When Darius Garland and Evan Mobley went down last December with injuries, many expected the Cleveland Cavaliers to take a nosedive down the standings.
Mobley injured his knee last December 6 and eventually needed surgery while Garland suffered a jaw injury barely a week later in Cleveland’s 116-107 loss to the Boston Celtics. That defeat dropped the Cavaliers to 13-12 on the season which put them in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings. This was a far cry from the lofty expectations that were put upon this team in the preseason and many wondered if it was time to blow up this team.
Instead of folding though, this under-manned Cleveland team stepped up and won five of their next six games after Garland’s injury. They carried this momentum over to 2024 and have now won 11 of their last 12 games. Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen thrived in the absence of Garland and Mobley while Max Strus, Caris LeVert, and Georges Niang all had their moments as well.
The Cavaliers are suddenly fourth place in the East with a 29-16 slate and trail the top seed Boston Celtics by only 6.5 games with more than 30 games still left to play in the regular season. Cleveland has also welcomed back Mobley and Garland over their last two games and the team’s excellent form during these past few weeks should allow them to patiently reintegrate these two players to their rotation.
Mobley has played sparingly in his first two games back, averaging only 21 minutes versus his season average of 32. Garland’s playing time has been limited too as he saw only 20 minutes of playing time in his return–a 128-121 win over the Detroit Pistons where he still managed to score 19 points on 58.3% field goal shooting.
With the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers seemingly on uneven footing at the moment, the Cavaliers and the surging New York Knicks could emerge as legitimate rivals to the Celtics in the East. Cleveland’s backcourt of Garland and Mitchell is among the best in the league and their “twin tower” combination of Mobley and Allen is a tough match-up for most teams. Last year, their lack of a small forward that could space the floor was their biggest weakness, but they have addressed this with the offseason acquisition of Strus from the Miami Heat.
The loss of Garland and Mobley in December was supposed to send this Cavaliers team on a tailspin, yet it has instead allowed them to find their footing and blossom into an emerging Eastern Conference contender. This team is a bona fide dark horse in the East and the only question surrounding them is whether they already deserve to be called actual contenders instead.
Something special is brewing in Cleveland and this team’s ascendance into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference–as long as it can stay healthy–is no longer a question of “If”, but rather just a question of “When.”