The Cleveland Cavaliers entered the 2021-22 season with modest expectations. While Cleveland was not generally placed alongside teams like Orlando, Oklahoma City, and Houston in preseason projections toward the bottom of the NBA, the Cavaliers were not widely projected as even a contender to reach the play-in, leaning on a young roster with seemingly mismatched pieces. The start of the campaign has been friendly to the Cavs, however, and the results are intriguing.
Cleveland is on an active four-game winning streak with a 7-4 record through 11 games, even with only three of those games taking place at home. The Cavaliers own a +1.8 net rating with above-average marks on both offense and defense, and Cleveland has received positive contributions up and down the roster. Furthermore, the Cavs have done their damage against some solid opponents, knocking off the Hawks and Blazers at home with road wins over the Knicks, Raptors, Hornets, Clippers and Nuggets.
Unfortunately, some of Cleveland’s early shine has been removed by Collin Sexton’s meniscus injury, with the team’s leading scorer from last season on the shelf without a firm timetable to return. With that said, the Cavs have actually navigated this early stretch with Sexton struggling, at least relatively, and the frontcourt is leading the way. $100 million man Jarrett Allen is averaging 14.9 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, providing strong rim protection and making 68.7 percent of his shots. Next to Allen, rookie standout Evan Mobley is already making a substantial impression.
Mobley is a potential frontrunner for Rookie of the Year honors at this (very) early juncture, averaging 14.9 points and 8.0 rebounds per game with high-end defense. He exploded for 26 points, nine rebounds and five assists in a win over the Knicks on Sunday and, in addition to Mobley’s early brilliance, veteran backup Ricky Rubio set a career-high with 37 points and eight three-pointers in the same victory. Darius Garland is also continuing a breakout from last season, averaging 18 points and seven assists per game during the four-game winning streak, and Cleveland’s offense has been helped by an elite offensive rebound rate of 29.8 percent.
Defense has been a significant question in recent years for Cleveland and, with Garland and Sexton at the point of attack, it may always be. However, Cleveland’s ability to prevent free throw attempts and contest shots at the rim is helpful, and the Cavs have overcome shaky defensive rebounding to this point. Allen and Mobley do not form an elite rebounding duo, but the Cavs have put together a start that they can be encouraged by, and Mobley is a potential defensive difference-maker.
All told, the Cavs have not transformed the franchise with 11 games, but the start has been as good as anyone could have possibly envisioned. Where does that leave Cleveland in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s find out.
1. Golden State Warriors (9-1, Last week — 4th)
If you remove priors, it isn’t a close race for No. 1. The Warriors have a 1.5-game lead on the field and the best net rating (+13.2) in the NBA by nearly four full points. Steph Curry’s 50-point eruption in a blowout win over Atlanta is the latest example of how well he’s playing, and the Warriors are absolutely locked in right now.
2. Utah Jazz (7-3, Last week — 3rd)
It seems odd that Utah would rise in the rankings after two straight losses. Part of that is attrition elsewhere, but part of it is that the Jazz just ended a whirlwind road trip and were gassed. Utah is No. 2 in net rating and, within the the last week, the Jazz throttled the Hawks on the road without Donovan Mitchell.
3. Phoenix Suns (6-3, Last week — 13rd)
Phoenix is on a five-game winning streak, erasing the sour taste of a rough start. It’s fair to note that the Suns defeated four shaky teams (plus a struggling Hawks squad) in that run, but Phoenix is also improving metrically. The Suns should command some level of respect after an NBA Finals run, and wins are wins.
4. Miami Heat (7-3, Last week — 1st)
Monday’s Heat-Nuggets game was marred by the incident between Nikola Jokic and Markieff Morris. With that said, the Heat lost by 17 points, and that was the second 17-point loss in three games for Miami. There’s nothing to worry about just yet, but the early-season dominance waned a bit this week.
5. Philadelphia 76ers (8-3, Last week — 5th)
The Sixers are wildly short-handed right now, with myriad players in the health and safety protocols. That group is headlined by Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris but, provided they are healthy in the near future, Philly is playing great, even without Ben Simmons.
6. Chicago Bulls (7-3, Last week — 2nd)
Chicago is top-five in net rating, even after two losses this week. Both of those defeats came at the hands of a quality opponent (Philadelphia), and the Bulls just beat the Nets in sound fashion on Monday. Of note, the Bulls have one more home game before heading out on a very difficult trip through the West beginning on Friday.
7. Brooklyn Nets (7-4, Last week — 7th)
Brooklyn’s five-game winning streak ended on Monday with a lopsided road loss in Chicago. It was the second night of a back-to-back and, in short, I’m not worried about that loss for the Nets. The Bulls get the head-to-head nod, though, and that’s okay.
8. Dallas Mavericks (7-3, Last week — 15th)
The lows have been low for Dallas, with all three losses coming in lopsided fashion. The Mavericks have also won three in a row, however, and Luka Doncic called game in memorable fashion earlier this week.
9. Cleveland Cavaliers (7-4, Last week — 19th)
As noted above, Cleveland’s start has been a lot of fun. It also may get even better, with the Cavs facing a stretch of eight home games in the next nine contests.
10. Washington Wizards (7-3, Last week — 14th)
Through 10 games, the Wizards rank in the top five of the NBA in defensive rating. Is that sustainable? Probably not. Have they played against great offenses? Not particularly. Washington still deserves credit for the way they’ve guarded and the way they’ve performed in the aggregate, as a revamped roster and new head coach have brought some life to the nation’s capital.
11. L.A. Clippers (5-4, Last week — 17th)
The Clippers are a giant shrug emoji for me. L.A. was awful in the early going. They also just won four games in a row, but the four victories came against unimpressive competition. I’m punting and placing them here.
12. Denver Nuggets (6-4, Last week — 12th)
Denver has a trio of two-game winning streaks and a duo of two-game losing streaks this season. That’s just one of those weird, early-season things. The jury is out on how long Nikola Jokic may be suspended, but the Nuggets are playing at home in five of the next six games and can potentially build on early-season success. On the negative side, Michael Porter Jr.’s back has him sidelined, and the Nuggets can’t approach their ceiling without him.
13. New York Knicks (7-4, Last week — 9th)
New York did take care of business against a short-handed Philly team on Monday. If you zoom out, though, the Knicks haven’t played exceptionally well since a flashy start, losing three of the last five.
14. Los Angeles Lakers (6-5, Last week — 10th)
Without LeBron James, the Lakers are very ordinary. That may not be surprising, but it has to be noted. Los Angeles did secure a nice win over Charlotte on Monday, but the two previous results were not particularly positive.
15. Memphis Grizzlies (6-4, Last week — 16th)
Memphis is 25th in the NBA in point differential so far despite a winning record. It’s so early that may not be revealing, but when they lose, they lose badly. Ja Morant has been exceptional, but there is a lot left to learn about the Grizz.
16. Milwaukee Bucks (4-6, Last week — 6th)
It’s impossible to rank the Bucks. No one thinks they’re bad when they are healthy. They also haven’t been healthy at all and the results are shaky. Things don’t get easier for the Bucks either, with four straight road games against talented opponents this week.
17. Portland Trail Blazers (5-5, Last week — 20th)
Provided Damian Lillard isn’t actually going to struggle like he has to this point, the Blazers can be optimistic. Portland has an above-average defensive rating, which is wildly encouraging, and the Blazers have managed to deploy a solid offense even with Lillard scuffling. They’re still 5-5, but you can view it in a brighter light if that is the choice you make.
18. Toronto Raptors (6-5, Last week — 8th)
The Raptors are 4-0 on the road with a top-10 defense and a very solid offense so far. On the whole, it’s been a good start and that needs to be noted. I will also say that it remains baffling that Toronto lost to Cleveland on Friday night in a game in which they led for all but about five seconds in the game.
19. Boston Celtics (4-6, Last week — 25th)
Unfortunately, the biggest story for Boston this week is the injury to Jaylen Brown. On the floor, they were 2-1 this week, and the one loss came at the hands of a Luka Doncic buzzer-beater. It wasn’t a disaster, but how building on a brief upswing without Brown will be a difficult task.
20. Indiana Pacers (4-7, Last week — 23rd)
The Pacers should probably be on a four-game winning streak right now. Indiana missed a layup in the final minute of the only loss they suffered this week and, in general, it was a positive slate of results. They do have five road games in the next six contests, which may reveal more information about the team’s overall quality.
21. Sacramento Kings (5-6, Last week — 22nd)
This might be too low for the Kings, with Sacramento boasting a positive net rating and a top-eight offense. They will need to keep it up, but the signs are positive, and they’d be higher if not for back-to-back losses to end the week.
22. Atlanta Hawks (4-7, Last week — 11th)
It was a brutal week for the Hawks. Atlanta has lost four in a row, in addition to six losses in seven games, and the Hawks allowed nearly 119 points per 100 possessions in those four defeats. The competition level has been very high in the early going, but the honeymoon is over for Atlanta after the run to the Conference Finals.
23. Charlotte Hornets (5-7, Last week — 18th)
Charlotte is really fun to watch. Charlotte is really bad on defense. The Hornets are currently the worst defensive team in the NBA by the numbers, allowing 120 points or more in three straight games. An active five-game losing streak doesn’t do them any favors, and Charlotte was housed by Sacramento in a game in which they allowed 140 (!) in regulation.
24. San Antonio Spurs (3-7, Last week — 24th)
San Antonio’s preseason expectations were modest, and they’ve fulfilled them so far. With that said, the Spurs have five losses by six points or fewer and, even with a 3-7 record, San Antonio has outscored its opponents. They might be legitimately good on defense, but we don’t know that just yet.
25. Minnesota Timberwolves (3-6, Last week — 21st)
It wasn’t that long ago that the Wolves were one of the best stories of the first week of the season. Now, Minnesota has lost five in a row, and Monday’s loss to Memphis was brutal. The Wolves collapsed in the fourth quarter and, even after heroics from Karl-Anthony Towns to force overtime, they couldn’t close it out. The Wolves are 24th in net rating and the statistical profile isn’t too favorable.
26. Orlando Magic (3-8, Last week — 26th)
Pessimistically, the Magic are below-average on both ends and a bottom-five team in net rating. Optimistically, Cole Anthony is exceeding any rational expectation and Orlando has seen flashes from players like Mo Bamba and Franz Wagner. It feels like the Magic are a half-step above the bottom four, which is encouraging.
27. Oklahoma City Thunder (3-6, Last week — 30th)
Just as some began to speculate that the Thunder could challenge the NBA’s all-time futility records, OKC has won two games in a row. Two of OKC’s three wins have come over the Lakers, and this week’s triumph included a 19-point comeback in the second half. It’s already weird with the Thunder.
28. Houston Rockets (1-9, Last week — 28th)
The Rockets have the longest losing streak in the NBA. That wasn’t enough to drop them into the bottom two, though, because every game of Houston’s extended skid has come against a playoff-quality opponent. Context matters, at least a little bit.
29. New Orleans Pelicans (1-10, Last week — 27th)
New Orleans probably deserves the basement slot this week. The Pelicans have lost seven in a row, including the last four games in lopsided fashion, and the available roster is dire due to injury. New Orleans at least has the excuse of high-profile injury absences, but that probably isn’t making anyone feel better.
30. Detroit Pistons (1-8, Last week — 29th)
If you want to be positive, Cade Cunningham being on the floor gives observers a reason to watch Detroit. If you remove that, the Pistons are dead-last in both offensive rating and net rating, with the team’s only win coming at home over Orlando. It’s ugly.