Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fan appreciation, indeed

When it was all said and done on Fan Appreciation Night, the Cavaliers had clobbered a group of second-rate NBA players that the Nets had decided to throw out there on the regular season's final night. It wasn't surprising, but it was certainly better than the alternative.

In the building were 19,842 Clevelanders who stood and applauded the victory. It was a sellout crowd cheering on a group of underachievers who nearly lost 50 games for the  fourth straight year. (Technically they didn't lose 50 games in 2012-2013, but that was because they only played 66.)

For the season, the Cavaliers averaged 17,329 fans per home game. That puts them right in the middle of the league, ahead of some pretty good teams like the Nets, Wizards, and Grizzlies.

There is an argument to be made that the team probably inflates that number by giving out free tickets to school groups or whatever. Still, the Q never looked empty on TV the way that arenas in Sacramento or Charlotte often do. People came to see this team even when the product on the floor was nearly unwatchable.

And the people who didn't come watched on TV. I can't find the exact numbers, but Fred McLeod mentioned during the broadcast last night that the Cavaliers were once again in the top ten in the NBA in local TV ratings.

The point, obviously, is that Cavs fans are absolutely the best. Nobody ever thinks of Cleveland as being a great basketball town, but it has absolutely become one. The LeBron years probably had a lot to do with that, but the fact that there is still so much interest and enthusiasm for this team after four awful seasons is a real testament to all of us. A less hearty bunch would have given up a long time ago.

Now, we just need the organization to build us the team that we deserve.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Despite last two games, the future still looks good

The Cavaliers were officially eliminated from the playoffs on Wednesday last week, and then the bottom kind of fell out. They were subsequently beaten by the worst team in the NBA in Milwaukee, and then blown out at home by the 25-win Celtics.

After that game against Boston on Saturday, Mike Brown was asked whether or not his team had mailed in the season. His answer (via Ryan Lewis) was, "I don't know." Not exactly a resounding endorsement.

For fans, it is frustrating to watch our favorite team give up like this. We'd obviously prefer that they act like the professionals that they are and at least pretend to care about the outcome of games, even with the postseason out of reach. Their performance these last two games was nothing short of embarrassing.

That does not mean, however, that this is a "complete joke of a franchise," which is what former play-by-play man Michael Reghi called them on Saturday.

I get that there is a lot of frustration here, and nobody should be satisfied with how this season played out. But let's be real about this. It is really hard to go from being bad to good in the NBA. I mean, this is a league that is known for its lack of parity compared to other professional leagues.

While progress has not come as quickly as we would have hoped, it isn't as though there has been no progress at all. This team won 19 games in 2010-2011. They have won 32 this season. They were last in the league in opponent field goal percentage just last season. They are 12th in the league this season. There should be absolutely no question that this is still a team on its way up.

It was a mistake for Dan Gilbert to guarantee that his team would not be back in the lottery this summer, and it was an even bigger mistake for us all to believe him. Going from being terrible to being a playoff team isn't easy, even in this very mediocre conference.

Michael Reghi is entitled to his opinion. I just worry that the outrage from more casual fans will put pressure on Gilbert to, once again, completely revamp the organization. Franchises that reinvent themselves every few years rarely find the success that they are looking for.

Gilbert initially fired Brown in 2010 so that he could hire a more offensive-minded coach with playing experience (mostly because that's what he thought LeBron would want). Then, he fired Byron Scott after last season because the team's defense was horrible. He brought back Brown, and he actually did improve the defense. But would anybody be surprised if he's fired again in favor of another offensive-minded guy? How many times is Gilbert going to go back and forth on this?

(This is the part where I need to make it clear that I am in no way endorsing bringing back Mike Brown next season simply for the sake of continuity. I thought it was a mistake to re-hire him in the first place, although I did eventually talk myself into it. If he does come back, I'm sure I could talk myself into it again, but that's not necessarily my preference.)

Despite everything that they've done wrong in the post-Decision years, this is still a franchise with a ton of upside. They are not a complete joke. Would any of us want to trade places with the Kings? Jazz? 76ers? Bucks?

The Cavaliers at least have their franchise point guard. Yes, he needs to mature, but I'm no longer going to even entertain the idea that they shouldn't be building around him. They also seem to have something in Dion Waiters (and by "something" I mostly mean a very a valuable trade asset). Hopefully Anthony Bennett becomes something as well, and hopefully they hit on their lottery pick this summer (or flip it for another piece).

When all is said and done, the future still seems very bright. They have the assets to make the necessary improvements this summer, Gilbert just needs to decide who will be making those improvements (I'm probably alright with keeping David Griffin). If they play everything well, they should be a playoff team next season.

It's been very slow, incremental progress, but that's still better than the alternative.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Faint playoff hopes die a quiet death

On Saturday night, with a bunch of off-the-court nonsense hanging in the air, Kyrie Irving played one of the games of his life in front of 18,179 fans at Quicken Loans Arena. Irving scored 44 points on 16-31 shooting, to go along with eight assists and seven rebounds.

It wasn't enough.

The Bobcats topped the Cavaliers in overtime. Irving, as brilliant as he was, missed a pretty open three in the final seconds that would have given Cleveland the lead and possibly the game.

With the loss, the team's playoff chances (which were already quite long) basically ended. Not that we should be too disappointed with that; I'm still amazed that they had any playoff chances at all after everything that's happened this season.

Now it is time to really begin thinking about next season. There will be a lot of discussion about Irving's future with the team this summer. The front office will almost certainly offer him the maximum extension possible. Whether he takes it, or negotiates something shorter, remains to be seen. Either way, Irving will almost certainly be back next season.

Dion Waiters will most likely be back as well. We saw bits of how he and Irving could co-exist this season, but not nearly enough to make me feel great about this backcourt going forward.

Luol Deng is a free agent, and indications are that he will go out and sign with a contender. Spencer Hawes is free as well, and while I'd love to see him back, I doubt the Cavaliers will be willing to pay the price that it will probably take. But we'll see.

Anderson Varejao could very likely be back, but his contract offers the team a lot of flexibility.

There's also the issue of Mike Brown. It seems like he may have saved his job by turning things around a bit of late, and his contract certainly would make it tough to let him go. You can just never be sure of anything when it comes to Dan Gilbert, though.

Before any of these questions are answered, of course, Gilbert needs to decide who his General Manager is going to be. David Griffin certainly deserves a hard look, but I get the sense that Gilbert will want to try and lure a bigger name.

Whoever ends up taking the job will have to make a few moves to get the Cavaliers into the postseason next year. The current roster certainly offers some hope, as all of the young players will have another season under their belts. And there will be yet another lottery pick who is brought into the fold.

But just relying on development from Waiters/Thompson/Bennett/Zeller and another pick won't be enough. This team needs shooting, interior defense, and a real small forward.

Getting into the playoffs in the East shouldn't be so hard, but they can't expect it to happen automatically.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Even if the playoffs are a longshot, these games matter for the players and fans alike

At some point this season, we all gave up on the Cavaliers. Some of us did it earlier than others, but reality eventually sank in for all of us equally. This was not a good team, and they didn't appear to have much of a future.

Then, on February 6, Dan Gilbert fired Chris Grant. The next night, I saw the Cavaliers in person against the Wizards here in Washington. They looked like a completely different team. The bench was more engaged than usual, and there was this confidence to them that almost seemed out of place. At the time, I wrote that it probably didn't have anything to do with Grant's firing.

But as the sample size has become larger, it is hard to argue with an obvious trend. Before Grant was fired, the Cavaliers were 16-33. Since the change, they're 15-12.

I have no idea why getting rid of Grant was the catalyst that this team apparently needed. I didn't even think that it was the right move at the time. Maybe it just served as a wake-up call, or maybe there was something about Grant's personality that needed to be removed from the equation in order for the young guys to feel and play a little more freely.

Whatever the case may be, the team has won five of their last six games. They did so mostly without Irving, who was seamlessly reintegrated into the lineup last night in Orlando. As they continue to win, they keep their slim playoff chances alive.

Make not mistake, those chances are indeed very, very slim. The Cavaliers trail the Knicks by two games with just six left, and the Knicks will likely hold the tiebreaker. So even if New York goes 2-4 down the stretch, Cleveland would have to go 5-1. Oh, and the Hawks are still in the mix as well, and they also own the tiebreaker over the Cavaliers.

So it is a longshot. But after everything that's happened this season, the fact that we can even talk about playoff possibilities with six games to go is remarkable. Mike Brown never quit, and contrary to what Bill Simmons wrote a couple of weeks ago, this team didn't quit on him. A lot of weird stuff has already happened this season, so I'm willing to believe than anything is still possible.

All that I wanted coming into the season was to be able to have a rooting interest in a meaningful basketball game again. Those of us who follow the team fairly closely have had fun over the last few years rooting for the likes of Manny Harris and Samardo Samuels against all the odds. At a certain point, though, it becomes really hard to keep doing that. Like Chris Ryan wrote on Grantland a couple of weeks ago (about the Bobcats): "That’s what's hard about tanking -- if you cheer for a team that's doing it, you get taken out of the league, entirely. You just feel like you're missing out on an entire season." I think we can all relate to that.

Now, however, the Cavaliers will play in games that definitely matter. They are relevant, at least sto the extent that the race for the eighth seed in a crappy conference is relevant.

There are still fans who will tell you that a lottery pick would be more valuable than winning these next six games. I could not disagree more. Having Irving, Waiters, Thompson, and Zeller play in must-win basketball games -- and succeed -- would be far more valuable to the future of this franchise than any hope provided by the uncertainty of the NBA Draft.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Can Dion Waiters continue to play like this when Kyrie Irving returns?

Dion Waiters has been getting a lot of praise lately (see here and here), and he absolutely deserves it. In his last five games, all without Kyrie Irving, he's averaging 23.8 points and 6.4 assists per game, while shooting 47% from the floor.

You are probably thinking, Wow! That's great! You might even be thinking, Mayer, I bet you feel like an idiot for saying that the Cavs should trade him.

That is where you would be wrong.

I agree that his recent play has been outstanding. But, unfortunately, it is irrelevant to his future as a member of the Cavaliers.

My argument for trading Waiters was never about whether or not he could be a good NBA player. I think that he is a uniquely-talented basketball player. I love his game, and I would definitely want him on my team in almost every case.

In this case, however, this team needs to be built around Irving (I'm not going to waste any more time trying to explain why that's a true statement). And so it doesn't really matter that Waiters plays well when Irving is down with an injury. In order for him to have value to this team, he needs to be able to play well alongside Irving.

The good news is that Waiters has actually been playing pretty well since the All-Star break (53.6% true shooting in 12 games), not just in the last five games. So there were some signs that maybe he and Irving could co-exist (Waiters was coming off of the bench, though, so not a ton of their minutes overlapped).

I guess I'm just trying to qualify some of the enthusiasm that everyone seems to have right now. It's awesome that Waiters is playing so well, and I really do think he may have figured some things out.

But until he can figure out the last piece of the puzzle -- how to play with the franchise point guard -- this team still has a lot of question marks going forward.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Optimism about the future of Ohio State basketball

Aaron Craft's college basketball career did not end the way he had hoped. He didn't lead his team to the Final Four, or even to the Sweet 16. Instead, his career ended in the Round of 64, against a double-digit seed, with a missed shot as time expired.

Next year, Craft and Lenzelle Smith will be gone. LaQuinton Ross may also be gone, and it looks like Amedeo Della Valle is taking his talents to Europe. But the Buckeyes will be returning plenty of talent, and they should be much better than they were this season.

Even if Ross and Della Valle leave, Ohio State will return five players who played significant roles this season: Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Amir Williams, Marc Loving, and Trey McDonald. Loving should be ready to play a much bigger role next season as a sophomore. Another highly-touted recruit from that class, guard Kam Williams, should also be ready to step in.

In addition to these returning players, Thad Matta has his best recruiting class in a some time coming to Columbus. That class is led by D'Angelo Russell, who is rated as the top shooting guard and 13th overall prospect by ESPN. Russell is a scorer, and he should give the team some of the offensive punch they've been missing. The other incoming prospects include Keita Bates-Diop (ranked as the #6 small forward by ESPN) and Jae'Sean Tate (#8 small forward).

In theory, next year's starting lineup would probably look like this:

Shannon Scott
D'Angelo Russell
Sam Thompson
Marc Loving
Amir Williams

The Buckeyes won't have a ton of depth (what else is new?), but that lineup could be good enough to win the Big Ten, in my opinion. I think Scott will look much better now that he doesn't have to worry about sharing the point guard duties with Craft, and maybe Williams will finally turn into at least a solid big man.

While the loss to Dayton on Thursday was frustrating, this season always felt like it was kind of a throw-away anyway. Next season, Matta should have this team back to its normal place atop the conference, and the national polls.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cavs show some heart in defeat

Last night, the stage was set for a blowout. The Cavaliers were missing their best player, Kyrie Irving. They were also missing their best wing defender, Luol Deng, who would normally have been tasked with defending LeBron James. They came into the night essentially out of playoff contention. A fraction of their home crowd was only there so they could root for the other team.

If they had been run out of the building, nobody would have been surprised. And after the first quarter, it looked as if that is exactly what would happen.

Then, they fought back. They acted like they gave a shit, which I know is a pretty low standard for professional athletes, but it was still fun to watch.

In the end, it was just another close loss on the way to another Draft Lottery.

But it was nice to see the players who were out there have some pride, and play to win. I don't want to take too much away from one ultimately meaningless game in March, but it does seem like these guys haven't quit on Mike Brown.

Again, that's a low standard. With this team though, low standards are probably just fine.

In a way, last night's game was a throwback to the first couple of seasons post-LeBron, when they didn't have near enough talent to compete and all we could root for were moral victories. Sometimes rooting for a scrappy group of underdogs can be just as much fun as rooting for a real contender. Sometimes.

I just can't stand the thought that being the scrappy underdog is going to become the norm.