Over the past five years, the Cleveland Cavaliers have experienced both extremes of the NBA spectrum. They were a contender, winning over 60+ games in the first two years of the Mo Williams era. But after the departure of Sebastian Telfair and others in the summer of 2010, the Cavaliers found themselves as one of the leagues bottom feeders for three consecutive years.
Coming into this season there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic and believe that our fortunes were going to turn around. Free agent acquisitions such as Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark were all viewed to be upgrades over the players they were replacing. The Cavs also added the #1 pick in the draft in Anthony Bennett and a promising young player in Sergey Karasev. Mike Brown replaced Byron Scott and this team was supposed to make a leap.
So far, the Cavaliers have stumbled out of the gate with a 7 and 13 record through their first 20 games. So what gives? We were supposed to land in the bottom three playoff seeds in the East! Is it time to panic? You can panic if you want, but I'm not going to. Cavs fans have become used to rooting for a team that is awesome or a team that is truly horrendous. This team is somewhere in the middle. I'm don't know any of this for sure, but here's my best guess at how to handle rooting for this incredibly mediocre basketball team.
You have to be patient.....again.
Working with young players is a process (if you listen to post game interviews, you'll hear Mike Brown say this after every game). For all the great things Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson do on the basketball court they are still very flawed players. <BRAKES SLAM, screeching sound > "But Justin, these were all top 4 picks in their drafts! They shouldn't be so flawed and be making an immediate impact! Does this mean they are busts?" No it doesn't mean that at all. The Cavs are in a unique position because three of their five starters are 21, 22, and 22 years old. While it is true that there are young players making large impacts on playoff teams, they are usually accompanied with an established veteran that shoulders a large part of the load on offense. Damian Lillard has LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum to help carry the load. Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes? They have Curry, Bogut, Lee and Iguodala. Kawhi Leonard? He has a few veterans around him.
This doesn't mean that the Cavaliers can't have success this season. But the reality is that young players are inconsistent. Experience in the league is a big deal, not just in games played, but meaningful games battling for playoff seeding. These loses early force the players to look themselves in the mirror and ask what role they can play that best helps the team to win. It's not just about numbers and development anymore, it's time to start winning.
They are going to win some games that they shouldn't have any business winning this season, and they are going to get blown out by bad teams and cough up big leads. This is what young inexperienced teams do, it doesn't worry me that these are some of the character traits this team is showing. They are far from finished products as players and the team is barely 25% done with their first season as a unit. They will continue to mature and grow throughout the year. Not all of them will realize their potential, but playing them and giving them the opportunity to sink or swim is necessary in order to find out who can play and who can't. It is important to try and not to read too much into every mistake and loss. You can't expect a finished product with a team this young.
Don't freak out about every little thing.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are not the San Antonio Spurs. They do not have a system that's been in place for a long time. They can't go out and sign free agents that they know will fit into their system. Mike Brown has used 4,948 starting lineups so far this year. That's because he's searching for something that works. It's a new system with new players and the pieces don't fit together very well right now. Can Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving play together? Can Thompson and Bynum play together? Sometimes a less talented player will be the key to making a certain lineup work. We've seen Matthew Dellavedova act as a catalyst on offense. It's not always obvious which lineups will work and that's why Brown needs to do some experimenting.
In the meantime, we can't allow ourselves to overreact to every high and low that comes throughout this season. Instead try to focus on the development of each player on each night. For example against the Clippers, Dion Waiters had a very poor shooting night, he lost his man a few times on defense and struggled in general. However, he stayed engaged mentally. He contested a few key shots late, improved his decision-making with the ball as the game went on, and even grabbed a key rebound off his own missed free throw late. If you just look at the box score you might find yourself panicking over a poor night shooting. But if you take his makes and misses out of it, you will see the small steps towards being a more well rounded player necessary to make him a part of this teams future.
Our players are going to make a ton of mistakes throughout the year. How they respond to it, both in game and in the next game, will go a long way towards their overall development. It's frustrating, but the way to escape that frustration is not to just close up shop and tank for a high draft pick. Our players know how to do that, they're actually quite good at it. What they need to learn how to do is to push through the trials of a regular season, get back up after they've been knocked down and dig deep for a win. Mike Brown will not stop teaching his young players and these young players will not stop trying to win games.
Big questions for the second quarter of the season
- Can Kyrie Irving improve his shot selection? There is obviously an adjustment period that accompanies playing with a center that takes up a large portion of the paint. Kyrie Irving is at his best getting to the basket. He needs to continue attacking the rim, but can't force those looks when they are not there. Look for more picks to be set to free up both Irving as well as some space in the paint. Bynum isn't really a pick and roll player, so the responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson to help free Irving. It would also be nice to see him knock down his open shots consistently. Kyrie being Kyrie again would really help this team out.
- Ball movement. The Cavaliers were very stagnant in the half court offense to start this season. We're slowly starting to see more extra passes and less sticky fingers. This is certainly something to keep an eye on moving forward and hopefully a trend that continues.
- Chemistry between the bigs. While it was ugly early, it appears that Tristan Thompson and Andrew Bynum are learning how to play next to one another. It'd be nice to see their respective FG%'s rise and continue their strong play. It'll also be interesting to see if Anderson Varejao can return to form. He's had a few throwback performances in a row and if he can become the old Andy, this team will be a lot tougher to play.
- Can Anthony Bennett be an NBA player? He's showing flashes of being a bad NBA player rather than a guy who doesn't deserve to be on a court. Hopefully the second quarter of the season brings more of that with flashes of competency. I'm not asking for a miracle, just continued baby steps towards being a real NBA player.
- Will Dion continue his growth? As I mentioned above, he has shown an improvement in his maturity and his decision making lately. I really want to see this continue and my guess is that if he continues down this path, we'll be seeing Dion back in the starting lineup in the not too distant future.
- Will the Cavs make a trade? Chris Grant never stays put. He's the type of GM that is always looking to make moves. I honestly have no idea what is in store for this roster, but with the improved chemistry this team is showing I'm not sure I'm comfortable making any moves to disrupt the core of this team. It'll be interesting to see if he can make a move to help this team without ruining the progress that's been made so far this season and forcing them to hit the reset button.
The struggles this team has faced so far don't really surprise me. It's part of having a young team with a lot of roster turnover. But the development I've seen out of the players has really been encouraging. Not many people believed this was a roster capable of playing defense, yet they've given some of the most potent offenses in the league a hard time. The offense has taken a long time to get rolling, but there are some small signs that it's finally coming together. This team is trying to establish an identity and that's a lot more than you can say about the teams we've seen over the past three years. While it's tough to watch the team struggle at times, I'm still very optimistic about what the rest of this season has in store.