Can Cleveland beat the East's elite? Key takeaways from Week 21 of Cavaliers basketball

Plus should people be concerned about Caris LeVert's injury? That, along with a final record prediction update.

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With less than 20 games to go until the end of the regular season, it seems, for now, that the Cleveland Cavaliers have settled into their spot in the playoffs. As of today, the Cavaliers are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and are currently in a sweet spot where they are equidistant from the Boston Celtics for fifth place and the Toronto Raptors for seventh place. It's hard to forecast where Cleveland ends up but we'll break that down in a bit. We need to talk about the Cavaliers hanging with the Eastern Conference's elite echelon of teams. That and we should also talk about the concerns that came with Caris LeVert rearing their head at the worst time possible for Cleveland.

Can the Cavaliers hang with the Eastern Conference's elite?

First and foremost, Cleveland got a taste of the best of the best in the Eastern Conference heading into the weekend. They first took on the Miami Heat in South Beach and were crushed 117-105. This was the first time the Cavaliers saw Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo this season and it was prevalent throughout with those two turning up the defensive intensity to 11 on Cleveland. The following night they took to the United Center to play the Chicago Bulls and saw more of the same, losing 101-91.

Granted, it's hard to fully gauge how the Cavaliers truly stack up against the Eastern Conference's elite due to Jarrett Allen being out with a broken finger. But, it does give a glimpse into what might happen come playoff time for Cleveland. Miami star tandem of Butler and Adebayo frustrated Cleveland stars Darius Garland and Evan Mobley all over the court defensively. That, and the Heat also took advantage of the Cavaliers turning the ball over so frequently and kept the game at arm's length away all throughout.

Unfortunately, it was a bit of deja vu for Cleveland the night after in Chicago. Granted, the Bulls did get back Alex Caruso that night and were back to being disruptive on defense. But, the energy was consistent for the Cavaliers – they just couldn't buy a bucket due to the effort the Bulls gave on defense.

"I just felt like they were the aggressor tonight," said Kevin Love, who had 10 points and 11 rebounds. "You've got to tip your hat to the Bulls. Great all season. Obviously, Miami and Chicago back to back is not easy. I think you saw it in our energy level tonight, us just trying to find and manufacture some offense."

Love and likely the rest of the team have the same disposition. But, it just might have become clear through these two losses that Cleveland might not be quite ready to compete for a championship this season. It's an unfortunate mix of injuries and inexperience rearing their heads at the wrong time for the Cavaliers to build any upward momentum towards being this year's version of last year's Atlanta Hawks. Sure, there's a chance everything clicks for Cleveland and they catch a few teams off guard to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

But, there is a silver lining to all of this in the grand scheme of things. No one expected the Cavaliers to be at this point in their rebuild and that in itself is already encouraging for the future trajectory of this organization. Getting playoff experience and teaching their younger players how to win will only help accelerate things further.

Sure, Cleveland should be focused in the moment on what they can do to win now. But, they should also be looking ahead to the future so that they can use this success as a launching point for years to come. They might now be an Eastern Conference contender right now. But, in a season or two, they might be.

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Caris LeVert has been sidelined for nearly three weeks due to a foot sprain. It's concerning but shouldn't come as a surprise with his injury history.

Caris LeVert's injury history is becoming a concern again in Cleveland

In late February, the Cavaliers announced that swingman Caris LeVert would be sidelined approximately two weeks with a foot sprain. The injury happened when LeVert stepped on the foot of a teammate during practice after the All-Star Break, according to head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. At the time it was a huge blow to Cleveland because they were trying to get LeVert acclimated with his new team since he had only played four games up to that point. In those appearances LeVert is averaging 13.3 points, 1.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game, giving the team a glimpse of what he can bring to the court but it, unfortunately, was put on ice.

Fast forward to today and it has been more than two weeks since LeVert was initially ruled out by the team. There have been encouraging signs of LeVert going through warmups with the Cavaliers on their road trip. But, according to sources, his foot still doesn't feel quite right enough for him to play extended minutes right now. Again, he's at least progressing to putting up shots and signs are pointing towards LeVert's eventual return to the hardwood for Cleveland.

For now, LeVert is still sidelined and that in itself is disappointing. It's frustrating for fans who want to see him play and help the Cavaliers make a legitimate push towards a top seed in the playoffs. The same sentiments are likely echoed by Cleveland as well but they would also prefer to have their teammate and friend at full strength more than anything.

But, LeVert being out for an extended period also is an unfortunate glimpse into the risk the Cavaliers took when acquiring him from the Pacers. Here's a quick rundown on the injuries LeVert's feet have dealt with over the last few years:

  • Stress fracture on left foot, surgery required (2014)
  • Stress fracture on left foot, surgery required (2015)
  • Stress fracture on left foot, surgery required (2016)
  • Dislocation of right foot, missed 42 games (2018)
  • Right foot sprain, missed 9 games (2022)

Clearly, it's worrisome when it comes to LeVert and his overall availability with how oft-injured he is. But, Cleveland clearly knew that risk when trading for him. Giving up a middling first-round pick and Ricky Rubio, who is out for the season, in order to get LeVert was well worth and, according to sources, the Cavaliers don't have any buyer's remorse in acquiring LeVert.

The reason is that whenever LeVert is healthy, he gives Cleveland exactly what they need right now. LeVert provides a scoring punch off the bench as well as some secondary playmaking and defense to boot. It's the proper mix and allows Bickerstaff to be creative with his lineups and rotations. It's clear the Cavaliers need LeVert as well – going 3-5 without him on the court. Granted, some of those games were also missing Darius Garland as well. But, what LeVert brings to the table could be of service for Cleveland right now.

It remains to be seen when he'll be back out on the floor for the Cavaliers. The next time Cleveland is in action is at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. If LeVert misses that game, it'll be his tenth overall and even more concerning since he's way out of the expected recovery window. But, sources say that there's a good chance he could be a game-time decision Monday against the Clippers or Wednesday against the Philadephia 76ers at home. Those same sources say the ability to have him rehab and practice at Cleveland's facilities will only make the process easier for LeVert's eventual return to the court.

It remains to be seen if LeVert will return during that timeframe. But, again, it feels encouraging that things are heading in the right direction. Going forward, the Cavaliers will have a complete understanding of the risk associated with LeVert's availability as well. Sources say LeVert wants to sign a long-term extension with Cleveland and remain a Cavalier. But, if he's unable to stay healthy he could be more of a long-term trade asset instead.

Record check-in – Where do the Cavaliers finish in the Eastern Conference?

As mentioned at the top, going forward until the season ends we'll be checking in on Cleveland and guesstimate where they'll finish overall in the Eastern Conference standings. As of Sunday morning, they are in sixth place, narrowly avoiding the play-in tournament and a full two games behind the Boston Celtics.

Given how Cleveland's schedule looks for the remainder of the month and how they've struggled as of late, it's easy to say that they won't climb back up the conference and host a first-round playoff series. With only 15 games to go in the regular season, it also feels safe to say that Cleveland will likely go 5-10 during that stretch as well. They have tough opponents in the Bulls, the Heat, the Clippers, the Bucks and the Nets to wrap up the season. They also have to play the 76ers two more times as well.

Nothing much has changed from last week to this week. It's literally a carbon copy just with a few numbers switched up. Except, with how hot Milwaukee is right now we're going to change who Cleveland faces and give them two less wins.

Final record prediction: 43-39, plays Philadelphia in the first round.

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