Thanks in no small part to a brilliant rookie campaign from defensive pterodactyl Evan Mobley, the Cleveland Cavaliers were among the NBA’s most pleasant surprises during the 2021-2022 season, far exceeding their projected win total (26.5, according to Basketball Reference) and finishing eighth in a loaded Eastern Conference with a 44-38 record.
So bullish on the team’s prospects was the Cavs’ front office that Cleveland sent incumbent starters Collin Sexton and Lauri Markkanen and three first-round draft picks to Utah this offseason in exchange for one of the league’s best scorers in combo guard Donovan Mitchell. The Cavs’ odds to win the 2022-2023 NBA title quickly went from 80/1 to 30/1 (where they remain) at PointsBet on news of the trade, which put them firmly in the Eastern Conference’s upper middle class, but not quite on par with the likes of Boston or Milwaukee.
But the Mitchell transaction wasn’t so much about what Cleveland is capable of doing this year as it was about the team’s prospects two or three years down the road.
“The biggest thing about the Mitchell trade is what it says about Mobley,” PointsBet trader Sam Garriock told OH Bets. “It clearly says the Cavs think he can be an absolute superstar. If he’s the second coming of Kevin Garnett, they certainly have the upside to win a title. When we come out with all-star numbers, we’re gonna try not to take any action on Mobley to make the All-Star Game. We offer yes/no, and we’ll be pricing the no at a very attractive number.”
Garriock’s counterpart at DraftKings, Julian Edlow, offered a similar assessment, saying the Cavs, who open preseason play against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, can contend for a title “within the next few years.”
“You saw what they did last year and you see what a team like Memphis does, taking a huge step as a young team,” he added. “That’s probably the next goal for Cleveland is to have a really good regular season and learn how to win.”
Compensating for an undersized backcourt
Before untimely injuries threw a wrench into Mobley’s 2021-2022 campaign (he’s currently hoping to recover from an ankle injury in time for the regular season), Edlow said he viewed the former USC standout as “a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate as a rookie.”
DraftKings currently has Mobley priced at 17/1 to win that award this year, with teammate Jarrett Allen at 30/1. The two rank among the best interior tandems in the game, and while each player’s respective prowess might hurt the other’s chances of winning DPOY, it’s critical to a Cleveland defensive scheme that must compensate for a pair of undersized (both 6’1”) guards in Mitchell and Darius Garland.
“I think they are both a little small, particularly Garland,” said Edlow. “Mitchell’s big enough to match up, but he’s going to be playing two-guard. I don’t think either of them are gonna finish on any all-defensive teams, but if Allen and Mobley are healthy, I think the idea is to have those two anchor the defense.”
DraftKings has Allen at 20/1 to win the league rebounding title, while PointsBet gives Garland the same odds to lead the NBA in assists per game. Mitchell, meanwhile, is priced at 50/1 (at PointsBet) to win his first scoring title.
“He had every opportunity to lead the league in scoring in Utah and wasn’t able to do it,” explained Garriock.
Deep bench and uncertainty at the three
A key factor in Cleveland’s success last season was the resurgent campaign enjoyed by former all-star Kevin Love. Finally embracing the role of sixth man, Love (25/1 to win Sixth Man of the Year at PointsBet) has plenty of capable veteran company on the Cavs’ bench alongside Ricky Rubio (50/1) and Caris LeVert (33/1) — provided the latter doesn’t fill the void in the starting lineup created by Markkanen’s departure.
“We think [the fifth starter is] probably going to be [Isaac] Okoro,” said Garriock. “That being said, they just extended Dean Wade, who’s a poor man’s Lauri Markkanen. If I could bet on him starting the most games at the three at 25/1, I wouldn’t hate on that. The Wade extension cuts into their cap space for next year. That means they’re much more likely to retain Caris LeVert and Kevin Love after this year. We think they really value LeVert, which increases his chance of starting at the three. I still think it’s Okoro, but he’s a flip with Wade and LeVert.”
Most mobile sportsbooks pick Cleveland to finish second in the Central Division behind Milwaukee, with PointsBet giving them +325 odds to bypass the Bucks. The Cavs’ season win total is a consensus 47.5 and they’re favored to make the playoffs, with DraftKings setting their yes/no odds at -350/+265 and assigning them the sixth shortest price (15/1) to win the Eastern Conference.
Photo: Ken Blaze/USA TODAY