CLEVELAND: Thirty-three thoughts for 33 victories this season following a 114-85 win against the Brooklyn Nets in the season finale…
1. Let’s start with Kyrie Irving. He was asked again tonight about signing a max contract this summer (by my count the third time it has come up) and he again refused to say he would accept it. But he came closer than ever before.
2. “It’s a big deal for me and my family if they do offer me that,” he said. “It would be exciting and I’ll make the best decision for me and my family. That’s what it’s going to boil down to for myself. I’ve been a part of this and I want to continue to be part of this.”
3. I’ve said this at least 1,000 times, so let’s go for 1,001: I have absolutely no idea what Irving will do this summer. None.
4. But I know the concept of getting him out of Cleveland has been very real since early in his second season. I also know there are those within the Cavs who question whether or not he’s worth a max deal. Add it all up and … anything is possible this summer. Anything.
5. Irving could sign on for the full five years, he could ask for an opt-out after three or he could reject the deal outright. It would be a huge gamble to reject the deal entirely – no player on a rookie deal has ever done that.
6. Former Cavs GM Chris Grant had a strict belief of what a max contract meant: The full five years, no opt-out clauses. Anything less than a guaranteed five years wouldn’t be considered a max.
7. But with Grant gone, the rules of engagement on the Cavaliers side may change. But that won’t be known until the front office and coaching staff is sorted out. Ultimately, Dan Gilbert will have the final call on whether to give Irving an opt-out if that’s what he desires.
8. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I think the Cavs have to at least explore the idea of trading Irving this summer. His sometimes pouty attitude has soured enough people, and there are enough people in the organization who question whether or not he’s worth a max deal, that it makes sense to at least explore it.
9. I understand how ridiculous it sounds to trade a two-time All-Star (and All-Star MVP) who is still on his rookie contract. It also complicates trades, since most of the players they’d be targeting to get back make twice as much. But I’d have to think they could get quite a haul for Irving this summer and more importantly, teams start getting into problems with the cap when they start overpaying for guys.
10. And given his injury history, if you truly don’t believe he’s worthy of the max, I think it’s dangerous to sign him to a max. Now if you think he’s worth it, that’s entirely different. But plenty of people in this organization have their doubts.
11. Now that I’ve mentioned his injury history, I also have to say he appeared in 71 games this season. Good on him. Sure, he still had a couple injuries pop up, but he needed to prove he can be durable and he did.
12. The way the Cavs finished this season should be enough to save Brown’s job. Firing him would be a huge mistake. Teams can’t continually reshuffle at the top and expect to have any success. And three coaches in three years, particularly for a team this young, isn’t good for anyone.
13. Brown has a brilliant basketball mind. For whatever reason, he seemed to struggle this season connecting with these players. But it’s quite remarkable he turned this into a top-12 defensive team in just one year. I don’t think he’s getting enough credit for that.
14. The Cavs were dead last in the league in defensive field-goal percentage last year. They ended this season 12th. That’s a huge jump, particularly since the Cavs don’t really have many individual defenders. Luol Deng is still pretty good and Matthew Dellavedova is tenacious. That’s it.
15. The individual post defenders on this team are all below average. The perimeter guys have, at times, been a swinging gate. And Brown coaxed them into nearly a top 10 defense. That’s remarkable.
16. The Cavs went 17-16 over the final nine weeks. That’s nearly half the season of slightly-above .500 basketball – which is exactly what was expected of this team all along.
17. As Brown has hinted at multiple times recently and said again Wednesday, the start to this season simply left the Cavs buried in too big of a hole. They went 4-12 in November and 5-9 in December.
18. “I think the team in that locker room has a chance to be a playoff team and grow together, but I don’t know if we’re good enough to start (10-21) and think it’ll be easy to make that ground up, especially with the inexperience we have in a lot of areas,” Brown said. “Maybe we just weren’t ready, but I’d like to take some of those games back so we wouldn’t have been in as big a hole from January on.”
19. Andrew Bynum’s signing crippled the Cavs’ progress. I hailed it at the time as a no-risk move, but ultimately it was probably the biggest reason why the Cavs started so slowly – and why they’re out of the playoffs today.
20. But the creative structuring of that contract is also the vehicle that brought Luol Deng here for next to nothing. And Deng may not have produced the type of numbers expected, but he carried a much-needed veteran voice in the locker room that preached the same defensive message Brown was teaching.
21. Bynum, however, probably screwed up this team more than anyone thought possible. He wasn’t practicing, which not only irritated some of the younger players, but made ingratiating him into the offense so difficult.
22. Brown was criticized for saying the early-season games sort of served as practice time, but he was right because Bynum’s knees prevented him from actually practicing. So the only time Irving, Dion Waiters and the rest of them ever played with him was during games.
23. Bynum came here with a positive attitude and for a while was arguably the hardest worker on the team. But I’ve maintained all along when he returned to the floor and still had pain in his knees, he began to question if this was all worth it – particularly while playing for a team that was losing two out of three nights. And when his attitude turned, it turned fast.
24. By the way, I’ve spoken to a number of people who believe it’s not a coincidence the Cavs finally started to play better when Bynum left. Similarly, a lot of people believe it’s not a coincidence the Pacers crumbled once he arrived. Food for thought…
25. Back to the present.
26. “I’m proud of the guys and proud of the season,” Brown said. “These guys have been pretty good for the last 2-3 months. I give them credit for it. I give them credit for trying to stick with it, trying to get better, trying to prove to themselves they can win in this league. I look at (this season) more as a positive except for those first two months. I wish I could take some of those games back.”
27. This team still has its issues. I could see a path for all 15 of the guys on this team to not return next season. Of course, that’s not going to happen. No NBA team will turn over its entire roster in one summer.
28. But the point remains that nothing is guaranteed at this point. Nothing is given. Everything is on the table and open for discussion. It’s probably one of the more fascinating teams of this offseason.
29. This absolutely should be a playoff team. It is certainly one of the eight most talented in this pitiful Eastern Conference. And while it appears Washington, Charlotte and Toronto have passed them in the rebuilding cycle, I’d argue only the Raptors really passed them. And I’d also argue the Raptors don’t have anyone nearly as talented as Irving.
30. The Wizards began their rebuild the year before the Cavs. The Bobcats, Cavs and Raptors all started at the same time. Steve Clifford did an amazing job with the Bobcats this season, but had it not been for that miserable start by the Cavs, they’d be in that same position. I’m not one to play the woulda, coulda, shoulda game, but I don’t think the Cavs are that far behind where those other teams are. And I’m not sure the Raptors can hold on to this position going forward. We’ll see.
31. What a season. It has been a brutal journey, but at the same time it has gone lightning quick. The Plain Dealer’s Mary Schmitt-Boyer and I were reminiscing the other day about sitting in a coffee shop in Boston on the morning of Dec. 28. Everything worked out perfectly with our travel schedules, we just sat down for a cup of coffee a few hours before the game when she remarked at how well the day was going.
32. Not even 10 minutes later, the phone rang with news of Bynum’s suspension. The rest of the season is a blur.
33. Thanks for coming back for these Final Thoughts morning after morning. I had no idea they’d take off and become as popular as they did this year. On many nights, I’d wished I’d never started it. It became difficult finding new material and new ideas, and some nights I gave up and went to bed, but I appreciate you coming back day after day. There is so much uncertainty regarding this team right now that it’s bound to be a wild summer. Hold on tight and enjoy the ride. See you in October.