How Cavaliers became NBA’s hottest team: Donovan Mitchell levels up, Jarrett Allen’s All-Star play and more

On Jan. 1, the Cavaliers were an 18-15 team who found themselves in seventh place in the East. They were missing both Darius Garland and Evan Mobley for an extended period due to injuries, and it seemed like it may have been a lost season for them.

Instead, the Cavs have become the biggest under-the-radar surprise in the league, winning 17 of their last 19 games. They are now comfortably in second place in the East and fighting for the second-best record in the league behind the Celtics.

How did Cleveland turn its season around, and is it a dark horse contender at this point?

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How the Cavaliers became the hottest team in the NBA

Donovan Mitchell has continued to improve

Mitchell had an outstanding season last year, making Second Team All-NBA. He’s gotten even better this year, taking over more playmaking responsibilities with Garland out for so long.

In the 19 games Garland missed with injury, Mitchell averaged 28.0 points, 7.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game, helping him earn Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for January.

Mitchell has also continued to get better defensively, improving significantly from his traffic cone days in Utah. He’s better at getting over screens, more engaged both on and off the ball, and has gotten much better at picking off passes.

Mitchell was very deservedly named to his fifth consecutive All-Star Game. At age 27, he’s just now hitting his peak. 

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Jarrett Allen is playing like an All-Star

The biggest factor in the Cavs’ mid-season leap has been the incredible play of Allen.

Since Jan. 1, Allen has been averaging All-Star numbers — 17.4 points, 12.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.5 blocks on 60.4 percent shooting from the field. 

The Cavs’ spacing has always been iffy with Allen and Mobley playing together. Much of the team’s success has coincided with Mobley being out of the lineup, easing some of those spacing concerns. Allen has been more willing to shoot free-throw area jumpers as well, forcing defenses to stay honest. 

Allen’s bread-and-butter is always going to be as a play finisher. He’s been an excellent cutter and lob target — his 95 dunks rank in the top 10 this year and he’s top-five in offensive rebounds, leading to a ton of putbacks. 

Allen’s biggest contributions have come on the defense end. He’s helped lead the Cavs to the No. 2 defense in the league behind his elite rim protection. His 7-5 wingspan has always made him a high-impact player, and he has a great feel on that end of the floor. His ability to play up high or in a deep drop makes him a great pick-and-roll defender.

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The Cavs are bombing 3s

At the start of the year, the Cavs were way too dependent on Mitchell and Garland to create all of their offense. They ranked 20th in offense before Jan. 1. 

Something clicked for them after that date. They started playing with better movement and passing, shooting more 3s and getting much better production from their bench. Since then, they’ve been the No. 2 offense in the league

It cannot be stated enough how much better the team’s bench has gotten. Much of that has been driven by roster turnover. Minutes given to Cedi Osman, Lamar Stevens, Danny Green and Raul Neto last year have been replaced by Sam Merrill, Max Strus and Georges Niang.

Merrill has been one of the great unsung players of this season, shooting an electric 44.2 percent from 3 and letting it fly as soon as he checks into games. Strus has only hit 33.9 percent, but he’s made the offense flow better and kept defenses honest. Niang has continued to hit shots with his dad bod frame

Isaac Okoro and Dean Wade have also made vast improvements, becoming more reliable 3-and-D weapons on the wing. Caris LeVert has played well, too. 

The bench has been so deep and consistent that the Cavs haven’t even had opportunities to carve out minutes for promising rookie Craig Porter Jr. The second unit has gone from a weakness last season to one of the best-supporting casts in the league. 

This is a really good Cavaliers team, better than the one that fizzled out in the first round against the Knicks. They have been a buzzsaw, blowing teams out like their 40-point win against the Bucks on Jan. 17. They are one Celtics injury away from potentially representing the Eastern Conference in the Finals. 

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