I haven’t wanted to make any declaring statements on the Cavs until the All-Star Break. This is a young team going through a wide variety of changes (New Coach, new scheme, new players) under extreme pressure from ownership to win now during these changes. While this isn’t a true evaluation, here’s just a few quick hits on this Cavs team at the break.
1.) Have the Cavs turned the corner?
You would have to say so. They haven’t won 4 straight since LBJ MIA Never Forgiven was here. They look loose and are having fun again. You see more hustle and heart on both sides of the ball. I think at points during this early season they were putting in the effort but when it didn’t immediately turn into results they grew frustrated. Learning anything is frustrating especially when you have to experience growing pains in front of 50,000 people (at least live and on TV) with the world nitpicking your every move. I think they’ve grown past that. What I really love about this team and why I really think they’ve turned the corner is they’re getting production from all over.
Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony “Don’t call me Bust” Bennett have all had great games making this not a 1 man show anymore. I think these past few games have been huge for Dion Waiters. Before he was often criticized for poor shot selections and not using his explosive game to get to the rim. I think he turned the corner before the winning streak began. Go back to the loss against the Pelicans where Dion posted 21 points at about 70% shooting while shooting 75% from beyond the arc. The following nights he shot 53% and 57% all while over 50% shooting from 3. Followed by two duds, he exploded again shooting 61% for 24 points against the Wizards to start this 4 game win streak (and don’t forget this monster of clincher against Memphis). He’s also getting more involved in the passing game posting games of 6 and 8 assists, something he’s only done once all season. Bennett’s turn around also started during the Pelicans game when he posted his first double digit scoring outing with 15 (going 2 for 3 at the 3 point line) and also grabbed 8 rebounds. Since then he’s had 3 double digit games (including the monstrous double-double game), had rebound games of 10, 8 and 6 and is starting to shoot the 3 ball better. The other important thing to look at is the quality of opponents they’ve beaten in this 4 game stretch. Both the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards are currently ahead of the Cavs in the playoff standings (Plus the Memphis Grizzlies, who would be 3rd in the East). These are the games they need to win if they want to make the playoffs.
2.) Have the Cavs achieved their early season goals?
I would say in a weird way they have or at least come close. It has not been pretty but all offseason long we wanted to make playoffs. Dan Gilbert has made that a main priority since the lottery and early on I loved that. Then when it looked like this team wasn’t responding I started to wonder if that really was best. Putting so much pressure on this young team going through many changes especially with the draft supposed to be the new gold standard of NBA drafts? But I have to agree with him, the losing culture needs to stop and guys like Thompson, Waiters and Irving need to start gutting out some wins and turning hard fought losses into wins.
Obviously it would be better to be in the playoffs as we stand but the only thing that matters is being in that top 8 at the end of the season. Right now the Cavs sit 3 games out of the playoffs and 7 games out of 4th place and home field advantage. Both of these things are realistic goals, not only because of the Cavs recent play but also by the teams in front of them. The teams currently in front are the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Wizards, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Bobcats, Pistons and New York Knicks. The Pacers and Heat are going to stay in the top 2, everything else could change drastically. The Raptors might be on the market trading one of their best players in Kyle Lowry due to an impending free agency walk. The Bulls just made the big trade trading one of their All-Stars for cap relief plus they’re going to be without star Derrick Rose for the rest of the season so I’ll be surprised if they stay that high. I think eventually it’ll be Pacers, Heat, then these 6 in any order; Hawks, Wizards, Cavs, Raptors, Nets, and Pistons with the Cavs having a serious push towards that 4th spot.
3.) What should their goals be in the last part of the season?
Obviously priority #1 is making the playoffs but I think the team’s goals first should be to continue to grow together. The line that had the most current talent at this point is Kyrie Irving, Waiters, Luol Deng, Thompson and Anderson Varejao (thought I really want to see some Bennett at the 4 with Thompson at the 5 sets). Though lately Waiters and Irving have been playing better together that hasn’t always been the case, same could be said about Thompson when Varejao is on the floor. Irving, Waiters, Bennett and Thompson are the core players (I’d like Deng to be added to that list but I’m not sure about his impending free agency). Their success together is going to be what drives this Cavs team in the future. If they continue to make strides together and on the defensive side of the ball the last quarter of the season’s goal should be to get home field advantage. I’m also optimistic that if the Cavs can avoid the 7th or 8th spot, they’ll have a solid chance of winning a playoff series.