In the first half of the NBA season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were 13-18, and they sit 1 1/2 games behind the Boston Celtics for the final playoff spot. Here, I’ll talk a little about my previous expectations, why they’ve changed, and what I expect from the Cavaliers for the rest of the season.
Before the season, I had the Cavaliers down for somewhere between 14 and 20 wins. The reason why I so grossly underestimated them is threefold in my mind.
Reason number one is hands down that I underestimated not only Kyrie Irving’s skill set, but his ability to lead a still-flawed team to respectability so quickly. What he’s done in his own unique path is unprecedented in franchise history. I’m not here to compare him to LeBron James every step of the way in his Cavalier career, because that’s not fair to either player. They’re both incredibly talented players, playing different positions and carving their own path. LeBron did things in his rookie year and in subsequent years with the wine and gold that Kyrie may never be able to do. But, in the same respect, Kyrie has already led and finished games off for his team at such a young age that he deserves recognition and mention in the same breath of Cavalier rookie greatness. The manner in which he plays the game with cool, calm awareness, never afraid of the moment, is simply addicting as a fan.
The second reason for underestimating the Cavaliers is that I thought that injuries would plague this team from start to finish. In some respects, they have done just that. Let’s go through the roll call: Anthony Parker (13 games and counting), Daniel Gibson (8 games), Anderson Varejao (6 games and counting), Tristan Thompson (6 games), and Kyrie Irving (3 games). One name not on this list: Antawn Jamison, who has been the Cavaliers’ rock, playing in each of the 31 games this season. He’s kept the Cavaliers in a lot of games, and his scoring is the most consistent on the team. Take Jamison away, and a lot of the Cavaliers offense may fall apart. His consistent scoring has directly help ease the burden off of Kyrie needing to go for 25+ on a nightly basis.
The third reason is Byron Scott’s coaching style and presence. Last year, I will fully admit that I had some serious doubts when it came to Byron Scott keeping his team motivated through the 26-game losing streak. This season, the focus on defense has made a huge difference and it’s allowed them to win some games that offensively speaking, they should have had zero chance of winning. When the Cavaliers fired Mike Brown, I regretted it primarily for the loss of defensive culture that I assumed would follow. Instead, it went on a one-year hiatus, and the Cavaliers are now playing team defense in a scrappy manner, even with several players who are poor individual defenders. Finishing the game with Irving, Gibson, Gee, Jamison, and Thompson has been a common occurence since Andy went down, and three of those five players have really stepped up their defensive game. Even though the Cavaliers rank just 20th in defensive efficiency, they’re light years ahead of last season, and they play their best defense in the final quarter.
Now, I mentioned above that Jamison has carried them through some tough offensive games. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the right thing to do is find another home for not just Antawn, but for Ramon Sessions as well. These two have been excellent catalysts, providing a safety net for the young players to improve their game in a low-pressure environment. With some confidence gained, a few banner wins under their belts, and their feet firmly on the ground, it’s time to turn those two still productive players into assets that will aid this team in the years ahead. I don’t know specifically who would want Jamison, but I believe someone will certainly take a chance with him carving out a bench role, despite his porous defense. As for Sessions, who knows if he will choose to pick up his option and remain a backup behind Kyrie for another season. Trade him now, and get something for him.
If the Cavaliers trade Jamison and Sessions and this team becomes one relying heavily on Kyrie, Gee, Varejao (when he returns), and Thompson, that’s not a bad thing at all. The team will probably lose more games and sink a little bit more into the middle of the lottery (currently, they have the 10th worst record). If they don’t, though, you can’t fault a completely young unit for making a playoff run. While I’m strongly opposed to any short-term acquisitions, if the team sneaks into the postseason on its own, I can’t be angry with that. At this point, barring multiple injuries, I don’t think the Cavaliers are going to fall much lower than 6th or 7th in the lottery odds. With Anthony Davis, Harrison Barnes, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist likely off the board by then, is there that much difference in the talent between 6-7 versus 10-12?
So, to quote Scott from last week, “Accept the losses, but desire the wins.” I’m not expecting the Cavaliers to make the playoffs this season, but I’m also not expecting them to wind up with the fourth or fifth best odds at the top pick either. Wherever they end up landing in the draft, it will be up to Chris Grant and company to do their due diligence and find another few pieces (don’t forget the two second round picks, one from the Hornets) to add to this up and coming team.
(Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)