Officially at the midway point, what’s next for the Cleveland Cavaliers?

The playoffs are on Cleveland’s radar but what will happen on their way to the Cavaliers inevitably getting there?
playoffs donovan mitchell darius garland
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – FEBRUARY 15: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on February 15, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Right now, heading into the NBA All-Star break, the Cleveland Cavaliers are one of the hottest teams in basketball. Despite their 118-112 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland has won eight of their last ten and is 15-9 overall since the start of 2023. As of today, the Cavaliers currently are locked into fourth place in the Eastern Conference and if the playoffs started right away, they’d host the Brooklyn Nets in the first round.

That’s all well and good, but once the game wrapped on Wednesday night, Cleveland entered a temporary cryogenic state. In fact, the rest of the NBA will join them once the games are completed on Thursday as the focus shifts to Salt Lake City and NBA All-Star 2023. The Cavaliers will be represented on Friday night by Evan Mobley during the annual Rising Stars competition. At the same time, Donovan Mitchell will be in the starting lineup for the main event on Sunday.For the rest of the team, meanwhile, it’s an opportunity to rest and get healthier as Cleveland turns into the final bend of the season. Next Thursday, the Cavaliers will host the Denver Nuggets and, after that, there will be only 20 games left in the year.

Again, if the playoffs started today, Cleveland would host Brooklyn as the fourth seed. But, down the stretch, the Cavaliers have the twenty-fifth easiest schedule in the NBA. The 76ers, meanwhile, have the most difficult schedule in the NBA once the All-Star break concludes. Sure, the loss on Wednesday night gives Philadelphia a bit of breathing room. But, the Cavaliers are set to play Philadelphia one more time in Cleveland this season, where the tossup between third and fourth will be decided.

That decision between both squads will be important if both finish with the same record at the end of the season. It’ll serve as a tiebreaker between the two but considering the difficulty of each respective team’s schedules, it may not matter. But, if you’re the Cavaliers, it’s always nice to have in your back pocket come playoff time.

Speaking of the postseason, it’s all but certain at this point that Cleveland will make the playoffs for the first time without LeBron James since the 1997-98 season. Considering the Cavaliers capitalized on last season by going all-in on acquiring Mitchell this summer, Cleveland’s front office deserves a pat on the back. The Cavaliers were one of three teams, including the Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves, to make franchise-altering trades this offseason. The Hawks acquired Dejounte Murray from the San Antonio Spurs and the Timberwolves landed Mitchell’s former teammate Rudy Gobert, and, like Cleveland, were hoping the moves would be a catalyst to dominate their respective conferences.

Technically speaking, Atlanta and Minnesota are in the playoff hunt as of writing this so the trades are somewhat paying off. Unfortunately, they’re more likely to end up in the play-in tournament at this point, fighting for their postseason lives. That’s why Cavaliers President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman and his staff deserve an attaboy or twelve for getting Mitchell and being the splashiest, most successful team of the bunch. Since toward the end of last season, the Cavaliers were in a similar position to what the Timberwolves and Hawks are experiencing right now.

CLEVELAND, OHIO – FEBRUARY 13: Evan Mobley #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers passes while being guarded by Malaki Branham #22 of the San Antonio Spurs during the first quarter at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on February 13, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

That ordeal made them go get Mitchell to ensure history didn’t repeat itself this year. You’re seeing the fruits of Cleveland’s labors in real time after they acquired Mitchell – they’re the best defensive team in the league and own a top-ten offense based on nearly all advanced metrics. It took a while, but, the Cavaliers are showing signs of becoming the most complete teams in the league.

Considering that, and how hot they are right now, there’s a chance they do more than leapfrog Philadelphia and Cleveland ends up battling with Boston or Milwaukee for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. But, when they do reach the postseason, what should those outside the Cavaliers organization expect from this upstart unit? Overall, this team only has 373 games of playoff experience combined, with 165 of those appearances belonging to recently-signed swingman Danny Green. The remaining majority can be chalked up to Kevin Love (63, before the contract buyout), Donovan Mitchell (39), Robin Lopez (36) and Cedi Osman (14).

With that said, Love and Lopez are out of the rotation (Love is really out of the rotation now) and Osman’s experience technically came in the last year of the second LeBron James era. So, across the board, this team is going to be very green when the playoffs roll around and considering how competitive the Eastern Conference is, could be in for a rude awakening. Since let’s be frank, the playoffs are an entirely different beast. Coaches can zero in and scheme exclusively for opponents and teams can sometimes live, or die, by the heroics of a certain player on the biggest stage.

That means the green Cavaliers will likely stumble a bit out of the gates when the postseason rolls around. The thing is, that’s totally fine! No matter what experience they can gain, it’ll only pay off long term. Sure, that’s disappointing for some to hear but it’s also the reality of the situation. This year was never about winning a championship for Cleveland. Sure, getting Mitchell will push them over the hump to reach the postseason but acquiring him was an investment in both now and the future. Again, that can be a tough pill for some to swallow but at the end of the day, the future looks incredibly bright for the Cavaliers.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean they still can’t make some noise on the way to reaching the next level. There are encouraging signs of growth already from players like Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro that are bound to make a difference in the playoffs. Ditto for Caris LeVert, who has become Cleveland’s primary offensive option off the bench. Remember when he torched the Celtics for 41 points early in the season? There could be a scenario where the Cavaliers need something similar when the playoffs roll around. Having LeVert feel comfortable in his bench role is the only way that can happen and, like with the rest of the roster, it’s showing signs of becoming a reality.

You’re also seeing it with J.B. Bickerstaff as well, especially with how he figures out his rotations. Sure, figuring out ways to defend Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo will keep Bickerstaff and his coaching staff up at night. But, having a rotation largely figured out is massive 61 games into the season. Now, Bickerstaff can fine-tune things and find unique wrinkles and rotations that can maximize their potential when the playoffs knock on Cleveland’s doorstep.

So, despite the disappointing way things ended the other night against the 76ers, the Cavaliers will be alright. They’re incredibly young but much ahead of schedule in the grand scheme of things. It’s a great place to be and should make the final stretch of games even more exhilarating. But, for now, Cleveland needs to focus on getting healthy to ensure they can get there in the first place. Again, it feels like a lock but crazier things have happened before.


Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at evan@downeuclid.com. He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.

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