With the passing of the winter solstice several weeks back, the nights were supposed to be growing shorter. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, it has to feel right now like the darkness will never end. It’s almost unbelievable when you think back on how wrong virtually everything has gone for the franchise dating back to the 2nd round playoff matchup with the Boston Celtics.
I’m not going to sit here and list all the misfortune, mistakes, and mishaps yet again. Things are bleak enough without wallowing in it. However, I’ll just point out that in the wake of LeBron James’ infamous defection to the Miami Heat, everybody was in agreement that the Cavaliers were going to be worse than they had been with him. The biggest point of contention between prognosticators, however, was the degree to which this franchise would revert.
Most national analysts tended to caution on the side of cataclysm while those who more closely followed this team and this group of players tended to find reasons for optimism. Not optimism in the championship prospects without LeBron, but an optimism in spirit wherein many of us saw a real shot at redemption for these much maligned players who were left behind.
This was the contextual landscape in which Dan Gilbert delivered his bold proclamation that the Cavaliers would win a Championship before LeBron James. This battle cry in many ways was like taking the under in a game, where the bet is never lost until the moment the point total goes over. So, too, are Gilbert’s remarks still possible, no matter how bleak things get in Cleveland, until the moment LeBron wins his title.
It seems silly to even be talking about a championship on a day like this. A day in which everyone who is even the slightest bit emotionally invested in the Cavaliers is reeling from the news of Anderson Varejao’s season ending injury. But I bring this up merely to point out that I understand why Dan Gilbert and Byron Scott were clinging to this idea of the team making the playoffs this year and thus seemingly validating that LeBron had good enough players to win in Cleveland and that he made a mistake in leaving.
So yeah, I get it. I was one of the ones who knew that missing the playoffs was ultimately what was going to be best for the franchise, but even I was hoping that the Cavaliers would be able to put that aside for one season. I wanted to see this team bond together in the wake of extreme humiliation and disappointment and turn it into something overtly positive.
Instead, things have gone quite differently. So here we sit today in the midst of the darkest season of Cavaliers basketball probably in team history, stuck with the realization that one of the team’s best players and the absolute heart and soul of this team is done for the year. It hurts and it’s incredibly frustration. Yet this is no time for despair. Those who wallow in wade in the depths of darkness are doomed to be forever immersed in it. The most successful individuals in life are those who are able to overcome the darkness, learn from it, use it, and come out in a better place.
With this in mind then, I think it’s perfectly appropriate for Cavs fans to look for the positives and cling to the flickering light that persists at the end of this incredibly long tunnel. I don’t want to sit around thinking about how bad things are right now. I want to think about what we’ve learned about this team, what is still left to learn, and why things aren’t always as bad as they may seem on the surface.
For instance, take this team’s performance in December and January. It’s been awful, but not totally unforeseen. If you recall when we broke down the schedule before the year started, we pinpointed these months as troubling, writing:
December and January, however, are going to be the gauntlet for the Cavaliers. Not only is this the stretch where they play the toughest opponents, but in those 2 months they will play 20 games on the road compared to just 11 at home. They play Miami 3 times in those two months. In December they have a 3 game road trip and a 4 game road trip, while in January they have a 3 game trip to go with a 5 game road trip. It could be a very long and cold winter indeed for Cavs fans.
Obviously the schedule isn’t the only, or even the primary, reason for the team’s struggles, but it certainly hasn’t been a help as the team has had to deal with an abundance of injuries and other distractions.
Beyond the schedule, the Anderson Varejao injury means we can finally put to rest any delusion of playoffs that might still have been lingering in Byron Scott’s head. I wrote last week that the franchise needed to come to grips with reality, and while I think they certainly had behind closed doors, they can now stop patronizing fans with mere lip service. We all know the playoffs are so far gone it’s hard to fathom how any of us once thought they were even a possibility.
Fret not, though, because at the end of the day, this team missing the playoffs could be a good thing in the long term. Almost every NBA team that has a period of success has a long, slow, drawn out fade back to the bottom before they can return to prominence. It appeared that if the Cavaliers did make the playoffs, or if they made short sighted moves with their acquired assets to salvage some semblance of respectability, that they too would fall into this trap. Barring any drastic changes, this team is on pace to earn a ton of ping pong balls in the lottery and earn a top draft pick, which gives them a chance to hopefully acquire a young star player to rebuild around.
Furthermore, we once believed that the decision of whether to trade Anderson Varejao and other players like Mo Williams ad Boobie Gibson was a simple either/or proposition. Either trade them to tank or keep them to contend. As it turns out, the Cavaliers are actually capable of tanking while hanging onto Varejao. Perhaps the team will still decide to trade him, and if the return is right, it might be the smart thing to do. But players of Andy’s skill, effort, and dedication are rare creatures and shouldn’t be given away lightly. If the Cavaliers can rebuild while keeping Andy around, it might make more sense to do just that.
Then you consider younger veterans like Mo Williams and Boobie Gibson who, again, while not stars, are certainly capable role players who could be valuable assets as the team rebuilds around a different core player who is yet to be established.
Last but not least, the injuries to the veterans have opened the door for youngsters like Christian Eyenga, Manny Harris, and perhaps eventually Samardo Samuels. I don’t think anyone expects these guys to be breakout stars, but having a solid core of reliable role players who are young and athletic is never a bad thing when a team is looking for a rebuilding plan. It can make things so much easier to insert a superstar, like the flipping of a light switch.
This season hasn’t been fun. Yet I still believe deep down that this is necessary. The Cavaliers have expedited their descent into the cellar, which means the climb back to the top can begin sooner than later. Perhaps that will come with the NBA draft. It’s tough to say what the future holds with the CBA and the draft, but players like Perry Jones, Jared Sullinger, Josh Selby, Enes Kanter, and Kyrie Irving all have shown signs of great potential and certain NBA skill sets. It’s becoming quite possible for the Cavaliers to be in position to draft one of them and hope they have the tools to become a centerpiece worth building around.
Everyone’s familiar with the saying “Everything is at its darkest before sunrise.” Even if that’s only true by default because at your lowest, the only direction to move it upward, it still provides reason for hope and reason not to get too down about this season. It’s always a process and the Cavaliers are still learning valuable lessons about what their young players are capable, what their veterans are worth on the trade market, and what routes for rebuilding are available for this team. If all of this serves no other purpose than to speed up the rebuilding process, well, then that alone makes all of this completely worth it.
Photo Credit: Copyright 2011 NBAE (Photo by P.A. Molumby/NBAE via Getty Images)