With their loss to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night, the 2020-2021 NBA season is all but over for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers are currently 20-36 with 16 games remaining, which puts them 13th in the Eastern Conference. The league’s new play-in mini-tournament has kept the Cavs in the playoff hunt this long, as the seventh through tenth seeds will battle for the final two playoff spots. Following their loss to Chicago, the Cavaliers are now three full games back of the Toronto Raptors, who currently own the tenth seed. Three games is a lot of ground to cover over 16 tries, which makes dropping a match to the Bulls, who are also vying for a play-in spot, all the more devastating. Still, this season has been a success for Cleveland, and regardless of what happens over these final 16 games, the team’s future looks much brighter than it did a few months ago.
Through 18 games, the Cavaliers had a respectable record of 9-9. They put together several quality performances, but given the stage of the rebuild that they are still in, many fans were just waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it did. Cleveland lost 10 straight games during an absolutely brutal stretch, facing many top teams. At this point, the Cavaliers could have bottomed out, given up, and secured the top lottery odds for the 2021 NBA Draft. Instead, the team fought back, winning their next four outings. That 10-game losing streak proved to be too much to overcome, however, and now the team sits 16 games below .500. That’s not great, but the Cavaliers have gone from the second-worst team in the league in 2019-2020 to sixth-worst this season. Baby steps.
For a good portion of the first quarter of the season, Cleveland led the NBA in defensive rating, a tremendous feat considering the team ranked 29th or 30th in that department each of the past three seasons. That level of play did not last, and the Cavs fell to the middling 18th they are now, but it’s still a significant improvement, and that first part of the season gave a glimpse into what this team will be capable of moving forward. Defensive rating is not a perfect metric, but it’s a good indicator to take into account for defensive performance.