Sometimes it seems like there are a million different ways to analyze a rebuilding team such as the Cleveland Cavaliers. And in analyzing their progress, thoughts naturally turn to projecting future success and how to get there.
Reasonable minds can and do disagree on issues such as whether or not to trade Anderson Varejao. Some fans root for playoff appearances and wins every night. Some fans root for draft picks. Should the Cavaliers have used amnesty on Baron Davis, or should they have kept Baron as a mentor, used amnesty on Jamison, and traded Sessions? What position should the Cavaliers draft next year? Should the Cavaliers have drafted Derrick Williams and Brandon Knight instead of Irving and Thompson?
The answers to some are more obvious than others, but the point here is that there is no true road map to rebuilding success. Pretty much the only constant is you probably need a very high draft pick, as in top 2 or 3, you better nail that pick, and that pick better turn into a superstar anchor that you can build around. From there, differing opinions prevail. If there was one right answer, everyone would build the same way and every team would be successful. There are no absolutes in this journey, only road bumps that you pray your team is able to handle the right way every time.
However, there is one thing that it seems almost everyone agrees on, and that is the idea that the Cavaliers should avoid the 8th seed in the playoffs as if it were the plague. 8th seed purgatory is what some call it. Somehow an idea has permeated among fans that being the 8th seed in the playoffs means you will be stuck there forever, unable to ever improve.
This simply isn’t true. Perhaps the fear is because the Cavaliers have been there before. Who can ever forget the Fratello years of the Cavaliers sneaking into the playoffs every year only to be bounced in the first round and never improving? Perhaps the modern day Milwaukee Bucks are another example of this type of team. This is what the Cavaliers absolutely do not want to become. However, the Fratello Cavs and the modern Bucks status wasn’t a function of being a 6, 7, or 8 seed. This is where the fallacy of the argument comes into play. Being the 8 seed isn’t a bad thing. What matters is how you got there and how you position yourself to grow from there.
Everyone loves to cite the Oklahoma City Thunder as the perfect example of how to rebuild. Yet Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s first trip to the playoffs was as the 8 seed after they jumped from 13th in the West the previous season. And yes, they got bounced in the first round. They bounced back last year, got better, grew from their experience, and were the 4 seed and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals before losing to eventual Champion Dallas. Now they have the best record in the NBA and are among the favorites to win it all.
Even the LeBron-lead Cavaliers had a similar experience. Although they missed the playoffs in LeBron’s 2nd season, finishing 9th in the East. Was that 9th place finish really better than the 8 seed and earning playoff experience would have been? The following season the Cavaliers jumped to the 4 seed, followed by the 2 seed when they went to the NBA finals. Was there any harm to the Cavaliers in showing improvement and being in that middle of the pack area?
It’s rare to jump from a nonfactor team into a sudden championship contender. These things take progress and along the way, teams will find themselves in the middle. So when so many fans are rooting for losses and trading of impact core players like Varejao all in the name of avoiding the middle, you have to be careful what you wish for. Losing is contagious, and you can’t get better if you keep hoping to go backwards.
It would take a minor miracle for the Cavaliers to make the playoffs this year. The talent depth just isn’t where it needs to be. But if given the choice to finish 8th in the East or 10th in the East, I’ll take 8th every time. Playoff experience is invaluable. As long as you have cap space, smart drafting, and a general plan for improving, that experience and winning mentality should be what you crave. That experience leads to confidence, which leads to an understanding of what it takes to win.
The Cavaliers are building something. You can just see it every time you watch them play. They are all buying into something, building chemistry together, becoming the kind of team that good teams suddenly aren’t so happy to see on their schedule. The Cavaliers are dangerous and capable of jumping up and biting everyone. No, they aren’t close to contending for a title. But the plan is there. It’s playing out before our eyes.
Sure, if the choice is a top 3 pick or the 8 seed, I might pick the top 3 pick. But the Cavaliers are not bad enough to finish that low. Trading Sessions, Jamison and Varejao would hurt the team right now, and I’m not convinced that it’s enough to still make them bad enough to get that top 3 pick.
I know most (all?) real Cavs fans don’t really root for losses. At least not while watching the games. It’s impossible to root against this team. But there is an idea that avoiding the playoffs should be the plan. I can’t disagree with that more. This team needs to be growing and improving. The talent level will take care of itself. Unless several teams have worse injury problems than Cleveland, the Cavaliers are not making the playoffs this year. But they are getting better. And after watching the other Cleveland sports franchises flounder in mediocrity with rebuilding plans that often seem to be drawn in crayon, it’s refreshing to see a team that seems to all be on the same page and executing the rebuilding plan exactly as drawn. So if a playoff appearance were to happen to fall into Cleveland’s lap, fans need not run from it. It will teach these players an invaluable lesson and give them experience and confidence to grow from. It will give them a foundation on which to build a future Championship run.
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