In the NBA it can take years to become not only relevant, but a top five team competing for a championship. Unless you have deep pockets like the Miami Heat to purchase a title, years of losing and lottery picks can test a team’s fan base and media’s patience. That is going on now in Cleveland with the Cavaliers.
The Cavs go into Tuesday night’s game at home with Charlotte at 14-34, third worst record in the NBA. Yet the Cavs have shown improvement, going 5-5 in their last ten games, including a win Saturday night over Oklahoma City. However after being in the upper echelon of the NBA just four years ago, can a return to that plateau be sooner or later?
Make no mistake. The attitude around the Cleveland basketball team isn’t “cavalier” at all. Rather owner Dan Gilbert, GM Chris Grant and coach Byron Scott believe the best way to get back into the top five is through the draft and subsequent trades. Consider the success of the Thunder with that plan.
Gilbert bought the club two years into the Lebron James experiment and found trying to build around one superstar is harder than thought. James believed he could dictate to the organization who to get and what he could do. This regime isn’t interested in returning to those ideas.
Slowly but surely Grant has accumulated several draft picks to use over the next 2-4 years. In fact the latest trade with Memphis receiving Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby and a first round pick in 4 years for Jon Leuer was a steal. Even if Speights is the only player to stick, it was a deal that improves the front court and can allow the Cavs to trade Anderson Varejao in the off season. In retrospect Grant probably should have pulled the trigger on Varejao before this season.
Speights played outstanding on Saturday night and is becoming a fan favorite. 21 points and 10 rebounds in the middle, teamed with power forward Tristan Thompson is improving the team and their intensity level.
Thompson, the fourth pick in the draft with Kyrie Irving two years ago out of Texas, is beginning to come into his own. The 21 year old has improved dramatically since Varejao went down with the blood clots. Since the injury, Thompson is averaging 14 points and 12 rebounds per game, all without the Cavs running plays to set him up. He garners most of his points by hustle and positioning, something he is learning along the way. He has also learned how to play inside and score effectively with either hand.
Yet questions abound if Scott is the proper coach for this team. His previous success, two strait NBA Finals appearances with New Jersey and a Western Conference finals berth with New Orleans proves he can win in this league. Cleveland went 19-63 in Scott’s first season, losing a league record 26 consecutive games. Yet the coach managed to stay positive, never losing the team while suffering one of the worst seasons in team history.
The Cavs finished 21-45 last year, but Irving flourished in Scott’s system. Irving is considerable better than last year, and is the best “clutch” players in the NBA, according to stats. In games within 5 points either way in the final 5 minutes, Irving leads the league in scoring. He also has more game winning shots this season than any other player.
Many believe Scott still wants the Laker job, should it come open again. Others feel his coaching of defense is lacking, depending instead on outscoring the opponent. At least one accusation is wrong.
One cannot deny Scott would probably consider the Lakers job if offered. It is the club he made his name as a player and is still close with many in the organization. His basketball philosophy fits the Los Angeles market and he would be the prodigal son returning.
Certainly every coach would love to go home. Scott is no different. However he understands this isn’t the time. His time in Los Angeles can come later, if possible. Right now the job at hand is with the Cavaliers, and the Cavs have more future talent on hand than the Lakers. Scott is in the middle of a rebuilding job, why leave for Los Angeles to start another?
Defense is a problem for the Cavs. Ranked 26th in the league they give up an average 101.2 points per game, just a shade worse than the Lakers. Team defense is always the last thing a contender learns, even experienced teams in the NBA struggle from night to night with defensive consistency. With the youth on this team, an effective offense is starting to produce results. The defense will follow.
Scott wants this team to be a fast breaking, high scoring machine. Yes defense is in the plan, yet this team is built to score. Is that a defect in the Scott game plan for this club? It could be.
Defense wins titles but with the talent on this Cavs team they can become a running team. Irving is fast learning to become one of the premier point guards in the league and an effective ‘go-to’ man in the fourth quarter.
That alone is enough to set up this club for years to come.
Dave Mitchell co-hosts with Mark Donahue the UST talk show “Ohio Baseball Weekly,” highlighting the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds. The Show returns on March 4th, at 9pm with a two-hour special.