CLEVELAND — Editor's note: Video in the player at the top of this story was originally published in a previous Locked On Cavs podcast on May 17, 2022.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were one of the surprises during the 2021-22 season. The team has been an afterthought across the NBA since LeBron James left for Los Angeles via free agency -- but that changed this year. The Cavs were one of the best stories in the NBA and seemed like a sure bet to make the playoffs until injuries torpedoed them down the stretch.
The Cavs ultimately finished in seventh in the Eastern Conference at 44-38 on the season and lost both their play-in games, becoming the first 44-win team to miss the playoffs in the Eastern Conference since the 1970-71 Boston Celtics. The Cavaliers were a team that clearly wasn’t quite ready for the big stage, but is just a few steps away from joining the ranks as a contender.
Here are three things that the Cavs need to happen in order to make the playoffs next season.
A good piece on the wing
The biggest hole on Cleveland’s roster right now is unquestionably talent on the wing. This year, the team trotted out its jumbo three-big lineup that featured Lauri Markkanen playing the small forward position despite being listed at 7-feet tall. That helped at times, but the Cavaliers didn’t have answers defensively to go to when the opponent had an All-Star caliber wing. It’s a glaring weakness for the Cavs, and taking a look around the current NBA landscape, it’s awfully difficult to win without a wing player who can defend opposing wings at a high level or a wing player who can terrorize opponents offensively. The teams that are remaining in the NBA all have both, and the Cavs currently have neither. Adding a small forward, who can develop into a starter and is capable of shooting close to 40% from beyond the arc while playing about average defense, is the biggest thing that would take this team to the next level.
Ancillary pieces in the backcourt
One of the reasons for the team’s downfall this season was the fact that the Cavs struggled to find a serviceable backup point guard. Ricky Rubio was lost for the season with a torn ACL in December and his absence was notable as the season continued on. The Cavs did trade for veteran guard Rajon Rondo after Rubio’s injury, but he was in and out of the lineup with injuries of his own and wasn’t always effective when he was playing. Maybe the Cavs will see this need disappear if Collin Sexton returns and embraces a bench role, or maybe Caris LeVert can stay healthy and help in that area, too. A combination of those two may just be good enough to do the trick. Having Darius Garland play as well as he did last season was a huge boost for the Cavs, but they struggled to look like an NBA team offensively when he wasn’t on the floor. When Garland was on the floor, the Cavaliers averaged 113.6 points per 100 possessions. When he sat, that number dropped to 103 points per 100 possessions. For reference, Oklahoma City finished with the NBA’s worst offense this year, scoring 103.8 points per 100 possessions. Finding a way to keep the offense afloat while Garland rests is a must for the Cavs.
Father time and continued player development
Last year the Cavaliers selected Evan Mobley with the third overall pick in the draft, and they were instantly made to look like geniuses even though the pick was a no-brainer. Mobley was terrific as a rookie, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting and being named unanimously to the All-Rookie team. Mobley looks like the type of player that’s going to make the Cavs a playoff team for years to come no matter what because of how good he is. That, combined with Garland’s potential ascension into an All-NBA caliber lead guard and Jarrett Allen’s continued play at an All-Star level, gives the Cavs the type of top end talent that they’ll need to be contenders.