The Cleveland Cavaliers have had a surprisingly good start to the 2020-2021 NBA season.
A team that many projected to have a rebuilding year find themselves as the 6 seed with an 8-8 record.
My trusts are in SexLand now! Rocking with these boys till the end 🤞❤️ pic.twitter.com/PZVGCBmDwJ
— 𝑸𝑼𝑬𝑩𝑹𝑨𝑫𝑨 𝑪𝑨𝑽𝑺 𝑩𝑹 (8-8)👑 (@CavsQuebrada) January 18, 2021
And they have been one of the stingier defenses in the league.
Given next to nobody expected the Cavaliers to make the playoffs, will the hot start keep up?
Can it keep up long enough for Cleveland to make the playoffs?
Here we will take a deeper dive to see if the Cavs are a real threat to make noise come playoff time.
Cavaliers Playing Great Defense
The key to the Cavaliers’ fast early-season start has been its lockdown defense.
Through 16 games, the Cavs only give up 108.8 PPG – good for the 7th best mark in the league.
They also have the 7th best defensive rating in the league at 108.7.
Both of these marks have been inflated as of late after coming back down to earth against the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics.
The Cavs surrendered an average of 130 PPG during those 3 games.
However, they won 2 of them as they swept the mini-series against the newest superteam in the Nets.
CAVS BEAT THE NETS IN DOUBLE OT: 147-135
Sexton: 42 PTS, 5 AST, 5 REB
Cedi: 25 PTS, 7 REB, 7 AST
Brooklyn's BIG 3
KD: 38 PTS, 12 REB, 8 AST
Kyrie: 37 PTS, 3 AST, 3 BLK
Harden: 21 PTS, 12 AST, 10 REBpic.twitter.com/yRdG6Fcl3Y
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) January 21, 2021
Their stingy defense to start the season has been buoyed by a league-best 15.7% opponent turnover percentage.
They have also allowed the 7th fewest free throws in the league so far, which drops to 5th fewest when it becomes a per-game stat.
All of this has been shocking considering the Cavaliers were the league’s worst defense last season.
There are some signs the Cavs fast start on defense will eventually regress towards the mean.
9 of their first 16 games came against teams in the bottom half of the league in terms of points scored.
And one came against a Philly team with MVP-frontrunner Joel Embiid.
They also allow the 9th worst effective field goal percentage and are second-worst in terms of defensive rebounding.
If the Cavs start to force fewer turnovers and continue to allow second chances, the points could start to pile up.
Other than that, there aren’t many signs that say this won’t continue.
Sexton and rookie Isaac Okoro are both terrific defenders, as is recently-acquired Jarret Allen.
Teams aren’t shooting drastically low from beyond the arc while the Cavs have the bigs to continue their stifling defense around the rim.
Bad on Offense
As good as the Cavaliers’ defense has been, their offense has been equally bad.
They score the 2nd fewest PPG to go along with the 2nd lowest offensive rating.
Sexton and Garland are a solid offensive backcourt – Sexton especially.
He is averaging 25.5 PPG on 51.7% shooting, which would be good for 13th in the league if Sexton had played in 70% of his team’s games.
— The Ringer (@ringer) January 21, 2021
Garland also seems to have the skills to become a starting point guard.
He has upped his APG from 3.9 to 5.8 this year while sporting an assist percentage of 28.1.
Outside of “Sexland”, the offensive cupboard is fairly dry.
Andre Drummond is the team’s second-best scorer, but he mostly relies on others to set him up for looks.
And removing the recent players acquired in the Harden deal, nobody else scores more than 14 PPG.
Will Cavaliers Make the Playoffs?
After all of that, do the Cavs have a real shot at making the playoffs?
If the defense keeps up, the answer would be yes.
Even with a limited offense, a top-10 defense in the league should be enough in what is shaping up to be a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
However, they don’t have much wiggle room.
Even a slight dip in defense would be disastrous for the offensively-challenged Cavaliers.
They already sport a -4.5 point differential and dropping to league average defensively would put them in the -7.0 range.
Which would be on-par with most of the bottom dwellers in the standings.
At the same time, teams like the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat have played below standards so far.
Assuming those two playoff staples turn things around, that could bump the Cavs down to the 8 seed.
The best-case scenario for Cleveland this year would be to qualify for the play-in game and sneak in as the 8 seed.
If they can accomplish that, they will already be a few years ahead of their rebuilding timeline.