The Cavaliers staggered into the All-Star break last season with a 10-46 record, 15 games out of the playoffs and simply hoping for a quick and painless conclusion to the season. A playoff berth in the next three years seemed about as likely as LeBron James coming back to town.
One year later, all of that has changed. The Cavs enter the break at 13-18, one game behind the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks in the loss column for the final two playoff berths in the Eastern Conference. It makes the Cavs one of the biggest surprise teams of the first half in this lockout-shortened NBA season.
“We’re shocking the hell out of everybody right now,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said. “And I love it.”
The Cavs are defending better, they’re competing every night and they’ve at least given themselves a chance to win most every game except for three blowout losses. With a young roster, Scott is thrilled to get great effort in 28 out of 31 games.
Even more amazing, they’ve done it with essentially the same pieces that added up to a 19-63 season a year ago.
“It speaks volumes to what kind of guys we have in this locker room,” Antawn Jamison said. “And we still feel like we let the majority of our games slip away. The tale of the second half is whether we can find a way to make up some of those games.”
There were a few crucial additions to the roster, of course. Rookie Kyrie Irving is the unanimous favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award. He has breathed life into a franchise that was hurting badly following James’ departure, in part because Irving has been better than expected.
Fellow rookie Tristan Thompson isn’t nearly as polished, but he’s an athletic freak who can block shots and rebound like a veteran. His offensive game is awful, but the Cavs love how he works and takes instruction.
Omri Casspi has been a disappointment at small forward, but the rest of the roster remains the same from last season, begging the question: How a team can improve so dramatically in such a condensed period of time?
Scott insists he isn’t surprised the Cavs are vastly better. He has learned through his first two coaching stops in New Jersey and New Orleans that players need about a full season to adjust to his style of coaching.
He pampers no one, he’ll call out anyone publicly who isn’t performing and his tough-love approach has rankled plenty of players both young and old over the years. But players typically come to appreciate him and learn how to perform for him.
“I’m not surprised by where we are right now,” Scott said. “We as a staff, going into the season having added the guys we added, we felt we were going to be a much better basketball team.”
As the Cavaliers prepare for their final 35 games of the season, the question looming over the Cleveland Clinic Courts is simple: What now?
Buyers or sellers
The Cavs have 10 more games before the March 15 trade deadline — six of the 10 come against teams likely headed for the postseason. They’re 3-9 against teams currently in line to make the playoffs in the East and 0-6 against the East’s top four teams: the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. They’ve lost those six games by an average of 18.2 points.
Scott is quick to concede that this is a flawed roster that still needs plenty of help, both at center and on the wings. As much as the Cavs have overachieved this season, don’t expect them to trade away any of their plethora of draft picks over the next two weeks to add a stop-gap player for a possible playoff push.
As badly as he wants to win, as committed as Scott is to trying to make the playoffs this season, he’s fine with that.
“We’re going to try to do the best for this team. Sometimes those decisions can be very unpopular,” Scott said. “But you do some things for the long run instead of the short term. We want to be good not only this year and next year, we want to be good for the next 10 years. We don’t want a quick fix. Everything we talk about, everything we do before the trade deadline is always for the best interest of the organization.”
That means despite the team’s current success, backup point guard Ramon Sessions could still be moved in the right deal if a team offers a first-round pick.
Jamison could also be shopped, although his $14 million contract makes moving him sticky. The Cavs would likely have to take back major salary in any deal and they’re trying to preserve more than $30 million in cap space they’ll have next summer.
“We know this roster is not complete,” Scott said. “We know we’re still a couple of players away, but we still love the direction we’re headed. We love the pieces we have. We’re pretty happy with the way things are going.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://cavs.ohio.com Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.