In every high school movie, there’s the nerdy character who gets bullied by the popular jock and his friends. Let’s call him Cleve. Every day, Cleve gets stuffed in a locker by the jock and his buddies. At the end of the school year, the poor guy has had enough and decided to do something about it.
Skip to a training montage where Cleve lifts weights in his garage, downs a glass full of raw eggs, goes for a morning run, and maybe gets chased by the neighborhood dog for comedic effect.
Finally before the start of the school year, Cleve isn’t so nerdy anymore. He’s bigger, buffer, and ready to show the school a new Cleve. He hypes himself up in front of the mirror before school and heads out.
He confidently walks into the school hallway and all eyes are on him. Everyone can’t believe that the guy walking down the corridor is Cleve, the nerd. Finally, the moment of truth. Cleve sees the jocks milling around his locker. He confidently approaches them, knowing that his hard work all summer will come to fruition.. He’s finally going to get the respect he deserves from them.
Only he doesn’t. The jocks aren’t fazed by Cleve’s muscles. Behind the new biceps and pecs is the same nerdy guy they bullied last year. Cleve ends up in the locker once again. Poor Cleve.
That’s the same story of the Cleveland Cavaliers this season.
Ever since LeBron James left the Cavaliers in 2018, the team has been the whipping boys in the East, failing to make the playoffs since then. They have a nice young core in place but they needed additional oomph and a new identity if they wanted to make an impact in the physical Eastern Conference.
That’s why in the summer, the team pulled the trigger and acquired Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz fire sale. Mitchell was the superstar that the team needed. He was a bonafide scorer that they could depend on not only for consistent production but to step up during the big moments as well.
Then throughout the season, the Cavaliers built the toughest defense in the league. With a frontline made of long-limbed athletes like Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, the wings could take more risks in coverage knowing the two bigs behind them would erase any mistakes that they made.
They were top 10 in opponent’s field goal percentage (7th in opponents eFG%) and top three in turnovers forced (3rd in opponents TOV%). They had the best defense in the league allowing only 110.6 points per 100 possessions, more than four points lower than the league average.
With Mitchell leading the way and their stout defense to lean on nearly every game, Cleveland finished fourth in the East. They won 51 games, their first 50-win season since the King James era. In just one offseason, they transformed from an inexperienced play-in team to seemingly a contender.
After one whole regular season of turning heads and surprising other teams, they finally saw their playoff matchup, the New York Knicks.
Unfortunately, in the first round, Jalen Brunson and his buddies ended up stuffing Donovan Mitchell and the Cavaliers into a locker.
Beyond Mitchell, the Cavaliers showed that they really didn’t have much punching power. Mitchell did his best, averaging 23.2 points on 43.3 percent shooting in the first round. But even those numbers were way off from his 28-point average in the regular season. The rest of the team couldn’t back him up. Darius Garland was inefficient, averaging five assists and 3.6 turnovers in five playoff games, compared to 7.8 dimes and 2.9 giveaways in the regular season.
The bigs were much worse. They were bullied not only by the tougher New York big men, but even by the Knick wings as well. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley combined to average only 17.4 rebounds the entire series. Josh Hart, all 6’4” of him averaged nearly eight rebounds by himself. The Knicks outrebounded the Cavaliers 227 to 186 in the series. Cleveland ranked 15th out of 16 teams in total rebounds in the playoffs.
The Knicks also turned the tables on the Cavaliers. They were the rougher team on defense, allowing only 103.4 points per 100 possessions, second out of the remaining teams in the playoffs. Cleveland was never comfortable in the series and never got in the position to make a move. They got exposed by the more experienced Knicks.
Behind the shiny new scoring weapon and underneath the advanced stats mastery, Cleveland showed that they’re still the same nerdy team that the East jocks would stuff into a locker in previous seasons.