They say you never go broke betting the chalk in the NBA playoffs, where one superstar player can carry a team to a title and few teams without a star ever get far enough to test that theory.
Entering Stage left are your Cleveland Cavaliers, who have been left for dead twice by LeBron James yet somehow have re-tooled and gotten fat enough with talent to raise eyebrows in this most bizarre of seasons. The Cavs are suddenly in the mix in a stacked Eastern Conference.
Cleveland’s success has taken both oddsmakers and the betting public by surprise. Nine over .500 straight up at 27-18, the Cavs were a league-best 29-14-2 against the spread heading into Wednesday’s game at Chicago.
What in the name of Ben Poquette is going on at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse?
The Cavaliers, who are enjoying perhaps their best non-LeBron season since the Mark Price-Brad Daugherty-Larry Nance crew advanced to the conference finals in 1992-93, quietly have built a solid team that plays hard every night, doesn’t generally mail in road games, and should scare the bejesus out of any playoff opponent.
Eyebrows were raised on opening night when the Cavs started a double-big lineup of Jarrett Allen and rookie Evan Mobley. Double-bigs don’t usually work in an NBA which places a high premium on switchability and forwards being able to extend defensively past the 3-point line, and the 6-foot-11 Mobley didn’t quite fit that bill. But Mobley right from the get-go (17 points, 3 blocks and 5 assists on opening night) put that thought to rest, and now he’s a heavy favorite (-150) to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
The Cavaliers were able to kick things into gear early on, with 10 covers in 11 games in an October-November span that kept them near the top of the East. With skittish oddsmakers still not convinced that the Cavs were for real, bettors were able to climb on a runaway train with 14 straight covers. They’ve come back to Earth a bit since then, but it was one hell of a run for the true believers along Lake Erie.
There were plenty of doubters heading into this season. No one knew if the Cavs would be able to replace the scoring provided by PG Collin Sexton, but the Cavs have more than covered up a so-so (20th in the league) offense with the league’s second-best (102 ppg allowed) defense powered by Mobley and Allen.
With Sexton out of the season with a knee injury suffered in early November, the backcourt focus has been on emerging star Darius Garland, who may not be a true PG but has emerged as the team’s best ball-handler while still scoring 20 a game. Garland dropped 22 and 12 on Kyrie Irving in Cleveland’s coming-out-party victory over Brooklyn earlier this week.
And don’t forget about Kevin Love, whose contract the Cavs have been dreaming about dumping ever since James high-tailed it to the Lakers a few seasons back. Love remains part of the furniture in Cleveland, seems to have moved past his bizarre behavior of last year and actually is in the 6th Man Award conversation. For the first time in a long time the Cavaliers actually need Love, and he seems to want to stick around to see how far this season goes.
Exactly how deep into the spring the Cavs will go is anyone’s guess. Cleveland’s +5.1 ppg mark is the best in the East, and if that continues and the Cavs aren’t ravaged by injuries, they’ll have a decent shot at home advantage in the first round of the playoffs. As far as winning a title, the oddsmakers haven’t budged much. They still like six other teams (including struggling Atlanta and Boston) better, and the Cavs are a distant +8000 to win it all.
The team, meanwhile, continues to put one foot in front of the other. The pre-All Star Game schedule includes nine games against opponents with sub.-500 records – a chance to solidify its position among the elite in the East and perhaps for bettors to fatten their bankrolls before re-evaluating during the stretch run of one of the most enjoyable seasons in franchise history.