Well, it looks now like Anthony Bennett may not be a total stiff. It also looks as though the Cavs are capable of playing hard for something close to 48 minutes. Maybe the last four games are an opportunity to hit the reset button and go back to the point where the Cavs were looked upon as one of the teams most likely to join the elite of the Eastern Conference over the next couple of years. No, really; people were really saying that last summer.
Even if this turnaround continues through the end of the season, it is important to remember that the goal is not the eighth seed. The goal is to continue assembling a nucleus that is capable in a couple of years of winning multiple playoff series on a yearly basis. You remember what that was like, don’t you? Nothing that has happened so far this year constitutes a setback in achieving that goal unless the Cavs respond in the wrong way. In fact, one could say that the acquisition of Luol Deng brings the Cavs significantly closer to their goal, since they did not give up any of their core players or most valuable draft picks.
The wrong way to respond would be to sell low on players who are talented but don’t fit this roster particularly well, or to plug holes in a way that makes the team better now but doesn’t really bring them closer to a championship. My fear is that Dan Gilbert will get involved at the trade deadline and push for the acquisition of players like Evan Turner. I’m not opposed to Turner – he’s a guy who could help – but he is not a core player and he will be a restricted free agent, so I would be hesitant to give up more than a second round pick for him. My fear is that Gilbert will get impatient to make the playoffs this year and trade real assets for a guy like Turner who, in the long run, won’t be part of the answer.
In essence, two things need to happen by the start of next season for the Cavs to take a big step forward. The first is that they need to combine all the assets at their disposal and get one truly elite player. This can happen through the draft, via trade or through free agency. The Cavs have plenty of good players, but, aside from Kyrie, there is nobody on the roster who I feel confident will appear in multiple All-Star games. You need at least two stars if you want to be an elite team.
The other thing that needs to happen is that Mike Brown needs to be a better coach. Let’s face it, a lot of what has happened this year is squarely on Brown’s shoulders. Ask yourself if they would be 20-33 with this roster if Gregg Popovich were the coach. That may be an unfair comparison, but there are serious indications that Brown has not connected with this roster, and he needs to fix that. He needs to give his players an offense and a defense that they can succeed in, and he needs to find a balance between bonding with his star player and holding him accountable. This sounds difficult, but the truth is that everyone who has ever managed anything, from the White House chief of staff to the manager at 7-11, they have had to find this balance. You need your best people to be watching your back and setting an example for everyone else. You need to acknowledge that they are essential to your success but not let them take advantage of that fact. You get that by building a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Popovich has done that with Tim Duncan. Scott Brooks has obviously done it with Kevin Durant. Those guys have had less drama in their locker rooms in their entire careers than the Cavs have had in the last month, and that’s not a coincidence. Brown has not done it so far with Kyrie Irving. Since it’s an open question whether he ever did it with LeBron or Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, I think this represents a red flag that needs to be watched carefully.
Now, it’s possible that Brown’s defense is so brilliant and so intricate that it takes a year for young players to learn, and he may need some different players to make it function properly. It’s also possible that Kyrie or other players are to blame for all the tension and lack of effort. Maybe it will be easier when they all gain some maturity and experience some success. When you look back at Brown’s first tenure here, you realize that, essentially, nobody on the two 60-win teams except for LeBron has consistently held a starting job anywhere in the NBA since that team was broken up, so Brown had to be doing something right to accomplish what he did here.
Brown’s five-year contract gives him leverage that most coaches lack to build this team the way he sees fit. He is still only 50-years-old, so he can still evolve and improve as a coach if he recognizes his weaknesses and steps outside his comfort zone to address them. The problem is, the Cavs can’t wait forever for that to happen. At minimum, he needs to build a strong enough relationship with Irving that Kyrie will want to sign an extension this summer. There are other factors involved in that decision, such as how the Cavs finish this season and whether the players they add between now and then impress Irving as guys he can win with. But the biggest factor for Kyrie is likely to be whether he feels he can win a title with Mike Brown as his coach. If the answer to that question is no, the Cavs face a difficult choice.