Cavs at NBA’s one-third mark: How much patience is left?

DSC_0462After three straight miserable seasons, a 10-18 start is not what fans nor the front office expected for the Cleveland Cavaliers this year.

It’s been a myriad of issues plaguing the team, most in the form of inconsistency. For two weeks, they looked like a legitimate playoff team, winning five of six before narrow losses to two of the NBA’s juggernauts. Since then, it’s been back to the basics, especially after Thursday’s heartbreaking home loss.

The good news is that the Cavs remain just 1.5 games out of the Eastern Conference’s terrible playoff picture. All things considered, this first-third of the season could have been much, much worse. Let’s review the ups and downs so far in the style of The Boots.

Boot Up: No major injuries – This is certainly a good thing and something that shouldn’t be taken for granted with this roster. Last season, Kyrie Irving missed 23 games, Dion Waiters missed 22 and Anderson Varejao was out for 57. Only three Cavaliers totaled more than 66 games. This year, 11 players have appeared in at least 21 games already. Nothing has happened significantly to the Cavs core yet.

Boot Down: Then why is this team so bad? – Without the easy excuse of injuries, then what’s wrong? Overall, the Cavs have the fourth-worst efficiency differential in the NBA at –6.3. They rank fourth-worst in offense at 97.7 and 19th overall in defense at 104.1, per The offense has at least been mediocre over the last month (stats), but the defense has suffered over the last two weeks.

Boot Up: Kyrie Irving’s recent shooting – As their All-Star performs, so goes the luck of the Cavaliers. Over the last 18 games, Irving has been back to normal after an extended slump since that All-Star weekend. In this stretch, he’s averaging 23.7 points with a .490 efficiency field goal percentage (stats). That’s again back up to elite guard status after being compared unfavorably to Rudy Gay earlier in the year.

Boot Down: The anointment of Kyrie Irving, MVP candidate – Before the year started, I said that #NBARank and other services likely overrated the 21-year-old Irving. We often forget he’s just a third-year pro who struggled for a 35-game stretch. So yeah, he’ll have his bad moments, such as Thursday’s turnovers, and he’s not an absolutely perfect player. We were spoiled by that last Rookie of the Year.

Boot Up: Dion Waiters’ recent play – Health is a big factor. But 22-year-old Dion Waiters has stepped up over the last two weeks when he’s played. In his last four games, he’s averaging 20.5 points in 34.4 minutes with a .581 efficiency field goal percentage. The Cavs bench looked lost without his playmaking abilities. After his controversially below-average rookie season, he’s established himself as a clear value-added player in the rotation. That’s something we should appreciate.

Boot Down: Dion Waiters trade rumors – I critiqued these rumors when they re-surfaced one month ago (here and here). By default, the Cavs would be selling low on Waiters’ future in any possible trade scenario. I don’t like the idea of acquiring Evan Turner or Luol Deng, decent veterans on the verge of huge paydays, for the up-and-coming Syracuse product. Just doesn’t leave a good taste in my mouth.

Boot Up: Andrew Bynum playing – I wrote about the Bynum signing and his Opening Day performance as one of the top Cleveland sports stories of the year. I wrote about Bynum’s monster game against the Chicago Bulls earlier in the month. He played really well in that 5-3 stretch, averaging 11.8 points on 52% shooting plus 7.4 rebounds in 23.5 minutes. And oh yeah, he’s actually playing. That’s a thing.

[Update: NBA News: Cavs’ Andrew Bynum suspended from team]

Boot Down: Andrew Bynum playing terribly – Take away that one eight-game run, and Bynum’s been horrible, abysmal, below-replacement level and one of the NBA’s worst players. He’s shooting just 35% in his 16 other contests. It appears that he’s either historically lazy or categorically immobile on the defensive end (vine). His rebounding numbers are sub-par. For a “no-risk” deal, it’s an issue that we’re wondering if the Cavs rotation would be better served without the 26-year-old former All-Star.

Boot Up: Matthew Dellavedova stepping up – When I projected the Cavs rotation before the year, I didn’t personally account for Delly. He’s already played 328 crucial minutes and the team is far better with him on the court. Three-guard lineups have been the norm of late, as you can’t exactly take away minutes from Waiters or Irving. If not for Delly, this offense could still be struggling with the basics.

Boot Down: Nearly everyone else on the roster – Tristan Thompson has gotten better, I’ll give him that. Anderson Varejao also has been relatively solid. Tyler Zeller has looked good (?) in his limited minutes. Everyone else? Yuck. The Jarrett Jack signing looks more confusing every day. Earl Clark is what he is. Alonzo Gee is what he is. It’s getting harder and harder to defend Anthony Bennett. C.J. Miles continues to be in a funk. Sergey Karasev was not expected to be in the rotation just yet. So yeah, the roster is a definite work-in-progress, despite fans’ hopes of it being more flushed out this year.

Through 28 games, the Cavaliers actually have played worse than their record indicates – a surprising achievement for a terrible team. Their projected record is 8-20 based on their efficiency differential. Really, for the bulk of the season, this has been a very bad basketball team.

Which deservedly warrants the question: What the hell is going to happen next? Could general manager Chris Grant be fired mid-season? When does Mike Brown get on the hot seat? Will there be some kind of a major trade after all of the asset-collecting? What if a major injury actually does happen and rattles up the season even more?

All of those answers will come down to the patience remaining with owner Dan Gilbert, Grant and company. This year was billed as the one where the Cavs finally would avoid the lottery in the post-LeBron James era. So far, they’ve deserved to be back at the lottery. Should they let that happen and collect up one more major asset? Or is the front office becoming more anxious with each passing loss?

Lots of questions, very few answers. There are some bright spots so far, but they’re overshadowed by the bad basketball on the court. In just two short months, by the All-Star Break in mid-February and the neighboring trade deadline on Feb. 20, we should know much more about the Cavs future.

Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY