The Cavaliers closed out 2012 the same way they opened it — facing the Nets. The year began with a New Year’s Day victory over them and concluded Saturday night in Barclays Center, the Nets’ sparkling new home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In between marked a year of losing, sprinkled with memorable highs and crushing lows. Everyone loves a good top 10 list, so here is one more: The 10 most memorable, meaningful and important events that shaped the Cavaliers’ quest for relevance again in the NBA.
Most of them, not surprisingly, center on Kyrie Irving.
Honorable mention goes to Irving’s brilliant performance in winning MVP of the Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend and his jaw-dropping moves during his week in Las Vegas with Team USA. They did not make this list, however, because they didn’t directly impact the Cavaliers’ season. But they sure made the rest of the country take notice.
10. Nov. 5, L.A. story
For one night, everything went right in a 108-101 victory at the Los Angeles Clippers. It was just the fourth game of the season, but this was the type of performance team executives envisioned when they assembled this roster.
Everything Dion Waiters hoisted went in, Irving was terrific and Anderson Varejao left Staples Center with his first of many double-doubles.
ESPN’s Bill Simmons, a Clippers season-ticket holder, left the game impressed with the Cavs’ young nucleus. “Irving-Waiters backcourt is genuinely exciting,” he wrote on his Twitter account after the game. “Really fun Cavs team. I’d pay to see Irving, Waiters and Varejao again — those 3 guys all give a crap. Really impressed.”
9. March 7-11, Winning in the West
Irving was at his very best on March 7 when he drove the length of the floor to beat the buzzer and give the Cavs a 100-99 victory over the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center.
Antawn Jamison had 21 points and Irving had 12 assists two nights later when the Cavs completed the stunning road sweep with a 96-90 shocker at Oklahoma City. It ended the Thunder’s 14-game home winning streak and was just their second home loss of the season. Unfortunately, no one in Cleveland was really paying attention because it was the same night the Washington Redskins made the trade to move up to No. 2, ultimately securing quarterback Robert Griffin III in the NFL draft.
8. Dec. 15, Irving’s sleepy night
He was going on just four hours of sleep, he was playing with a clunky black mask to protect a bone he fractured in his jaw the night before and he was facing constant pressure and double teams, yet Irving still dazzled with a career-high 41 points in a 103-102 loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
This is the problem the Knicks face constantly. Teams, and particularly star players, always want to perform at their best in what is easily the league’s most hallowed arena still in use. A number of stars, including LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, have done some of their best work at the Garden. Now Irving has, too.
7. Losses pile up
The Cavs have endured three separate losing streaks of at least six games and another of five games. They began Saturday 27-67 this year and will end it with one of the league’s five-worst records, although they’re in no danger of taking the crown as the league’s worst franchise. The Charlotte Bobcats (13-79 this year entering the weekend) clinched that title long ago thanks to three separate losing streaks of at least 16 games.
All of the constant losing, however, is taking a toll on the Cavs’ players, coaches and front office.
6. Feb. 10, Wild injury
Anderson Varejao was lost for the season to a fractured wrist in a 113-112 overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. It marked the second time in as many years Varejao’s season was cut dramatically short by an injury.
The Cavs were playing relatively well until that point and remained on the fringe of the playoff chase with a 10-15 record. They went just 11-30 the rest of the way, and while a number of other factors contributed to the collapse (Ramon Sessions trade), Varejao’s injury began the downfall.
He is hurt again, of course. Varejao remains sidelined with a bruised knee. He has already missed 10 days and Varejao said Friday he expects to miss about another week.
5. Jan. 29, Irving grows in the Garden
It took Irving exactly 19 games to make his first game-winning shot. He did it at Boston’s TD Garden against a fierce Celtics defense, but found enough wiggle room with a spin move and a split of two defenders.
It was a key moment in Irving’s growth and occurred with his father, who attended Boston University, watching from the stands. Irving has always been fearless, but that shot gave him the confidence to hit future game-winners against the Sacramento Kings and the Nuggets.
Irving is fearless in the moment. Waiters has that look, too, although he has yet to get his first game-winner.
4. March 15, Sessions trade
Knowing he was going to opt out of his contract and they would lose him at the end of the season, the Cavaliers traded Ramon Sessions to the Los Angeles Lakers for essentially a first-round pick and the right to swap picks with the Miami Heat’s first-round selection in next summer’s draft.
With the help of a second trade on draft night, that Lakers pick became Tyler Zeller. Which brings us to …
3. June 28, NBA draft
The Cavaliers surprised most everyone by selecting Dion Waiters fourth overall, then surprised themselves by trading up and getting Zeller at No. 17. Waiters was called a reach for the fourth pick, but has shown flashes of explosiveness along with an inconsistent jumper.
Waiters is shooting just 37 percent, he has at times frustrated coach Byron Scott with his insistence to take long jumpers and he has faded at times after quick starts. None of that is surprising for a rookie. Waiters has a ton of talent. If he can simplify his shot selection and truly adopt the mindset of getting to the basket, he has the ingredients to be special.
2. May 30, Flip of fate
It’s a moot point now, but the Cavaliers were a coin flip away from adding Anthony Davis to Kyrie Irving, joining together the two rookies with the most impact from each of the last two drafts.
The Cavs won a tiebreaking coin flip over the New Orleans Hornets prior to the lottery for the third set of lottery numbers and the extra combination that came with it. The Hornets were slotted fourth, which is where the winning combination fell.
With Davis on board, there would likely be no Zeller or Waiters. The Cavs might have traded Anderson Varejao already. It’s difficult to grasp how different this team would look, and Davis has been injured much of the season, but the Cavs would have two clear franchise pieces. If only …
1. May 15, Rookie wonder
Irving capped a marvelous first season with the Rookie of the Year award, earning 117 of a possible 120 first-place votes. He averaged 18.5 points and 5.4 assists and continues to provide Cavs fans with a reason for hope every night.
Fans might not realize it, but the Cavs have produced the Most Valuable Player and the Rookie of the Year in a span of three seasons. Now they just need to get him more help to go with it.
Happy New Year.