The 2011-12 NBA season started with a good deal of uncertainty. The league as a whole was questioning whether or not there would even be a season due to the lockout caused by the disagreement over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Ultimately, the two sides came to an agreement over Thanksgiving weekend and managed to salvage the NBA season, albeit in a condensed form. Instead of the regular 82-game schedule, the 2011-12 season would feature 66 games in a shortened period of time, beginning on Christmas Day. The lockout-shortened season caused the scheduling to be even more hectic than usual, featuring countless back-to-backs and several back-to-back-to-backs. Nevertheless, basketball fans were simply happy to know that they would have a season at all.
The lockout wiped out a traditional offseason. Summer League was cancelled. Training camp was extremely limited. Preseason was cut down to just two games. For teams with a great deal of continuity, this was not a huge problem. The Oklahoma City Thunder made virtually no changes to their roster from the season before. For teams that were undergoing enormous rebuilding projects, such as our Cleveland Cavaliers, the nonexistent offseason posed a much bigger problem.
After going 19-63 in 2010-11, the Cleveland Cavaliers aimed to make major improvements in 2011-12. In the 2011 NBA Draft, the Cavaliers set themselves up to have two top-5 draft picks and selected Kyrie Irving with the first overall pick and Tristan Thompson with the fourth overall pick. Shortly after the selection of Thompson, the Cavaliers traded away J.J. Hickson to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Omri Casspi and a conditional first round pick. Immediately after this trade went down, the CBA expired and the league entered a lockout. Players were unable to have any contact whatsoever with the organization. This meant that there were three players expected to make significant contributions to the team that went nearly the entire offseason without even meeting their fellow teammates and coaches. Once the lockout was lifted, the front office used their amnesty clause on Baron Davis and released him from the roster. Although Ramon Sessions was still on the roster, the organization effectively handed the reins to a 19-year old rookie point guard. Coming off of one of the worst seasons in NBA history, Cavs fans were excited about the infusion of young talent, but truthfully had no idea what to expect.Never before have I been so excited to sit down and watch preseason basketball games. When the Cavs finally opened the preseason against the Detroit Pistons, I was ecstatic. The Cavaliers hadn't had the first overall pick in the draft and I spent the majority of the summer watching Kyrie Irving highlights from his mere 11 games at Duke. Eventually, Cleveland began the 66-game rat race of a season against the Toronto Raptors on December 26th. The Cavs lost that game by a score of 104-96, but consider this: the Opening Night lineup used against the Raptors and the starting lineup used against the Wizards in the final game of 2011 had exactly one starter in common. That starter was Anthony Parker who made a combined five shots in those two games.
Despite the loss and the relatively miserable NBA debut from Irving, fans had plenty reason to be looking forward to the rest of the season. Anderson Varejao was back from a season ending injury along with Antawn Jamison. The Cavs suddenly found themselves with one of the best backup point guards in the league as Ramon Sessions was relegated to the bench behind the rookie phenom. Although the lockout and massive roster turnover left the Cavs a bit of a mystery, it was obvious that they were much better than a year before.
The Cavs took advantage of an easy schedule in the first several weeks, jumping out to a 6-6 record and hanging around .500 from much of January. Kyrie Irving immediately bounced back from his 2 of 12 shooting performance against Toronto and sparkled in January. Despite the fact that Byron Scott limited his playing time, Irving averaged 18.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game in January. Furthermore, Irving shot 53.5% from the field and 44.9% from behind the arc.
Kyrie didn't receive much attention from the mainstream media or the rest of the NBA while he was quietly putting together one of the most efficient rookie seasons of all-time. Much of that changed, however, when Irving announced his arrival against the Boston Celtics in TD Garden. Down 11 points with under three minutes remaining, Irving led a furious comeback against the vaunted Celtics defense. The Cavs got the ball down 87-86 with ten seconds remaining in the game. Amidst thunderous chants of "DE-FENSE" from the Boston crowd, Kyrie calmly dribbled at the top of the key and waited for a screen from Varejao. Irving got the screen, drove to his right, and faced a double-team. In a move that I have tried to replicate countless times playing pickup ball (to no avail), Kyrie spun, split the double-team, and finished the layup with his left hand. In his 19th game as a professional, the 19-year old rookie looked like a seasoned veteran. It was at that moment we knew we had something special. The kid showed no fear and backed down from no challenge. When all was said and done, Kyrie averaged 18.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game with shooting percentages of 47/40/87. He led the NBA in points per 48 minutes of clutch time while shooting over 54% in those crucial minutes. Kyrie dominated the Rookie-Sophomore game on All-Star Weekend. Kyrie Irving is your 2011-12 Rookie of the Year -- no question.
Irving was the main attraction in Cleveland and nobody could have predicted that he would be this good, this soon. However, he wasn't the only pleasant surprise. Alonzo Gee entered the season as someone that Chris Grant and company seemingly took a flyer on. A product of the NBA D-League, Gee struggled to produce with the Wizards and was brought to the Cavaliers in the middle of last season. By the middle of this season, Gee was the Cavs' best perimeter defender and had assumed the role of starting small forward. Oh yeah, and he dunks on people.
The selection of Tristan Thompson stunned many (myself included) at the 2011 NBA Draft. A great deal of uncertainty (a recurring theme) surrounded Tristan when he made his debut with the Cavs. While he remains a work in progress, a few things were immediately apparent. Tristan goes all-out, all the time. There is off switch. Tristan is incredibly raw, but has some impressive skills that should keep him in the NBA for a while. He has a knack for grabbing offensive rebounds and a knack for throwing down thunderous dunks. His relentless motor and outrageous hops earned him the nickname "Tigger". Tristan's got a long way to go, but made remarkable progress throughout the shortened season. Summer League and an actual training camp ought to do wonders for his development.
When a team manages to go just 21-45 in a season, there are naturally some negative aspects that are worth mentioning. For starters, Anderson Varejao went down with a fractured wrist after getting off to the best start of his career. Andy was a double-double machine and one of the league's elite offensive rebounders before breaking his wrist and being sidelined for the remainder of the season. Omri Casspi didn't exactly pan out like we had hoped. Casspi started for much of the first portion of the season, but was eventually moved to the bench in favor of the ever-improving Gee. Casspi struggled with his shot and simply didn't seem comfortable on the court in his first season in Cleveland. He's still a young guy, so there's some hope for him in the future.
The injury to Varejao caused the Cavs to dig deep to find viable big men for their rotation. This led to Ryan Hollins, Semih Erden, and Samardo Samuels all playing significant minutes throughout the season. Spoiler alert: it didn't work very well. Eventually, Byron Scott handed the starting center position to the 6-foot-9 rookie Thompson. He struggled and it's quite clear that his longterm NBA position is power forward, but he certainly led all Cavs big men in give-a-damn-ness.
One of the major landmarks in the 2011-12 Cavaliers season was the trade of Ramon Sessions to the Los Angeles Lakers at the trading deadline. It was well-known throughout the season that Sessions was likely to be traded and that the Lakers were a logical destination. Sessions was clearly too good to be backing up Kyrie Irving and was likely to opt out of his contract at the end of the season regardless. Eventually, the Cavs pulled the trigger and sent Sessions to Hollywood in exchange for the 24th pick in the 2012 draft and assumed the contract of Luke Walton. The Cavaliers went 5-15 after the trade and Kyrie saw his role increase further. The Sessions trade stripped the Cavaliers of any depth in their backcourt and sent them to the D-League to scrounge for guys who could offer some decent minutes. That's when the alleged tanking started.
It's not an uncommon sentiment in the NBA that you have to get worse before you can get better. The Cavaliers already added their first couple of rebuilding pieces by drafting Kyrie and Tigger, but that's hardly enough. Virtually everybody knew that the Cavaliers would be best off by placing themselves in the situation that allowed them to get the best draft pick possible. In other words, tanking. While no one within the organization would ever admit to actively tanking the latter portion of the season, read some of these names and tell me what you think. Lester Hudson. Donald Sloan. Manny Harris. Luke Harangody. Luke Walton. Samardo Samuels. DJ Kennedy. All of those guys played significant minutes down the stretch. Kyrie Irving got an incredibly convenient illness the day of a crucial tanking game against the Wizards. It was fishy, although effective.
When all was said and done, the Cavaliers finished 21-45, good for the 3rd worst record in the NBA. On May 30th, the Cavs will have a 13.9% chance of getting the first overall pick in the draft and will be well on their way to returning to the playoffs. It was a brutal season. But a weird one, as well. The Cavs lost back-to-back home games each by 35+ points. Earlier in the year, the Cavs went on the road and took down the Thunder, Nuggets, and Rockets all in the same week. It was weird. Cleveland enters the offseason with four picks in the upcoming draft, a boatload of cap room, and a passionate owner who knows how much these fans deserve a winner.
It was an incredibly hectic and eventful season that went by in a flash, even though at times it seemed to go on forever. We're now two seasons removed from one of the most successful eras in Cavaliers basketball history. Give it two more years and this upcoming era might surpass it. The Cavs will add another impact player at the end of June and the playoffs are a definite possibility for 2012-13.
Two years ago, it was hard to get pumped to watch the Cavs. Now, I'm already counting down the days until the Summer League starts. No one truly knows what the future has in store for this franchise, but the 2012-13 season is going to be damn exciting. Believe that.