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A new week, a new set of challenges for the Cleveland Cavaliers. That's been the mantra nearly every week, as the Cavaliers had one of the hardest schedules to start the season. There's also the fact that they've dealt with a litany of injuries as well as COVID-19 regulations. But, at 13-12, it's becoming increasingly clear that Cleveland has found their identity and is winning with it. That means that they're going to play big and impose their will on the interior on both ends of the floor. Sure, it's a little weird – especially with Lauri Markkanen, who is traditionally viewed as a conventional big, playing at small forward.
But, part of this week's slate of games against the Utah Jazz, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Chicago Bulls are all great tests for this up-and-coming Cavaliers squad. It also has shown them what the next steps are for Cleveland in order to accelerate their rebuild and further build around their blossoming big three of Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.
Take the Jazz, who the Cavaliers lost to 109-108 on Sunday, for example. Utah has provided a baseline template for Cleveland to follow – building around a smaller backcourt in Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell with defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert protecting the paint. Complimenting that trio, the Jazz have added in bigger wings with the ability to play defense, playmake or shoot in Joe Ingles, Royce O'Neal, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gay. Finally, Utah has a bonafide bucket-getter in Jordan Clarkson coming off the bench as well as a stable defensive reserve to Gobert in Hassan Whiteside.
That's a lot to unpack for sure but once you do, it becomes easier to draw parallels between what the Jazz have built and what the Cavaliers should be building. Cleveland has part of a smaller backcourt in Garland as well as the rim protection from Allen and Mobley. They also have a jack of all trades, master of none wings in Cedi Osman, who can shoot and move the rock reliably. The Cavaliers also have their bonafide bucket-getting sixth man in Collin Sexton, who is unfortunately sidelined this season after tearing his meniscus.
So, Cleveland has some of the proper pieces in place but it's clear that they're more than just a Collin Sexton away from being a title contender. Sure, they have a stud perimeter defender who can provide tertiary playmaking in Isaac Okoro, but, Okoro's not a legitimate threat on the perimeter in terms of shooting. The same can be said for Kevin Love and his three-point shooting and playmaking ability, but, unlike Okoro, Love is a liability defensively. Because of this, along with the lack of wing depth in general, is going to hamstring the Cavaliers more often than not as the season goes on and is something the team needs to address this upcoming offseason.
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The Chicago Bulls went all in over the summer on their existing young core and are now one of the best teams in the league. Cleveland could copy that model to support their newly-formed big three.
That's where Chicago, which Cleveland hosts on Wednesday night, becomes a factor for the Cavaliers. The Bulls are one of the league's best teams and they achieved that status thanks, in part, to a slew of moves they made in free agency. Chicago was able to add key pieces in Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso in free agency this offseason. Those three players, along with an already existing impressive collection of young star talent, have jettisoned Chicago from middling to a championship-caliber team.
Looking ahead to this upcoming offseason, things could get interesting for the Cavaliers if they want to follow the same path as the Bulls. They'll have a few roster spots open up, depending on what they end up doing with Sexton and Ricky Rubio contract extension-wise. Cleveland will also be on the final year of Love's contract, which is worth $28.9 million. With Love having a career resurgence, he could be a valuable trade chip for the Cavaliers to play around with – especially if a contending team genuinely believes Love moves the needle for them.
The same can be said for Sexton, who opposing teams might be interested in acquiring via a sign and trade agreement. According to sources, the Oklahoma City Thunder remains interested in acquiring Sexton, despite the recent knee injury. Those same sources say that the New York Knicks, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics would also be interested in acquiring Sexton but they want an idea of what he looks like once he fully recovers.
But that, of course, is further down the line and Cleveland should remain focused on what's in front of them. That's where their 112-104 loss to the Bucks on Monday night comes into play. Cleveland's tilt with Milwaukee was the first time this season the Cavaliers got a taste of their own medicine. The Bucks are a team that plays with overwhelming size – headlined by reigning Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Joining Antetokounmpo were Bobby Portis and DeMarcus Cousins, who all took turns bullying Cleveland all night long on both ends of the floor. They did so without fouling, which is something the Cavaliers should take away from this defeat. If Cleveland's stable of big men learn how to play physically, all without fouling, then they will be set up beautifully long-term.
Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff wants his team to impose their will on opponents in the paint. Copying the Bucks, along with the Jazz, would be a good place to start in order to do exactly that. Finally, if they're able to take a page Chicago's book, then Cleveland will be building a dynasty in no time at all.
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