Grantland's Bill Simmons has been negative about the Cleveland Cavaliers for some time now. He didn't like Dan Gilbert and Chris Grant bringing Mike Brown back. He was shocked by the Anthony Bennett pick. He thought signing Andrew Bynum was insane.
And, while the jury is out on Brown and Bennett, the early returns aren't exactly promising. Bynum was an unequivocal disaster. You might feel good about it being a contract that brought Deng on board ...but Deng hasn't been a difference maker here, either. In the meantime, it seems pretty clear Bynum was a negative influence in the locker room on top of the awful player he was on the court.
In Simmons' latest mailbag, he once again has negative things to say about the team:
Speaking of tanking, the Cavs have no chance of catching Atlanta (they’re six games back for the no. 8 seed) even if Kyrie Irving’s injury creates some Ewing Theory potential. I caught Cleveland in person on Sunday against the Clips — that’s the most miserable visiting team I’ve seen in a couple years. They make the Kings or Wolves look like the 2008 Celtics. The normally happy-go-lucky Anderson Varejao looked like a little kid learning that his parents were getting divorced for two solid hours. Jarrett Jack and Dion Waiters were in "Eff this, I’m gettin’ mine" mode. And poor Luol Deng looked he was waiting for Liam Neeson to save him. Did Mike Brown really have teams quit on him in consecutive seasons? That has to be a record, right? This Cavs franchise has been drunk for two and a half solid years. And not even about-to-pass-out drunk, more like won’t-stop-talking-won’t-go-to-bed-keeps-spilling-things drunk. Can somebody steal their car keys and put them in a cab?
So, there are a few things going on here. I don't want this post to be a sentence by sentence argument with one paragraph Simmons wrote. It's been noted by people all season that the Cavaliers don't have great body language. Kyrie pouts, Dion sulks when things don't go his way, Jarrett Jack looks perpetually sour, etc.
(An aside, though: Is Anderson Varejao really "happy-go-lucky"? I don't think this has ever really been the case.)
What isn't clear is that the Cavaliers have actually quit on Mike Brown. This isn't to say that things are going well for Brown, or the Cavaliers. It isn't to say that Brown is the right coach moving forward. I genuinely don't know how I feel about that. But this is a young team that has had A LOT of things go horribly wrong. I'm not going to list them. The team had a ton of question marks heading into the season. I think most of us thought a few of them would break the Cavaliers way. I don't know if you could say any of them did.
And yet, the Cavaliers have quietly, painfully, slowly been getting better throughout the season. They have more wins than they did last year, with about a month left in the season. Without a great defender anywhere on the roster, the team has improved in defensive efficiency by seven spots. That's alright. The team is 16-21 in 2014. None of this is great, of course. But after a season in which it appeared the team quit on past coach Byron Scott, the fact that the team is trending up is cause for at least some optimism.
Mike Brown himself sees it:
"I’ve been around this league for a long time. 99% of teams in our situation would have folded up shop right now and tried to coast through the rest of the season. But it matters to the guys in the locker room when we lose. And they feel good about winning."
Even with the team losing Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, C.J. Miles, Luol Deng, and Anderson Varejao of late in a hellish part of the schedule, the team has been competitive, beating the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors. They were down by seven in the 4th quarter in Los Angeles against the Clippers, and withstood a torrid start from one of the Miami Heat's players on Tuesday night. The team had a real chance to win late.
So, Bill Simmons, you won't read this and that's fine. Kudos on getting the Bynum thing right. I hope Mike Brown one day proves you wrong. I am happy the Cavaliers employ Kyrie Irving and not Derrick Williams.
But mostly, I'm happy that a bunch of weird fitting Cavaliers pieces that have had a bunch of bad things happen to them keep showing up pretty consistently. We aren't all thrilled with the individual progress of players like Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, at least as it shows up on basketball-reference.com. But if they are building up some mental toughness? Well that's pretty important too.