Hopefully by now we have all been able to recover from what was an incredibly difficult and depressing season for the Cavaliers. Before we move on completely, however, I'd like to revisit the season that was one more time. With the NBA Playoffs in full swing, it admittedly feels a bit unnatural to not see the Cavaliers competing for a shot at the title. It's something that we've grown accustomed to over the past 7 years, yet here we are. We find ourselves living vicariously through whatever team happens to be playing against Miami at the time while our Cavaliers look forward to the NBA lottery. It was a season without much to cheer about yet was not without intrigue. We all want to move on and look forward, but before you can improve in the future, you must learn from the past.
I hate to start at this point, but it seems necessary. The Decision. For the past several years the Cavaliers were one of the most impressive regular season teams and were legitimate title contenders. How does a 66 win-team turn into a 19 win-team in the matter of two years? I think you all know the answer to that. Following the Cavaliers' second round exit against the Boston Celtics in last year's playoffs, LeBron James opted to test free agency. Feel free to tell me how I missed all the obvious indicators, but I never truly thought he would leave Cleveland. Well, he did. James went on national television and dumped Cleveland for Miami in a spectacular display of arrogance and lack of tact. In merely 20 minutes, James went from hometown hero to public enemy number one. At the same time, the Cavaliers transformed from the league's elite into its laughing stock.
Following James' departure, expectations for the Cavaliers varied. Some expected the Cavs to immediately become one of the worst teams in the league. Others envisioned the Cavs fighting for one of the last playoff spots in the East. In short, it was the former. Of course, it isn't that simple. There was much more to it. If you merely watched the standings and the pathetic highlights shown on SportsCenter, then sure, that's all there was to it. But if you watched every game over the course of the season, this Cavaliers team was about much more than what the box score reflected.
As the season got underway, the team came out with something to prove. The remaining guys on the roster wanted to show that they were more than just a lousy supporting cast for the best player in the league. The Cavaliers pulled an unlikely upset on the first night of the season over the Celtics and the inspired play continued for a couple of weeks. The Cavs overachieved to a 7-9 record with LeBron's return to Cleveland looming large. Many people would agree that December 2nd was the turning point in both Cleveland and Miami's seasons. The teams had relatively similar records despite an enormous disparity in talent.
I can't fully describe what happened that night other than what the final score conveyed. LeBron walked into his former home and gave the Cavaliers the beating of a lifetime. The Cavs fought hard for the first 6 minutes or so, and then faded. We all knew that LeBron is the best player in the league, but tried to resist it by booing and telling him that he sucks. The crowd brought incredible passion and venom as chants of "Akron Hates You" echoed throughout the Q. For so long we had seen LeBron demolish other teams with his unparalleled athleticism and unbelievable playmaking ability and for the first time ever, he had turned it on us. You can say that it was just one game and just one of 29 other teams in the league, but you'd be wrong. That game was psychologically debilitating. From that point forward, this Cavs team was not the same. That game with Miami sapped the life from the teams and the Cavs never sniffed .500 again.
Following LeBron's first return to Cleveland, the teams became polar opposites. Miami started to destroy the rest of the league like everybody thought they would and Cleveland started to get destroyed. Every single night. The loss to Miami marked the first of 35 in the next 36 games. The Cavaliers played uninspired, horrific basketball for the next two months. When we look back on this Cavaliers season in five or ten years, the stretch that followed the loss to Miami will likely be what defines it. The record-setting 26 game losing streak with a few devastating injuries sprinkled here and there. The team's best defender, Anderson Varejao went down with a torn achilles and was lost for the rest of the season. Guard, Mo Williams was constantly plagued by an ailing hamstring and the team's leading scorer, Antawn Jamison, was shut down for the season with a broken pinkie. This team was not good to begin with, but if you take the leading rebounder and leading scorer away from ANY team in the NBA, they will be bad. Maybe not this bad, but they'd be bad. The result of this ridiculous combination of injuries and general lack of talent was one of the most pathetic NBA teams in history. The Cavaliers lost to the Lakers in what was essentially a microcosm of the entire season. The Lakers won by 55 points. Yes, you read that correctly: FIFTY FIVE POINTS. To think that a year ago, Cavs-Lakers was a potential NBA Finals preview and then see what it became is insane. The Cavaliers were embarrassed and thoroughly dominated in every phase of the game, night in and night out.
One of the more enjoyable moments of the Cavaliers' season came when the Clippers came to town. By the end of the losing streak, the Cavs started playing some better ball. Games were more competitive and late game execution was all that prevented the Cavs from snapping the skid. Fortunately for the Cavaliers, the Clippers were just as bad late in games and Cleveland pulled out an overtime victory to get back in the win column.
Coming into the season owner, Dan Gilbert, refused to accept the notion of the Cavaliers experiencing a period of rebuilding. He figured that the team still had enough pieces to contend for a playoff spot. Whether he actually believed that or was just in denial, it became strikingly obvious that this team needed a complete overhaul. As the trade deadline neared, the front office got busy and rumors started to fly. Essentially every player on the Cavs roster was mentioned in possible trades, with Mo Williams being the most notable to actually be traded. The Cavaliers' activity at the deadline was broken down into two deals. In the smaller of the two deals, the Cavs traded a future second round pick to the Celtics in exchange for two young big men in Luke Harangody and Semih Erden. Nobody really expects this deal to have much impact on the future of either of these franchises, but it helped acquire some young talent with reasonable potential. The "blockbuster" for the Cavs was a trade that sent Mo Williams and Jamario Moon to the Clippers in exchange for Baron Davis and LA's first round pick in 2011.
Without any background information, this trade looks like the Cavs ripped the Clippers off. However, Baron brings a horrific contract to Cleveland and many experts have deemed the 2011 draft class one of the worst in NBA history. Regardless, most Cavs fans like the trade and commend management for actively building towards the future. It remains to see where the Cavaliers will draft, but it is likely that they will have two picks within the first nine selections. Say what you want about this draft class, but two lottery players should definitely help out a team so desperate for talent.
The two months following the Cavaliers win over the Clippers were actually quite impressive (by the Cavs' standards). Baron Davis and Ramon Sessions played surprisingly well for most of the year and JJ Hickson seemed to come into his own as the year went on. Despite being firmly planted in the basement of the Eastern Conference, I was encouraged by the nightly effort that Byron Scott managed to withdraw from his roster. Davis shot an unreal percentage from behind the arc and provided invaluable veteran leadership. Nearly everybody proclaimed that Davis would remain disinterested and lazy as he relocated from Los Angeles to Cleveland, but he simply proved them wrong. Davis embraced his new fans and city on Twitter and was the go-to option in the clutch. No, I'm serious, this actually happened. Baron Davis' effort improved when he moved from California to Ohio. I think it's time we stop trying to figure out what goes on in that guy's head.
For the remainder of the season the Cavaliers continued to lose, but proved that they were no longer the worst team in the NBA. The general level of basketball improved drastically and the fans were rewarded with upsets over big-market teams such as the Knicks and Lakers. Finally, on March 29th, the highlight of the 2011 Cleveland Cavaliers season arrived. Dwyane Wade and his Miami Heat visited Cleveland for the last time and Cavs fans hoped for an entirely different outcome.
I can recall settling in to watch that game and summarizing my feelings to a friend. I didn't expect a win. I didn't expect to stay within single digits. I just wanted two things from my Cavaliers: a hard foul on LeBron and a sincere effort from each and every player. The loyal fans deserved as much and you know what? We got both of those things. Oh yeah, and a win. The crowd showed up and poured boos onto "King James" once again and this time, the team was equally passionate. Baron Davis led the charge as the Cavs built a twenty point lead on Miami. The lead diminished as talent took over and Cleveland found itself in another potentially heartbreaking situation. I sat there waiting for Miami to completely take over and bury the Cavs once and for all, but it never happened. The severely outmatched Cavaliers kept fighting and closed the fourth quarter out on a 12-0 run to put away the Miami Heat. I'm fully aware that it was only one game and meant essentially nothing in the standings to either team, but defeating LeBron James and his new team took an enormous load off of our shoulders. That one win gave us all reason to smile and cheer in a season filled with so much misery.
The Cavaliers finished 19-63, the second worst record in the NBA. This year is behind us and it is natural to want to simply forget everything about it. However, I maintain that in order for us to grow, we must learn from our previous mistakes. The Cavs have started to build towards the future with draft picks and other potential assets. I hope one day, we can look back at this year and be proud of how we, as fans, fought through such a difficult season and how we were better because of it. The offseason is a long one and the road to relevance for this franchise is even longer. Regardless, I'm proud to be a Cavaliers fan and wholeheartedly admire the strength and passion that this franchise and its fans have shown. The worst is behind us and I am cautiously optimistic about the future. For now, all we can do is look back, learn, and move on. All for one, one for all. Go Cavs.