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Cavaliers' win streak might be a mirage but Cleveland remains Eastern Conference threat

The Cavs might not be considered contenders but they should be getting more attention.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Orlando Magic
Donovan Mitchell of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts after missing a shot at the end of the first quarter against the Orlando Magic at Kia Center on January 22, 2024 in Orlando, Florida.
Photo by Rich Storry/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers might be the most under-the-radar team in the NBA despite winning their last eight games, largely because of their opponents during that streak. During this run, the Cavaliers have taken out the Wizards twice, Spurs, Nets, Bulls, a Bucks team without Giannis Antetokounmpo, Hawks and Magic. Only one of those teams is in a playoff spot at the moment, while three others are in the play-in picture.

You can only beat the teams in front of you, and that’s exactly what the Cavaliers have done to maintain their place in the Eastern Conference standings. They are 2.5 games behind the 76ers in the No. 3 spot and three games ahead of the Heat who sit in the sixth and final automatic playoff spot. Despite losing Darius Garland and Evan Mobley for the last month, Cleveland hasn’t fallen off as expected.

Most of that is due to the play of Donovan Mitchell, who was in trade rumors amid reports he and the team hadn’t made much progress on an extension. Mitchell is averaging 27.8 points, 6.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game as he tries to keep the Cavaliers afloat until the young starters return. Jarrett Allen, another player whose long-term viability in Cleveland is in question, has also stepped up. He’s averaging 17.8 points and 12.9 rebounds per game since Garland and Mobley were sidelined.

The Mitchell-Garland-Mobley-Allen four-man lineup is +13 in 156 minutes together this season, which shows that core still has significant value. That’s down on a per-minute basis from the +167 that group was in 871 minutes played last season, but it’s still solid. When those four were paired with Caris LeVert in five-man lineups last season, the result was +82 in 231 minutes. When LeVert was swapped with Isaac Okoro, that number went down but was still solid at +48 in 398 minutes.

Those advantages withered away in the playoffs in stunning fashion, which was part of why the Cavaliers added more perimeter shooting with Max Strus and Georges Niang this summer. Strus has played 145 minutes in a five-man lineup with the core, and that’s been +14 for Cleveland. However, LeVert has not played a single minute in a five-man lineup with Mitchell, Garland, Mobley and Allen. That’s a huge chunk of positive playing time that hasn’t been factored in for the Cavaliers yet.

Strus hasn’t been as good as expected and Niang is barely passing the viability test with his percentages, but the Cavaliers have gotten pleasantly unexpected contributions from Sam Merrill and Dean Wade on the perimeter. Merrill is shooting 43.1% on 5.9 attempts per game from deep as of this writing, while Wade is at 40% on 3.8 attempts per game. Those percentages, combined with the occasional outbursts from Niang and Strus, do enough to make Cleveland competent offensively. The Cavaliers are about the same in offensive rating this season compared to last season despite the absences.

That isn’t to say there aren’t concerns going forward. The Garland-Mobley-Allen three-man lineup is a -1 in 237 minutes, which means Mitchell is the difference maker. Extending him becomes a priority, especially since he holds a player option after next season. After finishing runner-up to Scottie Barnes as the Rookie of the Year in 2021, Mobley has plateaued. Part of that is a lack of an expanded role with Allen in the fold, but trading either big man should be off the table right now. Garland is already locked in on a long-term deal and fits well with Mitchell, although his three-point percentage has slipped this season. If that can come back, the Cavaliers should see the results.

The uncertainty surrounding Mitchell makes this trade deadline crucial for Cleveland. The Cavaliers don’t have a ton of assets to package, but they can definitely explore an upgrade. Pistons forward Bojan Bogdanovic seems like the clear target as a versatile veteran. He’s shooting 41.1% from deep and has familiarity with Mitchell from their time in Utah. Trail Blazers guard Malcolm Brogdon offers more backcourt flexibility and is shooting 42% from deep. Nets forward Dorian Finney-Smith could be in play too as a 3-and-D option. He’s connecting on 38.6% of his triples this season.

We’ll find out a bit more about the Cavaliers in this next three-game stretch, with back-to-back road contests against the Bucks followed by a date with the Clippers at home. The good news for Cleveland is that there’s no truly tough stretch of games remaining. That’s the benefit of playing in the Eastern Conference, as there always seems to be a break in the schedule when it comes to the opponent.

In the latest championship index, the Cavaliers came in at 17th despite having better title odds on DraftKings Sportsbook (+6000) than a few teams ahead of them. Part of that is needing to see a successful re-integration of Garland and Mobley into the lineup while getting the core group minutes with LeVert is also important. The second component is making another move at the deadline to add a competent rotation piece for the postseason. Last season’s playoff implosion might still be lingering in fans’ minds, but these Cavaliers are still a real threat in the East as long as Mitchell stays healthy and engaged.