While this week is mostly all about trade rumors and players tweeting emojis until we get to Thursday night, we should also take a moment and appreciate what is currently going on in the Eastern Conference. For most of the year if you were to ask someone who the top 3 teams in the East were, you were most likely going to get a trio of BOS/MIL/PHI, and for a while, that was true.
But once we got into 2024? That is no longer the case. Well that's not totally true. The Celts are still the best team in the conference (and the NBA), but everyone else? Things certainly look a little different
Both the Knicks and Cavs have been on an absolute tear, and they're doing it in a way that feels pretty sustainable. The Knicks flipping a switch after bringing in OG Anonuby and the Cavs going on a run simply because they're starting to get their injured players back. Suddenly, the top of the East has the potential to look very different from how many envisioned at the beginning of the year. With Embiid now out at least a month and the Bucks not exactly blowing doors off teams in the Doc Rivers era, it's time to start taking teams like the Knicks and Cavs pretty seriously.
When it comes to the Cavs, this is literally the best they've ever been in a post LeBron world
The Cavs currently own the tie breaker over MIL, and frankly with every passing game and every dominant Donovan Mitchell performance, it gets more and more insane that he isn't starting the All Star game over someone like Damian Lillard. In no world has Dame had the better year, and he's currently on the worse team.
Breaking down this insane Cavs run, there's certainly a lot to like.
- #1 defense in the NBA (104.8)
- #1 net rating in the NBA at +16.5
- #4 offense in the NBA (121.3)
- #3 reb% in the NBA (53.2%)
- #3 clutch defense in the NBA (78.2)
- #4 clutch net rating in the NBA (+35.5)
Given who is returning to their lineup, it's not all that surprising that the Cavs have locked in defensively to go along with an offense that is starting to round into shape. Remember, this is a team that finished with the NBA's top defense just last season, and even with all their injuries this year, currently rank 2nd through their 48 games.
When you look at their schedule over this run, there are certainly some bad teams in there, but that's no different from anyone else. Good teams take care of business against under .500 teams while also finding a way to beat the good ones.
Shit, only 5 teams have beaten the Clippers over their last 30 games and the Cavs are one of them. They beat the Bucks with and without Giannis. Teams like ORL and SAC aren't chopped liver. They've won at home and on the road all while having the stats to back up what your eyes are seeing.
When it comes to the Cavs, I think the bigger question for them is what a lot of these rising teams have to answer.
Can they do it when it matters most?
We saw similar regular season success last season, only for the Cavs to sort of crater and cave to the pressure of the playoffs. I think there are still some questions about their shooting overall given they're just 19th in the league in terms of 3P%, but they did address that need with guys like Strus/Sam Merrill, so you could see a world in which their outside shooting doesn't completely fall apart in a playoff series. Plus, Mitchell has proven to be a playoff riser, which should always be factored in.
If you're looking for encouraging signs of improved shooting, the Cavs are 4th in the NBA in 3P% over this 14-1 stretch, shooting 39.4% making 15.7 3PM a game (2nd).
The other question is can they keep this up against good teams? On the year, the Cavs are 21-2 against under .500 teams and just 11-14 against teams .500 or better. That's the question they are going to have to answer over the second half of the season and why I could understand some reluctance to truly buy into what we're seeing, and it may not be something we truly get an answer to considering they have the 22nd toughest schedule the rest of the way. We might not know until we get to the postseason.
But for a team that has been this good for about a month now, it does feel like they're still a little bit under the radar. If you ask people who the contenders are in the East, I'm not sure the Cavs are the 2nd team people mention. You get the sense that the media and general public are putting more stock into the Knicks' current run than the Cavs, and I'm not so sure that makes sense.
What sets the Cavs apart for me is the fact that they've done all this despite huge chunks of missed time by key players. Darius Garland has only played 24 games, and Evan Mobley only 25. Mitchell has missed 9 games, Levert 10 games, etc. That would normally have a team floating around the 5-7 seed range, not overtakin the Bucks for the 2nd spot in the East. I don't care who you are, that's impressive as hell.
Given the uncertain future of Donovan Mitchell (1 more guaranteed year then a player option), I'd say the pressure is on the Cavs. If they make real waves and are able to make a ECF or something along those lines, maybe he stays in CLE. If they flame out again, does he get restless and basically force the Cavs to trade him a year early? That's sort of what's on the table right now.
But there's no denying that they've been playing the best basketball in the league since we got to 2024, and I just think it's right that they get a little more love for it. It looks sustainable to me, and that's important when it comes to talking about how the East is shaping up over the last 30+ games.