For the first few weeks of the NBA season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been a feel-good story.
The team was expected to be a bit of a mess to start the year. An unevenly constructed roster was being managed by a coach who’d spent his entire career at the college level. Nobody anticipated anything along the lines of competitive basketball.
That the Cavs instead showed plenty of fight, even with teams which should’ve dominated them, caught many off guard. Suddenly, it felt as though this rebuilding process might be ahead of schedule.
Things have since hit the skids. Two lopsided losses have brought this team to a fork in the road. The Cavs have finally run into adversity, and how they respond to this is going to tell us just how far along this rebuild really is.
To be fair, nobody genuinely thought Cleveland had the makings of a contender here. Still, the team had just returned from a strong road trip, having won two games and almost stealing a third. With a return home, it didn’t seem lofty to assume the Cavs could start building some momentum.
That wasn’t what happened.
Instead, Cleveland was thrashed in two straight games, getting thoroughly outplayed by the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers in seven of the past eight quarters. Defensively, the Cavs were picked apart. Offensively, ball movement was a foreign concept.
Essentially, for the first time in this young season, Cleveland looked like the struggling team everyone thought it would be.
What made this funk tougher to swallow was the fact that, to a man, every Cavs player left the loss to Miami insisting the lack of assists were both apparent and needed to be fixed. Coach John Beilein made sure to note he was having his team pay extra attention to simple plays made complicated by not moving the ball.
Despite identifying the problem, Cleveland struggled badly when attempting to apply this learning against Philadelphia. The Cavs finished with less assists in that loss than they did against the Heat, and as a result failed to make the game even remotely close.
Up to this point in the year, Cleveland had always managed to keep contests competitive despite struggles on either side of the court. Somehow, even when their opponent is shooting the lights out, the Cavs are often able to stay in the game ‘til the buzzer.
That didn’t happen in either of these contests. They didn’t carry the same remarkable ability to remain afloat despite their lapses. Any attempts to do so were quickly snuffed out.
This by no means serves as proof Cleveland is about to fold. However, it certainly represents a key moment for this team moving forward.
The Cavs aren’t catching anybody off guard anymore. The same Philly team they hung with all night last Tuesday came into Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse and ripped them to shreds today. Both the 76ers and Heat deployed a strategy designed to pick Cleveland apart, and it worked flawlessly.
It’s not lofty to assume a development like this shakes the Cavs’ foundation a bit. The youth on the roster could see it as a major hurdle, while the vets could become convinced the impressive start to the season was a tease.
It may sound like an overreaction considering how well the team had been playing, but not so when you remember it wasn’t supposed to be competing whatsoever this early in the year.
So, how does Cleveland react to this?
Suddenly, hanging with any opponent it faces is no longer as easy as it used to be. Is this just a cold spell? Or is this team reverting to what everyone predicted it would be heading into the year?
Basically, was the impressive start we saw from the Cavs for real? Or was it just fool’s gold?
Should Cleveland bounce back from this, should it take the lessons from the losses and effectively apply them moving forward, it would indicate things are still moving in the right direction, potentially even ahead of schedule.
However, if the Cavs struggle to get back on track, if they fail to counter their opponents’ new approach, it may prove many of us were out over our skis when it came to the early excitement for this season.