Who is the hottest team in basketball? 

If you only pay attention to the headlines or the first 15 minutes of any NBA podcast, you might think it’s the Clippers or the Knicks. And, no doubt, both are hot and have established themselves as legitimate contenders in their respective conferences. But neither is the hottest team in the basketball.

That would be the Cleveland Cavaliers, winners of six straight, losers just once after Jan. 1. Queitly, the Cavaliers have won 14 of their last 15 games and have climbed to second place in the Eastern Conference, a half game up on the Bucks and Knicks.

But are they for real? That much remains to be seen, but they’ve built a convincing argument.

You’ll be forgiven if you haven’t paid the Cavs much mind over the last couple of months. When Darius Garland and Evan Mobley went down in early December, the Cavs took a tumble down most League Pass rankings.

Only Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen powered a group that soared up the standings. Cleveland was just a game over .500 (13-12) when Garland had to undergo jaw surgery. Now they are 32-16.

Since the turn of the calendar, the Cavs have the league’s No. 1 defense (105.9 points allowed per 100 possessions), No. 4 offense (121.1 points scored per 100 possessions) and No. 1 net rating (plus-15.2 per 100 possessions).

That’s in large part due to Mitchell and Allen establishing themselves as Cleveland’s top two stars and others stepping into roles that complement their strengths.

Mitchell has played at a level warranting mention in any MVP conversation. He is averaging 28.2 points on 47.1% shooting, 6.4 assists and 1.9 steals per game – numbers that are just a smidge short of those of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is considered among the top two or three favorites for MVP right now:

  • Mitchell: 28.2 PPG, 47.1 FG%, 35.4 3P%, 5.4 REB, 6.4 AST, 1.9 STL, 8.7 +/-
  • Gilgeous-Alexander: 31.1 PPG, 54.7 FG%, 35.9 3P%, 5.6 REB, 6.6 AST, 2.2 STL, 8.3 +/-

Consider that both teams are in second place in their conference at the moment and the injuries the Cavaliers have had to deal with this season, and Mitchell should be getting more love for MVP. 

Not only is he doing it on the offensive end, but he’s also bought in on the defensive end. Despite the noise surrounding his future in Cleveland, Mitchell hasn’t played like someone browsing for a Manhattan condo on Zillow in his spare time.

Instead, he’s fighting over screens, closing out with aggression and helping his teammates. Check out this possession from Monday’s signature win over the Kings. Mitchell briefly leaves his man, Keegan Murray, to help on a Kevin Huerter drive, takes away the passing lane to Domantas Sabonis, and then scurries back to Murray in the corner to contest his shot. This is not somebody doing the bare minimum.

This is the best two-way basketball Mitchell has played for his career, and he’s done it for nearly 50 games and has the Cavaliers positioned to make an even stronger run. But more on Mitchell in a bit.

Along with Mitchell stepping up in Garland’s absence, Allen stepped up in Mobley’s. Allen is averaging 15.6 points and 10.8 rebounds but, more importantly, is serving a career-high 2.6 assists per game. He averaged 3.5 assists over Cleveland’s first eight-game win streak during this stretch, including a seven-assist night against the Wizards. 

Mobley is the one with the reputation for being a modern big with the ball skills to get his teammates involved, but Allen’s no dinosaur either. He’s not terribly creative, but he doesn’t have to be. At 6-foot-11, Allen can see over the defense and make the easy read. Allen’s gift is taking what the defense gives him and doing it quickly.

With Garland and Mobley out, J.B. Bickerstaff started Isaac Okoro and Dean Wade in their place, along with Max Strus on the wing. In 223 minutes this season, that lineup is outscoring opponents by 20.1 points every 100 possessions. 

During this stretch, Cleveland also uncovered contributors like Sam Merrill (in the midst of an all-time shooting season) and Craig Porter Jr. from the end of the bench. Caris LeVert deserves Sixth Man of the Year consideration.

If there’s any cold water to pour on Cleveland’s hot stretch, it’s that of the last 15 games, nine came against teams with losing records. 

But they have also beaten the Bucks twice (with their only loss coming in Milwaukee) and held the Clippers to an offensive rating of 111.3 (compared to their season rating of 120.3) and the Kings to 112.2 (from 116.6). 

Both Mobley and Garland returned from their extended absences last week and the Cavaliers kept rolling, winning games against the Clippers, Pistons, Grizzlies, Spurs and Kings. Neither has played more than 28 minutes since returning but are ramping up from their minutes restriction.

Ever since the Cavs traded for Mitchell two summers ago, the question was whether he could co-exist with Garland in the backcourt. Both need the ball on offense and are undersized on defense. It only takes a glance at the Atlanta Hawks to see how a similar experiment could go poorly.

Despite the concerns, Mitchell and Garland have been awesome together – so awesome that they rank among the top duos in the NBA.

Two-man combinations

Net rating

Kawhi Leonard - Paul George


Nikola Jokic - Jamal Murray


Joel Embiid - Tyrese Maxey


Anthony Edwards - Rudy Gobert


Shai Gilgeous-Alexander - Chet Holmgren


Giannis Antetokounmpo - Damian Lillard


Donovan Mitchell - Darius Garland


Devin Booker - Kevin Durant


Jayson Tatum - Jaylen Brown


Julius Randle - Jalen Brunson


De'Aaron Fox - Domantas Sabonis


Cleveland’s ceiling, and whether or not they can truly contend in the East, depends on Mobley’s development. The Cavs are hard to score against when their two bigs are on the court (just 107.8 points allowed per 100 possessions), but they struggle to generate offense because neither spreads the floor. 

Allen will never be a floor-spacer, but Mobley is showing flashes. He went 3 for 3 on 3-pointers against the Spurs over the weekend and has attempted at least one 3-pointer in each of his last three games. He also gives the Cavs some pep in the full court with his ability to grab rebounds and go.

The vision is becoming clearer and Bickerstaff has a lot of options to go to depending on the matchup. Since Mobley and Garland returned, he is staggering his rotations to keep the Mitchell-and-Allen lineups that worked so well together. 

The Cavaliers are legitimately 10 deep and can meet the terms of any kind of matchup. They can play as big as anyone, go small with Wade next to a single big, swap out a ball-handling guard for the more defensive-leaning Okoro and ride the hot hand on any given night.

(Garland is having a down shooting year and his playmaking isn’t as crisp as it once was, but he should round into form now that he’s healthy.)

Most teams have to field lineups for 6-8 minutes a game when their stars are on the bench that allow opponents to make a run, but the Cavs give no quarter. They come at you with stars and hustle for 48 minutes (Bickerstaff has everyone playing hard).

Even as the schedule gets tougher, the Cavaliers have proven that they can hang with the best teams in the league. Few teams can claim to have three All-Stars and a likely future one in their starting lineup. From a sheer depth-of-talent standpoint, only the Boston Celtics are comparable. 

The talent is undeniable. The question was always if the Cavs could fit together. So far this season, they are making it work.