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Cleveland Cavaliers 2021-22 Season Preview: Can Cleveland Level Up?

The Cavs were bad last year, full-stop. The roster was all over the place. (Remember Andre Drummond playing for the Cavs? Remember the handful of games Kevin Love played?) There were lots of losses. The end result was one of the worst records in the league and some lottery luck that allowed them to net Evan Mobley. And, sans a few tweaks, the roster is largely coming back for another round.

Roster:

Collin Sexton
Darius Garland
Isaac Okoro
Evan Mobley
Jarrett Allen
Kevin Love
Lauri Markkanen
Ricky Rubio
Dean Wade
Lamar Stevens
Cedi Osman
Dylan Windler
Brodric Thomas (two-way)
Tacko Fall (non-guaranteed)
Mfiondu Kaganbele (non-guaranteed)
Kevin Pangos
Denzel Valentine

Projected Vegas Win Total: 28.5

Biggest Additions: Evan Mobley, Lauri Markkanen

Cleveland’s biggest offseason moves came in the frontcourt, the same position group where they signed Jarrett Allen to a five-year, $100 million extension. That’s not conventional roster building in the current NBA.

Having said that, both moves should help. Mobley, the team’s top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, has the potential to be the best player on the team in a few years and be the franchise-level talent the team has been missing. It’s just going to take time, however, and how Cleveland develops him is worth monitoring. As for Markkanen, he should offer three-point shooting and spacing that the team hasn’t been able to get from Kevin Love since Love signed his gigantic extension back in 2018.

Biggest Loss: Larry Nance Jr.

Markkanen is a better shooter than Nance, but Nance does everything else better. He’s a versatile defender, offers some solid secondary creation, and has more use as a roll threat/option at the rim.

J.B. Bickerstaff has some choices to make in regards to replacing Nance. Maybe he tries to use Mobley to cover some of the defensive responsibility, but that’s a lot to ask of a rookie from day one. It’ll also fall on Mobley (and perhaps Allen, who the team wants to add some passing and dribble hand-off responsibility to) to soak up some playmaking duty. Ricky Rubio should help, too. But it’s going to be an adjustment.

Biggest Question: How much of a step forward can this team take?

The Cavs are in a very tricky spot. Collin Sexton is about to head into restricted free agency. Darius Garland is extension eligible after this year. Allen and Markkanen just signed big deals and Love is still due more than $60 million for two more years. In short: There’s very little flexibility for the team to work with going forward if it commits to the players currently on the roster.

That likely means Cleveland has to improve and start winning games with the players currently on the roster and via internal improvement. It’s not all going to happen this year, but some kind of step forward needs to happen if the team is going to feel at all comfortable with the pieces in place.

What Makes This Season A Success: Competing for the play-in tournament

Cleveland disappointed last year. The Eastern Conference loaded up above them in a way the Cavs could not because they had no money to spend this offseason, so making the play-in tournament and getting a shot at the playoffs doesn’t feel too likely. But if Cleveland can get close to the 10th seed and be closer to that group of teams than in the bottom tier, that would be progress.

What Makes This Season A Failure: Another directionless year

The worst outcome for Cleveland this year is not learning anything about the players they have and again being one of the worst teams in the league. If that happens due to injury or due to youth – which seems possible considering most of the key pieces are 24 or younger — and they have another high lottery pick next year, it’s hard to know where the Cavs go from here. This is a franchise begging to get on a road to somewhere.

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