Dribbles: Cavs Started Hot Last Year Too; But This Time Feels Different

Random dribbles on the Cavaliers after they topped the visiting Trail Blazers by a 107-104 count on Wednesday …Jarrett Allen

1. The Cavs started 5-4 last season. They finished 22-50. They’re 5-4 again this season. So yes, we should probably all just chill a little. Then again, I have a feeling things may be a little different this time.

2. Granted, I’ve been wrong before, so the Cavs could end up finishing poorly again. I don’t know. But there are at least two big things different about this season when compared to last.

3. Those two are center Jarrett Allen and rookie forward Evan Mobley. Neither were members of the Cavs at this time last year. This year, they’re both making a major difference in nearly all the important areas — scoring, defense, rebounding and even setting screens.

4. That is how you beat a quality team like the Blazers without two other important bigs in Lauri Markkanen (COVID protocols) and Kevin Love (ditto). Nor have the Cavs had guard/forward Isaac Okoro (hamstring).

5. All Allen did was erupt for 24 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and a blocked shot. Mobley went for 11 points and 11 boards, and swatted away a Damian Lillard layup attempt late in the game. So much for Dame Time. Mobley said to take it somewhere else.

6. Allen’s offseason work has impressed the Cavs. He’s already become an actual threat with the ball — way more than last season, when it seemed all of his baskets came off putbacks or dunks off the break. This year, he’s been making a difference in halfcourt sets.

7. Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff on Allen: “Everything he does is going at the rim. When you put that type of pressure on people, it’s hard to guard. I’m watching him and his footwork, he’s finishing with the left hand or right hand. He’s got quickness and speed that’s harder for bigger guys to guard. We know when we throw him the ball, he’s gonna get you within two feet and get a good shot.”

8. As for Mobley, all I can say is I’m old enough to remember Kevin Garnett‘s rookie and sophomore seasons, and Mobley is making a similar impact. He’s a lot quieter than the fiery Garnett, but he has a similar style. Mostly, Mobley has a style all his own and Cleveland hasn’t seen a mobile, versatile big man like this in a long, long time.

9. To me, those two and the 7-foot-0 Markkanen (when available) are the biggest differences between last season and this. And while the Cavs have an unconventional lineup, it’s creating havoc for opposing offenses.

10. Plus, all of this is allowing the Cavs to bring Love off the bench. They don’t need to rely on him nearly as much. Age and constant injuries have caught up with Love. Playing in reserve is the perfect role for him.

11. It also allows the Cavs to showcase what Love can do off the bench. If he’s going to be traded to a contender, that is the role he’ll be playing. It will be spot duty to keep a team afloat when the starters are resting.

12. As for the backcourt, Collin Sexton (21 points) and Darius Garland (19 points, 10 assists) are doing their thing, and Garland has clearly improved since last season.

13. Sexton’s scoring average is down considerably — from 24.3 points to 17.7. But that’s a good thing. As one rival scout told me, “Less of Sexton, more of everyone else. That is how that team will win. You won’t get very far if he outscores everyone only because he out-shoots them.”

14. Both young players still need to do a better job of taking care of the ball. They at least are saying they know that needs to change. Sexton is the bigger culprit. He has just 17 assists on the season — compared to 29 turnovers.

15. Bickerstaff continues to employ basically an eight-man rotation. That makes sense. The Cavs aren’t incredibly deep, aside from Love, Ricky Rubio and Okoro when he returns. Cedi Osman is what he is — an eighth or ninth man who gets hot on occasion, but is otherwise inconsistent.

16. Rubio, by the way, is another big difference when it comes to last year’s Cavs start vs. this year’s. Anyone who sees how he calmly runs the team already understands that.

17. Turnovers are still a concern. Outside shooting is still a concern. Sustainability is something to keep an eye on over the next three weeks. The schedule isn’t going to get much easier. I looked at the next 10 games. Only three are what I would consider “should- wins.”

18. Translation: The real test of this team will be when the wheels start coming off. And they will. It happens to almost everyone during an 82-game season. How is it handled? Are people pointing fingers at teammates or coaches? Is the front office capable of managing it? Those things can derail a nice start, and we have already seen it happen with this franchise.

19. But I’m going to venture to say things are a little different this time. For one, the Cavs already managed a difficult road trip like real pros. For another, the talent on this team is young, but definitely has a major upside and suddenly really believes in good things. All of it can carry you to new heights.

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