CLEVELAND, Ohio – At this point a year ago, the Cavaliers finished the 2020-21 season with a 22-50 record. More than a week had passed since the final game and then GM Koby Altman had not given his usual post-season press conference.
There were whispers Altman could be fired. What other reason was there for the silence?
1. Since LeBron James left after the 2018 NBA Finals, the Cavs had records of 19-63, 19-46 and 22-50.
2. They ranked 30th, 30th and 25th in defensive efficiency in those seasons.
3. They had gone through coaches Tyronn Lue, LHarry Drew and John Beilein. Altman had turned to JB Bickerstaff hoping to find some stability. All that in three seasons.
I was not in favor of replacing Altman for the simple reason of continuity. He had inherent a tough situation with the departure of James and an aging roster. Altman waited nearly two weeks to give his 2021 State of the Cavs address. Then, it was clear he was back for another year.
But I didn’t know if he could make the Cavaliers relevant again. After James left for the first time In the summer of 2010, the Cavs spent four years wandering through the NBA wilderness without coming close to the playoffs. Their best season was 33-49.
I feared more of that was coming in 2021-22. So did many of the fans.
THE BIG CHANGE
That’s why this season was so much fun, and why Altman (promoted to team president) had much to talk about earlier this week.
“I’m most proud of is how this team captivated a city,” he said. “(The Cavs) put the league on notice, forced the league to put us on a national TV game. … They were playing the right way. Unselfish, great character players that really bought in. Give (head coach) JB Bickerstaff a lot of credit for creating an identity, a culture, a buy-in about ‘team.’ This really was a team that uniquely for Cleveland.”
Altman has never been afraid to overstate his case, but the heart of his message is true. The fans did embrace the team, as Altman said.
Consider the following, the stats coming from the Cavaliers:
1. They sold out their last 11 home games, and sold 10,000 tickets in 72 hours for the home playoff game.
2. They rank No. 1 in the NBA for new season ticket sales for the 2022-23 season.
3. Overall ticket sales were up 154 percent from 2019-20, the last non-COVID season.
4. TV ratings were up 72 percent and ranked No. 3 in the NBA.
Most of all, the Cavs went from 22-50 to 44-38. It’s the first winning season for a non-LeBron James Cavs team since 1997-98.
The Cavs went from one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams in the previous three years to ranking No. 5 in defensive efficiency.
The Cavaliers were 35-21, before injuries sent them into a 9-17 slump. They were in the play-in tournament. They needed to win one of two games vs. Brooklyn or Atlanta to make the playoffs. They failed that test.
But I agree with ESPN’s Bobby Marks, who wrote: “When Cleveland had darius garland, Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen all in the starting lineup, the Cavs were 19-10. Remove even one of the players and the Cavs’ record falls to .500.”
He wrote the drop at the end of the season was due to injuries to key players, especially Allen. The Cavs defensive rating fell from fourth to 23rd in the games missed by Allen. They had an 8-18 record without their All-Star center.
Thursday was Allen’s 24th birthday. The four key players mentioned by Marks – Garland, Markkanen, Mobley and Allen – are all 24 or younger. It’s my opinion, but the team’s MVP is the 22-year-old Garland. Starting March 1, I have averaged 25.2 points and 10.8 assists. I was surprised to discover the Cavs had an 7-7 record without Garland. I thought it would be worse.
The Cavs were 20-14 when Ricky Rubio was lost for the season with an ACL knee injury. The mark is disappointing, because they had won 11 of 14 games before the injury. The team was coming together.
Injuries to Collin Sexton, Rubio, Allen and Garland haunted the team. Mobley and Markkanen (perhaps the team’s most underrated player) combined to miss 30 games. Mobley has a chance to be the best player of this group within a few years. The 7-footer has remarkable all-around skills and poise for a 20 year old.
THE BIG NEED
There will be a lot of off-season talk about Collin Sexton and Caris LeVert, two guards on the roster. LeVert has one year left on his contract. Sexton is a restricted free agent. I’ll deal more in depth with their situations later.
Here’s the key point: Neither are a point guard. They are scorers first, and scoring is important. But this team desperately needs a veteran point guard who can bring leadership and stability coming off the bench – as Rubio did.
Rubio is now a free agent after having knee surgery on Jan. 2. It’s second time he’s had an ACL operation on his left knee. The first was 2012. So that is a concern for the 31-year-old guard. While he’s had a 10-year NBA career, he began playing pro ball at the age of 17 in Europe. That’s a lot of basketball miles on those legs.
There are a couple of intriguing free Agent Point Guards, especially Jalen Brunson and Tyus Jones. My guess is Altman and GM Mike Gansey will swing a trade for a point guard as they did with Rubio last summer.
This position absolutely must be addressed seriously. They need a pass-first veteran with leadership skills who also can score at times. They can’t play Garland 38 minutes a game as they did after the All-Star break. That will wear him down.
THE BIG PICTURE
There will be a discussion of how the Cavs led the NBA by losing 18 games where they had a lead of 10 points or more at some juncture. Time to break down those in-game coaching decisions.
“How do we not have the letdowns?” said Altman. “Some of the games… we let up. The very best teams in the league don’t give those up or very rarely give those up. And I think there were a number of occasions where we kind of got ahead of ourselves or we let one slip.”
The main theme of the season was when the Cavs were at their best, they had a distinct identity: They were a tall, tough team on defense and unselfish on offense. That’s important because in the previous years, it was hard to know how they really wanted to play. The roster had some talent, but little continuity. It was a bunch of young guys running, clueless of how to play together.
Altman talked about adding some shooting, always a good idea. They do have a lottery draft pick. But he also stressed the chemistry built by the team is “fragile.” That’s very true. A challenge for the front office will be who to bring in.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” said Altman. “How do we keep that hunger, that humbleness and attack this offseason so we’re ready to really hit the ground running come September? That’s when it starts for us usually. It’s not pre-season. We like to get to town early and really start to put together some continuity for the season.”
RECENT TERRY PLUTO COLUMNS