The lottery. A bottom three seed in the Eastern Conference with little to no direction. A General Manager on the hot seat and potentially fired.
That was my original prediction for the 2021-2022 Cleveland Cavaliers. Going into the season, by this time of the year, I was prepared to dread the final few games of the regular season. I prepared myself to try and think of positive steps for the organization. I just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Cavs started off 0-2, losing to both the Grizzlies and Hornets. I said, “Here we go again!”
After the loss to Charlotte, the Wine and Golders hosted the Atlanta Hawks the next night. I had received free tickets for the game. It was going to be my first ever Cavs game. I never could afford to go to the games during both of Lebron James’ stints, and the team was so awful from 2010-2014 I didn’t want to go to a game.
While I was grateful for the free tickets, I’m not gonna lie; I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about seeing the Cavs players. I was more excited to see Trae Young, a proven superstar in the Association, as opposed to Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland, Collin Sexton and the rest of the team. I liked JA a lot. I saw a lot of potential in Garland. However, my intuition told me this current Cavs core was not the core to have long term success with.
That night, my opinion on the team changed dramatically. The boys overcame a double digit deficit in the second quarter by outscoring the 2021 Eastern Conference runner ups by 14 in the third quarter. Watching a game on TV is nowhere close to seeing the action live in person. Seeing everybody contribute, and the team playing together and learning how to close out ball games to secure their first victory of the season, gave me some hope this could be the year the Cavs finally turn it around.
Over the course of November, even after losing Collin Sexton to a season ending injury, the team never panicked. They began to stack up wins and by the end of the month, they were a game over .500 at 11-10. Being over .500 for some teams is next to nothing, but for this Cavs team, a team that hadn’t won 20 games since LeBron James bolted for Hollywood in the summer three years prior, being a game over .500 at the end of November felt like they won the NBA Finals.
By Christmas, with the Browns disappointing, and with MLB in a lockout, the team that plays on the hardwood at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse was the talk of the town. Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff received a contract extension, Evan Mobley was looking like a future superstar in the league as a rookie, Garland was breaking out right before our very eyes, and Kevin Love, after being frustrated for three straight seasons and taking so much abuse physically and mentally, was having the time of his life coming off the bench.
In January, after defeating the defending NBA Champions by 16, the Cavs only sat two games back of the No. 1 Seed in the Eastern Conference. I couldn’t wait to record the All Things CAVS podcast the next day with Joey Schenider. It was official: The CAVS were back!
The end of the season hasn’t gone the way we all envisioned it way back when the temperature outside was way below freezing. Injuries have decimated the Cavs chances at a Top seed in the postseason. At best, the team is now hoping for a spot in the 7/8 play-in game.
However, the team never gave up all season. Before the season, everybody and their mother counted this team out. I give credit to people like my esteemed co-host, who predicted this team to make the play-in tournament, because I did not see a viable path to that goal.
I liked the addition of Lauri Markkanen, but I had no clue if a three 7’ lineup would work in today’s NBA. I thought it had potential, but I didn’t think it would be as effective as it has been when JA, Markkanen and Mobley all play. I didn’t think Love would be able to stay healthy all year, let alone lead the team in charges drawn and get himself into contention for sixth man of the year. I didn’t think the Rubio addition would be as vital as it was until he went down.
I give credit where credit is due, and credit is due to Koby Altman, who got promoted this season to President of Basketball Operations, coach Bickerstaff and his staff, and of course, the players. Everybody involved had this vision, and they saw the vision through, and they turned the Cavs from basement bottom feeders to playoff contenders in one season.
The 2021-2022 Cavs could become the first Cavs team in my lifetime to reach the postseason without “The King” on its roster. From around 2007, all the way through 2021, the Cavs were either perennial title contenders, or one of the worst teams in all of the NBA. There was no in-between.
So yes, this year has been different. I’m not used to watching a team that’s on the rise, yet just not in the position to be a true championship contender, but it’s been a hell of a ride.
Whatever happens with the team for the rest of the season will be determined by fate. Decisions will have to be made this offseason on key pieces, including Sexton. But, for the first time in a long time, the Cavs head into the month of Easter relevant, and that’s all I could ask for as a lifetime Clevelander.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to discuss a pretty good basketball team every week with Mr. Schneider. I’m glad my initial intuition on this team was wrong. For the first time in four years, I’m looking forward to talking CAVS year round.