INDEPENDENCE: A disappointing start to the Cavs’ season might have hurt their chances of landing LeBron James this summer.
But the trade they pulled off early Tuesday morning for the Chicago Bulls’ two-time All-Star Luol Deng might have kept them from losing the young core of their roster as well.
I’m not talking about the kids’ future decisions in free agency, although it could have ramifications there. I’m talking about the damaging psychological effects of the franchise’s litany of defeat, a stretch of three consecutive seasons without making the playoffs that appeared headed toward four.
Coach Mike Brown can talk all he wants about how close the Cavs are to turning it around. Four of their previous 10 games before Tuesday night’s home contest against the Philadelphia 76ers had gone to overtime. Twelve of their 23 losses had been by seven points or less.
Brown is probably right. Going into the season, the Cavs were the second-youngest team in the league. They might be maturing now and perhaps starting to jell. But for the nine players on the roster under 24 who need a reward for their hard work, continually coming close and failing might have been sending them into an even-deeper mental funk.
Deng, able to affect a game both offensively and defensively, can help change all that.
In one stunning swoop — stunning because it didn’t involve the Los Angeles Lakers’ Pau Gasol and because of how little the Cavs gave up — they finalized a deal for Andrew Bynum that should have effects on many fronts.
It filled a gaping hole at small forward.
It likely saved General Manager Chris Grant’s job.
It might have kept a surprisingly loyal fan base from bailing.
It preserved Brown’s sanity.
And it could have done wonders for the Cavs’ battered psyches.
No one will admit how fragile, how mentally beaten down the team could have been.
“I think you worry about that with anybody in any situation, but our guys have been pretty resilient,” Brown said after Tuesday’s shootaround. “They’ve faced a lot of ups and downs this year, especially with all the tough losses. They’ve all seemed to bounce back and kept trying to go forward.”
I know the Cavs are expected to give maximum effort every night. But it’s tough to keep the losing culture from seeping into their brains when they fail no matter how many points Kyrie Irving puts up or how valuable Dion Waiters is starting to look. The Browns can attest to how hard that culture is to erase.
The Cavs’ situation certainly wasn’t as bad as during the team-record 26-game losing streak in 2010-11, the season after James departed for the Miami Heat. But expectations were higher going into 2013-14. This was supposed to be the year the Cavs reached the playoffs. Yet it looked like it wasn’t going to happen, no matter how many rebounds Anderson Varejao pulled down or how much they improved on defense under Brown’s tutelage.
They desperately needed a teacher to show them what it takes to be a pro. They desperately needed a leader. They desperately needed a lift.
“[It was] definitely an emotional lift for everybody in the locker room, just to get another piece,” Irving said before Tuesday’s game at Quicken Loans Arena. “Luol for our perimeter game can definitely give us the lift that we need.”
Tristan Thompson was encouraged by the timing of the deal, forced by a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline, when the Cavs had to pay Bynum another $6 million, but long before the league’s Feb. 20 trade deadline. It was also before Thursday’s start of a five-game West Coast trip.
Thompson pointed to the Cavs’ 2-15 road record as an area Deng can help.
“Especially for us young guys, having a guy who has had success in his career individually and as a team, it’s going to help us a lot,” Thompson said. “He can help teach us, especially on the road, what it takes to win.”
He said Deng’s high-character reputation fits the mold of the type of players the Cavs seek.
“The professionalism he brings to the table, that’s one of the things you hear about first when people mention Luol Deng,” Brown said. “It’s second to none, and I’m excited to be around it.”
Some argue the Cavs would have been better off doing nothing and assuring themselves of another lottery pick. I don’t agree. I like that they made a statement that they want to win now. I believe there is value in making the playoffs, even if it means getting swept in the first round.
The young Cavs must learn how the atmosphere and intensity change in the playoffs. They must see how perennial all-stars step up their game in the postseason.
They think they know the league, but they don’t know what it’s like after mid-April.
Worst-to-first is more of an NFL phenomenon. In recent years, NBA teams usually build toward a championship, taking their playoff licks for a year or two. Tuesday’s trade should help the Cavs take the first step.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.