When the Cleveland Cavaliers swung a blockbuster trade for Donovan Mitchell last summer, they announced themselves as a serious player in the Eastern Conference. Seven months later, that status was officially confirmed, as the Cavs clinched a spot in the playoffs with 108-91 win over the Houston Rockets.
This is the first time that the Cavs have made the playoffs since 2018, which was the third-longest active drought in the league behind the Charlotte Hornets (seven seasons) and the soon-to-be-playoff-bound Sacramento Kings (17 seasons). In addition, the Cavs will soon play postseason basketball without LeBron James for the first time since 1998. If they can win their first-round series, it will be their first series win without James since 1993.
“Organizationally, this is a big deal,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “To come from where we came from and every year continue to take steps in the right direction and positive direction. All the hard work that people in this organization put in to help get us here should be acknowledged.”
To this point, Cleveland’s professional basketball history has been so intertwined with James that its most well-known moment without The King may be when Michael Jordan hit “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo in the 1989 playoffs. From their inception in 1970 to James’ arrival in 2003, the Cavaliers won just four playoff series; by James’ fourth season they had doubled that total. When James left in 2011, they won 97 total games in the next four seasons without him; when he came back in 2015, they went to four consecutive Finals and won the title in 2016. And in the first four seasons after James left again in 2018, they won 104 total games.
Now, finally, they have a team that can write its own history. It was fitting that Mitchell had 22 points in the playoff-clinching win, as he’s been the main man for them all season long and has elevated them to another level. At the same time, the fact that he wasn’t their leading scorer and four other players finished in double figures is why there’s so much excitement about both the present and future in Cleveland.
Jarrett Allen led the way with 24 points and 14 rebounds, Evan Mobley went for 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks, and Darius Garland added 17 points and eight assists; all three of them are 25 years old or younger, and Mitchell is only 26 himself. Even better, they’re all under contract through at least 2025.
“Our guys have bought in to something bigger than themselves,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s unique for a young team to do that at such a rapid pace. Typically young guys are so worried about figuring out themselves that the team is secondary; we’ve got a bunch of guys where the team is the primary thing and the only thing.”