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Tonight at 8 p.m. ET the Cleveland Cavaliers will make their regular season debut on the road in Memphis against the Grizzlies. Internally, expectations are sky high within the Cavaliers organization as players, coaches and executives have gone on the record saying that they expect to be in the thick of the playoff hunt this season. This would be a franchise first under Dan Gilbert's tenure as owner as Cleveland has never made the playoffs without LeBron James on the roster. Nearly everyone else outside the four walls of Cleveland Clinic Courts or Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse feel differently, though as oddsmakers project the Cavaliers to win around 26.5 games this season.
Today, we'll be breaking down what's new for Cleveland this year as well as what to watch for and what to expect. Are the Cavaliers, who boast one of the youngest rosters in the league, able to become a playoff team and surpass expectations? Or will this be another long year for head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and company?
For the most part, Cleveland is bringing back largely the same roster from last season. But, there are several new faces as well. One of the biggest, both figuratively and literally, is rookie big man Evan Mobley, who the Cavaliers selected third-overall in the 2021 NBA Draft. Mobley, who is penciled in to be the starting power forward for Cleveland, has the potential to be the face of the franchise one day due to his build combined with his truly unique skillset. There are going to be some growing pains for Mobley, who has a bit of a clunky fit offensively next to Cavaliers starting center Jarrett Allen but could be a darkhorse candidate for Rookie of the Year this season.
In order to make Mobley's life easier offensively, Cleveland executed a three-team sign-and-trade deal with Portland and Chicago sending out Larry Nance Jr. and bringing in Finnish marksman Lauri Markkanen. Markkanen, who shot a career-best 40.2% from three-point range last season, compliments Mobley along with the rest of the roster nicely due to his skillset. The other luxury with having Markkanen in the fold is it gives Bickerstaff more options to experiment with rotation-wise as well. We've already seen him use Markkanen, Mobley and Allen on the floor at the same time during preseason play and for the most part, it's been successful.
But, Markkanen wasn't the only offensive boosting trade the Cavaliers made this summer as they acquired Ricky Rubio from the Minnesota Timberwolves for Taurean Prince. Rubio is a cerebral playmaker that will help make stabilize Cleveland's offensive execution whenever the team's youth and inexperience cause things to fall apart. Rubio also has the ability to become one of the most important players for the Cavaliers as well as the Spaniard has made a concerted effort to take Cleveland rising star Darius Garland under his wing. Rubio has a proven track record with Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker and Anthony Edwards all blossoming under his guidance. Based on how the Cavaliers view Garland, having Rubio push him past his limits is paramount for his development.
The key additions for Cleveland were Mobley, Markkanen and Rubio but those three aren't the only new faces. Kevin Pangos, who has spent the majority of his professional career overseas, will be a nice emergency depth option behind Garland and Rubio. Another key veteran addition who likely won't see any minutes is Ed Davis, who will help push Allen and Mobley to hone their craft. Then there's Denzel Valentine, who had a turbulent career with the Bulls and is looking for a fresh start with the Cavaliers both on the floor and as Markkanen's personal hype man.
Finally, there's Tacko Fall and R.J. Nembhard, who Cleveland signed to their available two-way contract slots. Fall is one of the tallest players in the league, measuring in at 7'5" with an opposing 8'4" wingspan. Nembhard, meanwhile, went undrafted during the 2021 NBA Draft and has the potential to be a big-bodied combo guard long-term. Both Fall and Nembhard will split their time between the Cavaliers and the Cleveland Charge, the main club's G-League affiliate. Under new Charge head coach Dan Geriot, who has a vision on how he wants to run the team, they will both hopefully develop into viable depth pieces for the Cavaliers in time.
Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star forward Kevin Love will be primarily coming off the bench for the first time during his time with the Cavaliers.
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Key things to look for this season
How will the rotations shake out?
In terms of starting lineups, the Cavaliers will have the youngest in the league this year with an average age of 21.5 years old when Garland, Mobley, Allen, Isaac Okoro and Collin Sexton take the floor tonight against the Grizzlies. Behind that starting quintet are Markkanen, Rubio, Kevin Love, Cedi Osman. Those four are a safe bet to be the primary reserves for Cleveland this season and Dylan Windler, Lamar Stevens and Dean Wade will be the other players battling for the tenth, and final, spot in the rotation.
Bickerstaff said he only wants to go ten-deep on his roster this season and will utilize that tenth-man spot based on what kind of specialists the team needs that night. If they need shooting then they'll call on Windler or Wade. If they need defense they'll call on Stevens or Windler. When Love is likely out on the second night of a back-to-back, then Wade and Windler both will likely round things out for the Cavaliers.
There is a lot of uncertainty about how things will shake out for Cleveland overall but one thing is clear: they'll be leaning on their overall youth to guide them to victory. Granted, the Cavaliers have a few key reserve veterans to support them but we'll see how patient Bickerstaff is when it comes to allowing this team to grow and develop, all while trying to win. If he suddenly finds himself on the hot seat, will Bickerstaff shake things up a bit? It feels unlikely but given how much Cleveland has lost since James left town for a second time, coupled with two brutal west coast road trips, no one should feel totally safe within the Cavaliers.
Will Sexton's lack of an extension impact his play?
In a surprise to many, Cleveland star guard Collin Sexton and the team did not come to terms on a rookie-scale contract extension. From the team's annual media day until the day of the deadline, it was clear that both the organization and Sexton's camp wanted to come to terms on a contract extension. According to sources, neither side could agree on how much money would be guaranteed and the deal fell apart in the final hours of the deadline. So that means next offseason Sexton will be a restricted free agent which allows the Cavaliers to match any contract offer he gets but Cleveland also faces the risk of losing him as well.
Knowing all this, it would be natural to worry that Sexton's lack of an extension would impact his overall production. Or that the Cavaliers will look to trade their young star by the annual trade deadline in order to not have to pay him, right? It's actually quite the contrary. The Tuesday after the rookie-scale extension deadline it appears it's still business as normal for both Sexton and the organization.
“He was the same guy,” Bickerstaff said. “He was competing. He was doing all the things that we asked him to do that he’s always done. His personality was good, his temperament was good. How he interacted with his teammates was good.
“I think it’s important he knows we have empathy for him. We know the pressures and the excitement that surrounds his situation. And then the way that it came to a resolution can be difficult because he wants to be here. We understand that. His personality won’t allow him to be anybody else. He’s gonna play the way he knows how to play. He’s going to be him.”
“The approach is still the same,” Sexton said. “I’m just coming in ready to work. We’ve got one goal and that’s to win and get to the playoffs. I was disappointed. But that doesn’t take away from the teammates itself. We’re going to figure it out, and we’re going to win basketball games together and have a good season. It starts off tomorrow against Memphis. I’m just going to continue to work and get ready. I know they want me here. So, just a little disappointed, but at the end of the day, we move on.”
It appears that for now, Sexton is still firmly in the team's plans going forward. Fans should never worry that a lack of an extension for Sexton is going to crater the team's season. Instead, Cleveland fans should see the best version of Sexton possible on a night-to-night basis. Since hell hath no fury like a Sexton scorned.
The third, and final, thing to watch for also goes hand in hand with what the expected outcome should be this season. As it's been mentioned several times in this story, this Cavaliers team is very young. There are going to be a ton of growing pains for this squad and with a tough stretch to start the season, plenty of adversity along the way as well. Key veterans like Love and Rubio are going to be hard to lean on when both players have a checkered injury history. If anything happens to either of them long-term, especially Rubio, Cleveland could be in for an even more difficult stretch throughout the season.
More than anything, this season should be about focusing on internal growth and also evaluation of the young pieces the Cavaliers have assembled. It was difficult to do that in a condensed season deeply impacted by the ongoing pandemic. So that means, unfortunately, Cleveland will likely not be a playoff nor a play-in team this season. It's the lack of overall experience, along with the entirety of the Eastern Conference getting better, being their downfall.
Final record: 25-57
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