Well, this sucks. In the past four days the Cavs have lost twice: to a Chicago team that played without Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich and Derrick Rose and to a Detroit team that, honestly, isn’t that good. Not only did they lose, but they were outscored by 39 points in the two games combined and were never really competitive in either. They were outrebounded by double digits in both games, shot less than 40 percent, while allowing their opponents to shoot above 50, and managed to make mediocre players like D.J. Augustin look like stars.
You don’t get games like these back. The NBA is more or less divided into three classes of teams: the teams that have a legitimate chance of winning a title, the teams that are hoping for players like Andrew Wiggins and everyone in between, which is where the Cavs have been telling us they would reside this season. Any games that a young team like the Cavs wins against the elite teams is a bonus, and the Cavs have advanced to the point where the show up for games against the bottom feeders expecting to win. But about half of their games are against teams just like them: good enough to think about sneaking into the playoffs, but not good enough to take them for granted. Both of these games were winnable. The Bulls have been awful since Rose got hurt, and the Detroit game was at home. The Cavs had plenty of rest for both games and were relatively healthy, except for Dion Waiters. You won’t win all of these games, but if you want to be thinking about the playoffs come April you had better win most of them.
Of course, the first step toward winning is to show up, and there is scant evidence that the Cavs were mentally engaged. They were down by double digits early in both games, and only looked interested when the subs came in. Let’s face it, when you are counting on Matthew Dellavedova to provide a spark you are probably in trouble. Delly has played better than anyone expected this year, but if he is getting more than 10 minutes a game when Kyrie and Jarrett Jack are available, something is wrong.
So what’s the problem? As I watched the Detroit game all the standard theories rolled through my mind: the players have tuned Mike Brown out, the Cavs have entrusted the future of the franchise to a player who isn’t cut out to lead and Andrew Bynum’s negativity has sucked the life out of the locker room. As an outsider, none of these rings particularly true. But here’s one thing I noticed: Dion Waiters has missed five games this year: the two most recent losses, the unimpressive overtime win at home over Milwaukee that preceded them, a loss to Charlotte and an overtime win over a Washington team that was in the midst of a 2-7 start. Five of the most uninspired performances the Cavs gave all year, and the common denominator was the absence of Waiters. Now, this team has been so inconsistent this season that you could pull any five games out of the air and say that they prove something, then pull another five games and prove the opposite. In particular, though, the past three games were a marked contrast to probably the best four-game stretch of the season, where the Cavs dominated the Knicks and Magic and took the Heat and Blazers down to the wire. The only difference between the two stretches was that Waiters played in the good stretch and was hurt for the bad.
Waiters is the only guy on this team who brings a swagger to the court, an attitude that says, “I’m coming at you and I won’t back down.” Kyrie is wonderful, but he seems to carry himself apart from the game, as though the court is his canvas, whereas Dion is more of a graffiti-scrawling brawler. Tristan Thompson is nice, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him truly pissed off. Bynum will only be as aggressive as his knees allow on any given night. The most disturbing trend so far this season has been that when the Cavs hit a rough stretch, they collapse. Waiters’ game is still badly flawed, but he keeps bringing it regardless of how things are going, and it could be that his teammates feed off that when he is playing and miss it when he is not.
So is it possible, after a year-plus of disparaging his game and deploring how he fits on this team, that Dion has become the guy that is indispensable to the Cavs? To be honest, this team is in the early stages of an evolutionary process that won’t be fully realized by the end of this season, so it’s still too soon to say that Dion is part of the ultimate answer. What I will say, though, is that if the Cavs are really thinking about trading Waiters, they may find it creates a hole in the roster bigger than his 15 points per game.