Cavs Finding Identity Under Bickerstaff


The immediate aftermath of LeBron James‘ second departure left the Cleveland Cavaliers without any national relevance or identity. A rebuild commenced, but two years in, their same broad-view questions remained unanswered.

Enter J.B. Bickerstaff. As the Cavs head coach, his team is playing at a top-10 defensive level in his first full season. While the turnaround is not nearly complete, Bickerstaff finally gave the Cavs an achievement to cling to with pride.

GM Koby Altman decided their best chance to compete was through the other side of the ball and purposefully shaped the roster to become more defensive-oriented. Cleveland’s drafting of Isaac Okoro and the additions from the James Harden trade should allow the Cavs to remain defensively viable for the foreseeable future.

Through their first 18 games, the Cavs rank eighth in defensive rating and seventh in points allowed, a significant improvement from previous seasons. They force the most turnovers per contest and rank second in steals per game. At the center of this is Larry Nance Jr., who leads the league in steals and deflections per game.

There are still defensive areas in need of improvement, such as opponent field goal percentage where they rank 20th. The Cavs are among the worst teams at defending the three, ranking 28th in opponent three-point percentage. Cleveland ranks dead last in defensive rebounds per game even with the presence of rebound-gobbler Andre Drummond.

A sample size of 18 games is significant. The Cavs embraced their new identity wholeheartedly and bought into Bickerstaff’s vision. During halftime of their recent win over the Detroit Pistons, he challenged the team to step up defensively.

Down by two at halftime, Cleveland outscored Detroit 68-51 in the second half, cruising to a 122-107 win. The Pistons never got into a comfortable rhythm, shooting 45% from the field and committing 22 turnovers. Once the Cavs’ offense cut down on turnovers and started hitting shots, it was a quick night for the visitors.

Cleveland’s impressive defensive marks withstood their recent slate of games against contenders like the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavs bested the Nets twice in a pair of track meets, including the first game that showcased Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

The Land couldn’t handle Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker in their worst game of the season against Boston. So was old friend King James, who hung 46 points in a win over his old team. However, it took a seismic offensive detonation from James in the fourth quarter for the Lakers to fend off the scrappy Cavs. Even then, they kept the game close until the very end.

The Cavs held their own against some of the best talents the NBA has to offer. Bad games like their loss in Boston will happen with a young team from time to time. Their ability to bounce back a day later and hang around with the defending champs is a sign of tangible progress during this rebuild.

There’s still a long way to go before the Cavs get to where they want to be. Cleveland lacks consistent offense outside of Collin Sexton and the occasional Drummond barrage. The Cavs’ next step in their rebuild will be to add another reliable scorer who can create their own shot. For the time being, however, the Swords finally have an identity and a basketball talent.

Follow us on Twitter @CavsLead for the latest Cavs news and insight. 

About Avi Carr-Gloth

Avi is an Emerson College graduate with a B.S. in Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @avicarrgloth to stay up to date on the latest Cavs content.

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