The Athletic. It was hard for Beilein to adapt to the NBA environment but I also think losing so many games was new to him. It was also said that despite Beilein’s struggles with the team, he also didn’t make it easier for himself. “During a team meeting in Detroit, he inadvertently called his players “thugs” when reviewing game film. Beilein apologized, but the incident caused a larger wedge between him and the players.”

I think many players checked out after that incident and were no longer responsive to Beilein. J.B. Bickerstaff ended up taking over the head coach position and finished 19-46, as LeBron James went on to win his fourth ring.

The Rise

J.B. Bickerstaff took over a Cavs team that had a lot of struggles and controversy the previous season. However, he had previous experience coaching in the NBA. The Cavaliers selected Isaac Okoro from the University of Auburn with the 5th pick in the NBA Draft. They also received Jarred Allen in the James Harden trade, which turned out to be a big move for them. The Cleveland Cavaliers finished 22-50 in the 20-21 season, which was a small improvement. The upside is they developed a couple of young players in Garland, Sexton, Okoro, and Allen that started to come into their own.

Many people expected the Cleveland Cavaliers to be in the lottery again this year, but the franchise had other plans. After drafting Evan Mobley from the University of South California with the 3rd pick, they went on to acquire Lauri Markkanen and Ricky Rubio in the off-season. The Cavs also got a healthy and motivated Kevin Love this season, which is something they haven’t had for the last few seasons.

They are a top three defensive team, top 10 team in field goal percentage, and top 15 in rebounds. They have been successful with a combination of young talent and steady veterans. The Cavs rookie, Evan Mobley, is averaging 15 points, 8 rebounds, 1 block, and is shooting 50% from the field, numbers that put him on pace to be the Rookie of the Year. Jarrett Allen is  averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds, and shooting 67% from the field. They are also being mentored by Kevin Love, who has pitched in 14 points and 7.5 rebounds, and is giving them great minutes off the bench. We also can’t forget about Garland who was recently named to the 2022 All Star game. He is averaging nearly 20 points a game, 8 assists, shooting 36% from three, and 46% from the field.

Playoff Bound?

Cleveland is currently 33-21 and sitting in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference. Most people will agree that this is the most surprising team in the NBA. Unfortunately, the Cavs have been without Sexton after tearing his ACL earlier this season. Despite missing this key piece, the Cavaliers have remained a top team in the Eastern Conference. They also have recently acquired Caris LeVert who will be a big addition to the team’s shooting and playmaking. It will be interesting to see how the Cavs  perform for the rest of the season, but things would have to go terribly wrong for them not to make the playoffs. This season has shown that the Cleveland Cavaliers have truly come a long way since the departure of LeBron James.