For the better part of this century, the Cleveland Cavaliers' fortunes have been tied directly to LeBron James.
Between 2003 and 2020, the Cavaliers have had a winning record of 560-342 (.621) with James on the roster compared to 135-324 (.294) without him. It's still early, but about a quarter of the way through the 2020-21 season, the Cavaliers are positioning themselves to have their best season without James since he entered the league.
The Cavaliers are coming off of a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, but they're hovering around .500 on the season with a 9-11 record. That's good enough for seventh in the Eastern Conference ahead of teams like the Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat.
So … what has been the secret to Cleveland's early-season success?
Establishing a defensive identity
In five of the six seasons, the Cavaliers have been without James since 2003, they've ranked in the bottom five in the league in defensive rating. The one time they didn't (2015-16), they ranked 20th.
Through 20 games of the 2020-21 season, the Cavaliers rank in the top 10 in defensive rating.
Despite ranking in the bottom third of the league in rebounding, the Cavaliers are among the best teams in the league at limiting their opponents in the paint, as well as their second-chance opportunities. Andre Drummond, whose rebounding average tops the league, has been a huge presence for them in that regard.
Additionally, the Cavaliers slot-in among the league leaders in steals per game, spearheaded by Larry Nance Jr., who is averaging a league-leading 2.1 steals per game. It's helped the Cavaliers force 17.2 turnovers per game, the most in the league.
These numbers say plenty about the team's effort, character and attitude. Yes, it's still early, but a quarter of a season is a decent sample size.
Plus, it's been a long time since a non-LeBron Cavaliers team was this competent defensively.
Young backcourt taking strides
While the Cavaliers haven't had as much success on the other end of the court, they're heading in the right direction, led by their two guards.
Both Collin Sexton, who was selected with the No. 8 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and Darius Garland, who was selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, are averaging career-highs across the board with jumps in major stat categories without a huge uptick in the minutes
The 22-year-old Sexton ranks in the top 20 in the league in scoring and is doing so with .504/.431/.813 shooting splits. He's had a number of stellar performances already, some of which have caught the eye of retired NBA legend Dwyane Wade, including a 42-point explosion in a double-overtime game against the new-look Brooklyn Nets.
With the way Sexton is playing, he's putting himself in the mix to be an All-Star this season.
Collin Sexton has figured it out! I love watching guys come into their own. Keep an eye on him everyone!- DWade (@DwyaneWade) January 3, 2021
Now in his second year, Sexton's backcourt mate Garland is averaging career-highs of 15.3 points and 5.1 assists while shooting 43.8% from the field, 43.4% from 3-point land and 90.5% from the free-throw line through 12 games. As a rookie, Garland scored 20 or more six times. This season, he already has four 20-point games.
DG the PG.- Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) January 30, 2021
Last night, @dariusgarland22 notched a career-high 24 points 📈 pic.twitter.com/H1bKx0BcCL
Instead of competing for shots, the duo seems to have built legitimate chemistry this season, which is driving this team on both ends of the court. With both of them being under the age of 23, their bond should only get stronger in the years to come, giving the Cavaliers a strong foundation to build on.
The front office has already surrounded Sexton and Garland with some interesting young players, acquiring Jarrett Allen from the Nets and selecting Isaac Okoro with the No. 5 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Even without knowing what the rest of the roster will look like, that core has the potential to make some noise in the years to come.
On the right path
"I always pay close attention to what's going on," James said when asked about his interest level in the Cavaliers after facing them for the first time this season. "I think (head coach) J.B. (Bickerstaff) has done a hell of a job and they've been drafting well and made a couple trades. You can tell that team is improving."
For a team that was defined by James for so long, the clash between the Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 25 was the first time since 2003 that Cleveland was .500 or better while competing against its hometown superstar. The defending champs needed a virtuoso performance from James, where he outscored the Cavaliers by himself in the fourth quarter to put them away.
That's progress, and James seems to have recognized that.
"They got some young guards that are very dynamic in Collin (Sexton) and Darius and the rest of them they can build around. They got some young pieces they can put their futures behind. We'll see what happens."
Again, it's early, but it's remarkable that this franchise is 9-11 through 20 games. It's even more impressive considering they've lost multiple players in their rotation to multiple games with injury this season - Kevin Love (16), Garland (8), Sexton (5), Okoro (5) and Nance Jr. (2).
Something's definitely brewing in Cleveland, and for the first time in over two decades, it's happening without LeBron James.
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