CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers spent months waiting, hoping for another chance to keep building their foundation under new head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and eventually cap a fickle 2019-20 season with positive momentum.
They finally learned their fate last week — and they’re not happy about it.
The NBA announced a detailed plan to restart the season with 22 teams at Walt Disney World in late July. The Cavs aren’t invited, joining seven others on the sidelines. After expressing frustration and disappointment with the league’s decision, Bickerstaff delivered a pointed message to his players.
“This is motivation for us moving forward,” Bickerstaff said during a Zoom call with reporters to recap the abbreviated season on Tuesday. “And whatever it is we have to do as a group this summer to get better, we need to go out and do that. Whatever party the NBA is throwing, this one happens to be in Orlando, this one happens to have 22 teams, most of the time they had 16 teams, we need to do whatever we can in our power to make sure that we’re getting invited to the party — and that’s been the message to our guys.”
How the Cavs get there and when that day finally comes are the more complicated questions.
A year after finishing 19-63, one of the worst records in franchise history, tied for the second-worst mark in the league, the Cavs are right back in that familiar place.
Sure, given the way they were playing following Bickerstaff’s ascension — winning five of those 11 games — and a transformative Andre Drummond trade, it’s fair to wonder just how many more victories they could’ve earned if not for the coronavirus pandemic. But the season postmortem once again points to futility, instability and uncertainty.
The Cavs finished with 19 wins, the Eastern Conference’s lowest total and the second-worst record overall. Only the injury-wrecked Golden State Warriors, who played a handful of G Leaguers and castoffs for most of the year, were worse. Cleveland’s average point differential tied for last in the East. There was another in-season coaching change, giving the Cavs four now in the post-LeBron James era.
When the season froze, the Cavs were 11 games back of the conference’s final playoff spot, just days away from elimination.
The NBA wasn’t trying to be harsh. It wasn’t a personal slight. The Cavs were excluded — along with New York, Minnesota, Charlotte, Detroit, Golden State, Chicago and Atlanta — because they weren’t good enough. The 22 invitees were all at least six games from a playoff spot, relative striking distance given how much time was left in the season. That’s the company the Cavs are soon hoping to keep.
“Our responsibility is to go out there and try to compete every single night. I don’t have any doubt in the group we have,” Bickerstaff said. “The Eastern Conference, there’s a lot of teams in that same position and it’s going to be a matter of who can take that step the quickest.
“Our young guys have to take that next step because they are the ones that are going to make that push. We know what Kevin Love is and how he can contribute. Larry Nance. Andre Drummond. All those guys. We know who they are. But the difference in who we are is going to be our young guys, so there’s a huge emphasis and focus on pushing them and we want to get better, we want to be in the hunt next year.
“We’re not having expectations of 19 wins in a shortened season to champions, but there needs to be steps forward no doubt. In the East, if there’s steps forward, you’re battling for the eighth spot going down the stretch. I think that’s a realistic expectation for us.”
The Cavs were seemingly heading in the right direction in March. They were 5-6 under Bickerstaff, with wins against playoff-bound Denver, Philadelphia and Miami. They were 4-4 with Drummond in the lineup. The brief resurgence had them brimming with confidence. Their belief in Bickerstaff, something lacking under ex-coach John Beilein, was evident. Then play stopped.
“The guys really cared,” Bickerstaff said. “You got to get a bunch of guys on the floor that it matters to and very easily with where we were in the season, time of year, the limited amount of games we had left, the guys could have punted but they didn’t. They went out every single night and competed. You have to have some sort of a foundation. And the foundation for the good teams is people willing to buy into something greater than themselves. And that’s where I thought we were, and that’s why I was so excited.
“My vision has always been being a group of guys that nobody wants to see. Their first thought when they see you on the schedule is ‘Oh s—, not them.’”
Getting there becomes a greater challenge when considering the tricky offseason. That’s why the organization continues to work with the league on a plan that keeps the excluded teams engaged some other way while the 22 in Orlando get 5-7 weeks of extra practice and at least eight games.
At this point, the Cavs don’t have clarity on the next steps. Bickerstaff and his coaches have had conversations about what happens if the NBA doesn’t agree to these unique proposals, which include mandatory, team-organized training camps, OTAs or even a summer league tournament of the forgotten.
There have been conversations with the seven other teams to gauge their interest in joint practices, creating a similar competitive environment to the one in Orlando. Bickerstaff has a solid relationship with Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce — the two are part of a new 10-person subcommittee under the National Basketball Coaches Association that is focused specifically on standing up against racial injustice. Bickerstaff was with Pistons executive Ed Stefanski in Memphis. Brock Aller is now with the Knicks. Any of these teams would make sense as a practice partner.
“We have asked the league to do things so there’s not a competitive disadvantage,” Bickerstaff said. “If you take eight, nine months off in between games, there’s no doubt that there will be a competitive disadvantage for your group. How do we get guys together in our market? How do we get some competitive games out of it? There is nothing definitive yet, but we are fighting.
“How do you expect to develop your guys if there is an eight-month layoff and we’re already under very difficult circumstances with the pandemic itself? We’re fighting like hell to get something done.”
In the meantime, the Cavs are trying to keep the tight bond that was beginning to form months ago while also preparing just in case there are concessions made to the usual summertime activities. They are monitoring where players go and what they do, making sure everyone stays safe and protected from COVID-19. The development plans — on the court and in the weight room — have been tweaked slightly and are scheduled to go out to players in the next few days.
Beyond Zoom calls, FaceTime and text messages, Bickerstaff has shown up to parking lots where players may be gathering just so they can have that interaction.
“That’s one of my biggest concerns with the teams that get the advantage of playing in Orlando and practicing for six weeks,” Bickerstaff said. “I believe our league will do what’s right at the end of the day, because they always have. But we just have to make sure that we keep pushing for those opportunities because it will impact 2021 if we don’t, and not in a positive way.”
Internally, 2021 is the year many within the organization have pointed to in this rebuild. It will be Year 3 since James left. The Cavs know they need to start showing real progress — even with tough decisions, maybe even departures, ahead.
Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and Ante Zizic are all unrestricted free agents. Along with keeping one or two, the Cavs have to add pieces — either in free agency, via trades or the draft.
According to Bickerstaff, he’s been included in all of the personnel conversations with general manager Koby Altman and assistant GM Mike Gansey.
“Obviously those guys will make the call at the end of the day. But we are together in this ship,” Bickerstaff said. “This is a true partnership. They value my opinion, I value their opinion. I respect their job at the end of the day the same way they respect mine. The decision has to always be best for the organization. And I think that’s got to be at the forefront for us.”
When asked specifically about what the Cavs need to take the next step, Bickerstaff referenced a term used by one of his coaching buddies David Fizdale.
“Swiss Army knives,” Bickerstaff said. “Dribble, pass, shoot, and versatility on the defensive end of the floor. Long guys, athletic guys, fast guys. Those types of players that can do a bunch of different things, especially on the defensive end of the floor. And then offensively, having the ability to break guys down off the bounce. From an offensive standpoint, it’s how much skill can we put on the floor. And it doesn’t even matter position to me anymore. You just want to be able to put skill on the floor at all positions. And then obviously those positions can complement one another with their different strengths.”
Cleveland’s future success will also be tied to internal growth.
Sources say the Cavs have encouraged Darius Garland to get stronger this offseason. They want him in shape when training camp arrives. Garland, of course, spent last summer rehabbing following knee surgery. Because of that, he was a little heavy and started slow as a rookie.
Along with adding muscle, the Cavs are hoping Garland makes positive strides in his pick-and-roll efficiency.
“Darius has the ability to make all the passes, make all the reads in pick and roll,” Bickerstaff said. “At that position, you’re going to play a ton of pick and roll. He and I have had these conversations about being the coach on the floor and being able to call plays to get guys who have got it going, being able to call plays to slow the game down if we need to, all of those things.
“As a 19-year-old, you can see that he has it, and so it’s just a matter of us helping him with that and him growing into that position, which I think he’s capable of, which the great point guards do. And I think he’s got an opportunity to be one of those.”
As for Sexton, the team’s leading scorer, it’s about sharpening other areas.
Bickerstaff, in conjunction with the Coaches Association and Players Association, is trying to help groom the next wave of coaches. He recently held a call with players across the league who have a desire to get into the profession when their playing careers are over. Bickerstaff had no idea who would participate. But when he got on the call, Sexton was there.
“Being able to think the game and play the game like a coach will be huge for him,” Bickerstaff said. “He’s taking those steps in understanding that and wanting to do it. He didn’t have to be on that call, he didn’t know I was going to be on that call, but he was doing what he could because he wants to get into coaching when he’s finished. Being able to see the game through a coach’s eyes would be extremely helpful for him.”
Sexton was playing the best basketball of his career when coronavirus intervened. But he won’t be satisfied with the sophomore breakout. A tireless worker, Sexton had a separate chat with Bickerstaff about improving the off-the-ball game, catch and shoot and how to excel coming off screens. The Cavs believe Sexton’s speed, explosiveness and athleticism make him more difficult to guard away from the ball. Playing that role also helps in maximizing the Garland-Sexton backcourt.
Then there’s Porter — the player loaded with natural talent who can alter Cleveland’s trajectory.
“KPJ is a guy we have extremely high hopes for. His skill level on the offensive end of the floor, we saw flashes of it,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s not much that he can’t do on the offensive end of the floor.”
A long summer lies ahead for the Cavs. Maybe even longer than usual if they don’t get their way. That’s out of their hands. They wanted to be included in the resumption, but the league shunned them, sending them to the figurative kiddie party. Even a temporary expansion from 16 to 22 wasn’t enough for an invite. It’s up to the Cavs to change that. That’s something they do control.
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