How the Cleveland Cavaliers are similar to last season’s New York Knicks

Robbie Stratakos

The Cleveland Cavaliers are the surprise team of the young 2021-22 NBA season. Currently 19-12, they own the third seed in the Eastern Conference. This is an amazing development.

A franchise that was previously entrenched in a three-year rebuild has gone from the NBA’s cellar to having home-court advantage in a first-round playoff series — if the regular season ended today. Cleveland’s current campaign is similar to last season’s New York Knicks.

Here’s how the Cavs compare to the 2020-21 Knicks.

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Cleveland Cavaliers’ young nucleus is breaking through

cleveland cavaliers as surprise team
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For years, the Knicks had a handful of talented young players, some of which were lottery selections, but the team never made progress in the standings. Then last season happened.

Under the direction of new head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks saw the likes of R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and rookie Immanuel Quickley make strides and become reliable rotation players. It was a major catalyst in the team claiming the fourth seed in the East. Cleveland is in a similar situation.

Even without Collin Sexton, who has been the team’s most productive player in recent memory, Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is getting superb play from his youngsters. Third-year guard Darius Garland has been smooth in the halfcourt, serving as the team’s leading scorer, shooting efficiently and facilitating for his teammates.

  • Darius Garland stats (2021-22): 19.1 points, 7.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 47.6/39.2/89.9

Rookie Evan Mobley has shown promise. The big man is scoring inside and outside while playing plausible defense and occasionally stretching the floor. Fellow big man Jarrett Allen has become a walking double-double, finishing in the paint, hitting the boards and denying shots with ease. Second-year wing Isaac Okoro is a sturdy defender. Cedi Osman is a gritty scorer.

This group is finally playing up to its draft/contractual billing and creating an auspicious outlook for the organization.

Related: Evan Mobley and other top NBA Rookie of the Year candidates

Cleveland Cavaliers are getting surprise veteran production

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Milwaukee Bucks
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New York’s ambush season had two primary ingredients, one being its youth and the other being established players performing at a high level.

Julius Randle had the best season of his career, serving as the team’s leading scorer, rebounder and facilitator en route to earning a roster spot in the NBA All-Star Game. Earlier in the season, Elfrid Payton was producing at a considerable clip. Midway through the season, the Knicks acquired Derrick Rose, who became a integral source of offense. Nerlens Noel was a defensive anchor down the stretch.

The Cavaliers aren’t necessarily relying on a tenured player to lead the scoring charge, but they have a bevy of veterans holding down key rotation roles. Remember when the Minnesota Timberwolves trading Ricky Rubio to Cleveland was a random, throwaway transaction? Well, Rubio has been one of the best reserves in the league, performing to the tune of a starting-caliber floor general off the bench.

  • Ricky Rubio stats (2021-22): 12.7 points, 6.6 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 36.3/34.0/84.9

A contract the front office has continually tried to rid themselves of, Kevin Love has been an impact player off the Cavs’ bench this season, efficiently playing to his strengths, that being stretching the floor and hitting the boards. Offseason pickup Lauri Markkanen has been a stealthy scoring option, forming the tallest starting frontcourt in the NBA with Allen and Mobley.

Cleveland has a budding young core accompanied by highly productive veterans. This is an optimum balance of youth and veterans.

Cleveland Cavaliers are a defensive-minded team

NBA: Houston Rockets at Cleveland Cavaliers
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The Knicks had a holiday list of problems on the floor before Thibodeau’s arrival. Once the head coach took over, though, they became an elite defensive team. They finished the 2020-21 NBA regular season first in the NBA in opponent points per game (104.7), opponent field goal percentage (44.0 percent) and opponent three-point shooting percentage (33.7 percent).

Defense was the Knicks’ identity. The offense fed off defensive success in that they got teams playing at their pace in the halfcourt. The Cavs are doing precisely as such this season.

Cleveland is one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, which comes after years of being one of the sport’s worst units on that end of the floor. They’re defending the perimeter well, a hassle in the paint and are slowing the game down for their offense to find success in the halfcourt, as their outlier frontcourt is best suited in halfcourt sets.

  • Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2021-22 defensive stats: second in the NBA in opponent points per game (101.1) and opponent three-point shooting percentage (32.5 percent) and fourth in opponent field goal percentage (44.0 percent)

Being a defensive team with young players is a prosperous path. Cleveland having such an asset is a testament to Bickerstaff and his coaching staff, as well as a commitment from the team’s youth. Meanwhile, individuals like Garland and Mobley have the upside to become more productive and dominant scorers given them being in the raw stages of their respective NBA careers.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are doing what the New York Knicks did last season in being a rebuilding team that’s catapulting up the conference. Even if they make it to the playoffs and are bounced out in the first round, the Cavs finally have tangible examples of progress. This team has come a long way.

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