Every year there are teams that disappoint.
Sometimes it’s because of injuries. Last year’s Philadelphia 76ers organization thought they’d built themselves something (marginally to very) competitive, until Andrew Bynum’s knees said otherwise. This year, injuries to Derrick Rose and, to a lesser extent, Russell Westbrook have altered what NBA fans thought they were in for when they re-upped for the 2013-14 season.
Sometimes it’s because of off the court issues. In 2010, Gilbert Arenas, fresh off a season lost to injury and only a year removed from signing a massive $111 million six-year contract with the Wizards, was suspended, along with Javaris Crittenton, for the remainder of the season for bringing handguns into the team’s locker room. The suspensions caused the Wizards to officially write off the rest of what had already been a disappointing season. It was already disappointing because the team had just traded the sixth pick in the 2009 draft for Mike Miller and Randy Foye (rather than have a chance to select Steph Curry … which, don’t worry, the T-Wolves didn’t take advantage of either) to make a (final?) run at playoff success with their Arenas / Antawn Jamison core. Arenas still scored (over 22 points a game) that year, but his efficiency had been eviscerated. In 2010, Wizards fans saw a team who no longer could function on a winning level, then they saw the suspensions, then they saw the team trade Jamison to the Cavs for Zydrunas Ilgauskas (only to, then, see the Cavs get Ilgauskus back … and watch Jamison get torched by Kevin Garnett … and – well, you know the story) and they finished in full-blown tear down mode and a 26-56 record.
Sometimes it’s because of on court issues. In 2004-05, the Indiana Pacers rode the “Malice at the Palace” from a legitimate shot at the championship to 128 total games suspended for Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal. That team was still able to ride Reggie Miller’s final league go-around to 44 wins and a playoff spot, but was never again (until now, anyway) the threat to win it all that it was when 04-05 tipped off.
And sometimes teams just aren’t as good as NBA fans and pundits alike thought (or hoped) they would be. This year’s Pistons, for example, have yet to figure out how their collection of disparate pieces can work. Right now (surprise!) they don’t. And, of course, this year’s Cavaliers, for many of the same reasons.
It’s rare for disappointing teams to be young teams. Usually, the teams that disappoint the most are the ones with players who, to some degree, have given NBA viewers some body of work on which to project their inflated expectations. The Cavaliers, though, have no featured player with an established body of superior work.
What’s more, the Cavaliers are treading on dangerous ground right now, because teams, whether cursed with injury, suspension or an erroneous approximation of their players’ collected abilities, rarely go from disappointing to good, if that disappointment stretches to cover an entire season.
Teams can go from bad to good much easier than they can go from disappointing to good. The 2012-13 Portland Trailblazers were bad. They weren’t horrible, but they certainly weren’t very good. They had a competitive starting five, but no bench to hold leads when the starters sat. See, they weren’t disappointing. They were bad for a clear, discernable reason. You fix that reason, as the team did in this off-season, and you can make the jump from bad to good or, in the Blazers’s case this year, to very good.
Of course, the Cavs have plenty of clear, discernable reasons for being bad. They lack, among other things, toughness (both mental and physical) and rim protection. The question is, though, are these things that can be fixed by off-season moves or are they weaknesses endemic to this collection of players as a whole? If it’s the former, you could argue that some tinkering with the roster could prevent the length or severity of stretches where the team seems unable to score or defend. If it’s the latter, well…
Here’s the eventual trajectory for all of the disappointing teams I mentioned before.
The Sixers used the 2013 NBA Draft to officially bury the dream and began one of the more drastic roster overhauls in recent memory.
The Bulls’ management seems okay with cutting their losses and using a loaded 2014 draft to help them once Rose is back to full strength. Their coach and players, however, still haven’t come around to that point of view.
The Wizards traded Jamison and found Orlando willing to take on Arenas’s contract (they later amnestied him). The Wizards were rewarded for their awfulness by getting the number one pick in the 2010 draft and, subsequently, John Wall. This season’s Wizards are by no means world beaters, but they’ve finally started to show some improvement and lurch toward .500 and respectability.
The Pacers saw Miller retire and could never fully repair things with Artest. Theirs was a several season cycle that led, eventually, to several trades and, more eventually, a sufficient rebuild.
The point is that disappointment leads to change — usually massive, roster-clearing change — sooner rather than later and rarely fosters the type of patience that many still champion we all take as we attempt to digest this particular incarnation of the Cavs. However, there isn’t much precedent for the way in which this Cavs team is disappointing: a group of good, talented young guys sprinkled with some veterans, two of whom are borderline all-star players, all centered around a player predicted by many to become one of the league’s brightest young stars. This is not generally a recipe for disappointment and certainly not a recipe for a complete tear down, as was the case with disappointments in the past. But the disappointment remains and the Cavs have made feeling that disappointment easier and easier. Not even an Anthony Bennett breakout-ish performance against the Pelicans on Tuesday night was any balm.
Nearly half the season still remains, sure. But with each successive loss, the word that’s used more often than “bad” is “disappointing.” In Minnesota, another team of young, talented nearly-stars has yet to break through in an even more difficult conference and, in Minnesota, some have already talked about trading Kevin Love as the only thing certain to break the cycle of disappointment (by increasing it to an intolerable degree?).
None of that bodes well for the immediate future of the Cavalier franchise.