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Is the Cleveland Cavaliers playoffs hype for real after hot 2020-21 start?

LeBron James used to be the sole determinant as to whether the Cleveland Cavaliers could make the playoffs. Times appear to be changing this season.

Is the Cleveland Cavaliers playoffs hype for real after hot 2020-21 start?
Dec 23, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) reacts in the third quarter against the Charlotte Hornets at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers enter Tuesday’s game against the New York Knicks with the chance to start the 2020-21 NBA season 4-0, much to the surprise of many around the basketball world.

Does this mean the Cavs are potentially playoff-bound? It’s a notion that can’t be dismissed entirely.

Who’s to credit for Cleveland’s sudden, stunning turnaround? In recent history, Cavaliers playoffs aspirations have been completely dependent on LeBron James, who’s been gone for multiple years, which has resulted in the Cavs not even coming close to the postseason.

Let’s look closer at this current squad to see if something legitimately exciting is on the horizon in Cleveland.

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Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff is getting players to buy in

Cleveland Cavaliers playoff outlook: J.B. Bickerstaff getting players to buy in
Dec 23, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff reacts in the second quarter against the Charlotte Hornets at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Taking over for coach John Beilein last season, Bickerstaff went 5-6 down the stretch as the Cavs were well out of playoff contention. Now, his youthful team is suddenly playing at a high level even without much contribution from injured All-Star Kevin Love.

Although it’s a small sample size, Cleveland is really locking down on the defensive end. The Cavs currently rank second only to Brooklyn in defensive rating, allowing just 100.3 points per 100 possessions.

For more context, the two-time reigning regular-season East champion Milwaukee Bucks posted a 102.5 mark in that category during the 2019-20 campaign. Cleveland was dead-last in the NBA at 114.8 last season, so the massive, early improvement here is notable.

Selecting Auburn’s Isaac Okoro in the 2020 NBA Draft lottery was further proof the Cavs were committing to the defensive end of the court as an organization. Okoro was widely considered the best wing defender in the class, and as it stands, there’s enough offensive firepower in Cleveland to compete. Most outside of town just don’t know it yet.

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Cleveland Cavaliers: How high can their young backcourt ascend?

Cleveland Cavaliers playoffs outlook: Collin Sexton, Darius Garland huge sources of hope
Feb 24, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love (0) celebrates his basket with guard Darius Garland (10) and guard Collin Sexton (2) in overtime against the Miami Heat at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Much of the Cavaliers’ playoff hopes reside in how well their backcourt meshes together, and the first three games of 2020-21 bode well on that front, too. We’re talking about Collin Sexton and Darius Garland here.

Hardly household names at this point, Sexton and Garland will only turn 22 and 21 respectively this January. Considering their youth, it’s astounding how polished they appear to be already as NBA pros.

Sexton in particular is establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with. A one-and-done out of Alabama, Sexton was known to be a lockdown perimeter defender and was about the only bright spot for the Cavs on that end of the court in his first two NBA seasons. But perhaps more quietly, the youngster is proving to be a proficient scorer who has the upside to be among the best in the game.

After not missing a single game as a rookie, the strides Sexton showed in 65 games this past season were impressive, wherein he logged shooting splits of 47.2/38.0/84.6 en route to averaging 20.8 points. Through Cleveland’s first three wins of the new year, he’s put up 27 points per contest.

Garland took some lumps as a rookie in 2019-20, but is averaging 19 points and 8.3 assists to go with 1.7 steals thus far. He’s proving he can function as a distributor and a scorer, and that he and Sexton can coexist in the backcourt despite both coming from backgrounds where they were lead guards.

Cleveland Cavaliers playoffs outlook: Does size matter again?

Cleveland Cavaliers playoffs outlook: Does size matter again?
Dec 27, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Mike Scott (1) defends Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond (3) during the third quarter at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Andre Drummond arrived via trade from Detroit late last season. The Pistons were trying to build around Drummond and All-Star forward Blake Griffin, but were finding it difficult to keep up in the modern NBA’s increasingly perimeter-oriented game with that philosophy and decided to move on.

Well, Detroit’s loss was Cleveland’s gain so far. Drummond is in the midst of a contract year, and has no shortage of motivation to prove he was misused and cast off unjustifiably by the Pistons.

On offense, Drummond won’t be mistaken for Nikola Jokic any time soon, but he’s a fully capable passer who can even handle the ball in the open court. Just look at his monster line — and the company he joined — in the Cavs’ latest 114-98 triumph over the Philadelphia 76ers, per StatMuse:

The Cavs also traded for former Los Angeles Lakers center JaVale McGee this offseason. McGee made numerous starts for the reigning NBA champions, bringing an experienced veteran role player to the locker room who’s seen multiple championship squads up close.

With elite rebounders like Drummond and Love on the roster, and Larry Nance Jr. already in the frontcourt rotation, McGee still landed in Cleveland. Part of it was for depth and insurance, of course, yet it’s also a testament to what’s happened in the NBA recently.

The Lakers won the NBA title largely thanks to a deep frontcourt and size that allowed them to be versatile on defense. It seems like the Cavs are taking a page out of that playbook in collecting massive, athletic big men who can clean the glass. Nance and Love comfortably stretch out to the 3-point line as well, making the Cavs’ offensive attack even more multifaceted.

It seems counterintuitive. However, again, the presence of Sexton and Garland open up flexibility for Bickerstaff to throw all kinds of different defensive lineups at opponents.

Related: NBA playoff predictions: Projecting East and West top 8 seeds, 2020-21 postseason bracket

Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2020-21 playoffs: Not as ridiculous as it sounds

Cleveland Cavaliers playoffs outlook: A promising start at the very least
Dec 26, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond (3) and guard Darius Garland (10) yell out in celebration during the first overtime period against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

No one would’ve picked Cleveland in the playoffs prior to the season starting. Now, it’s a very real possibility.

It’s truly mind-boggling the Cavs boast an NBA-leading +13.3 point differential, which is a testament to Bickerstaff making the most of a quick turnaround from last season, the front office assembling a well-rounded roster and the backcourt really stepping up.

Sexton seems like more of a surefire star at this point than Garland, simply because he has more experience and has flashed a higher ceiling. That said, it’s ridiculous to rush to judgment on Garland considering how young he is and the fact that he’s shown this much promise to date.

The Associated Press’ Tom Withers reported Love’s nagging calf injury will keep him out of Tuesday’s contest against the Knicks. Whatever he can provide upon his eventual return will be welcomed.

Until then, the decisive win over the Sixers in their last outing — in which Love played for only nine minutes before leaving injured — proved these Cavs definitely have something good cooking. Even without Joel Embiid, Philadelphia is a legit, deep team, and Cleveland took care of business in dominant fashion.

With a shortened, 72-game season, it feels like anything can happen. As we saw last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder, who ranked seventh with a 108.1 defensive rating, exceptional effort in the regular season can lead to eclipsing expectations and securing a playoff spot.

The Thunder did it in the tougher West. Why can’t the Cavs do it in the East with seemingly more talent on the roster than OKC had?