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Wojciak: Evaluating the Cavaliers’ roller coaster season

| Thursday, January 29, 2015

Immediately after LeBron James announced his intention to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, expectations for the team skyrocketed. With the contract extension of All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and the trade that landed elite power forward Kevin Love, the Cavaliers became the favorites to win the Eastern Conference basically overnight.

While some NBA analysts suggested that these expectations were a bit premature, no one could really blame Cleveland fans for being so enthusiastic about their chance at winning the city’s first major sports championship since 1964. With the best basketball player in the world and a perennial All-Star accompanying Irving, their star-in-the making, fans had every reason to be excited.

But as the Cavaliers enter the second half of their first season with James, Irving and Love, it is clear that they have not lived up to those expectations. Whether they ever really had a chance to do so without going undefeated up to this point is up for debate, but no one can argue that this team has experienced a rocky start.

Through 47 games, the Cavaliers are 27-20, currently fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. Embarrassing losses to bottom tier teams such as the 76ers and the Knicks and a few blowout losses at home have been storylines this season, and media reports that suggested tension between the players and new head coach David Blatt certainly have not helped matters.

I’m certainly not arguing that the Cavaliers don’t have a lot of work to do if they want to compete with the likes of the Bulls, Hawks or Wizards to win the Eastern Conference. But writing off this team completely at this point in the season would be imprudent.

When critiquing this Cavaliers team, most are compelled to compare them to the 2010-2011 Miami Heat team — the first year for Miami’s big three of James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. But when making these comparisons, fans and analysts alike have a tendency to only look at the final product of that Heat team and forget about the similar struggles they faced during the first half of that season.

The Miami Heat started off the year with a 9-8 record through the team’s first 17 games. There were even media reports that suggested tension between James and Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, and it was very clear that the new-look Heat were struggling to mesh their new stars’ games together. Some fans of the NBA had already started proclaiming the team as a “bust.”

Amid all of the negative media attention, the Heat went 21-1 over the team’s next 22 games. Looking like a completely different team, the players were able to mesh their playing styles to form one of the most dominant teams in basketball. Ultimately, the Heat lost a six-game series in the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, but it was clear that Miami was going to be a force for years to come.

While many have been waiting for the Cavaliers to figure out how to play with each other and go on a hot streak like the Heat did, it must be understood that this Cavaliers team is very different than that particular Heat team.

Neither Love nor Irving have ever played in an NBA playoff game, while Wade had already won an NBA championship when James joined the Heat, and Bosh had played in several playoff series. The only Cavaliers player outside of James with any significant playoff experience is Anderson Varejao, but he is out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. The Heat roster had an average of 9.8 years of NBA experience per player, compared to the Cavaliers’ figure of 8.6.

Despite the lack of experience among key players on the Cavaliers roster and the disappointing start to the season, one cannot argue that the team is loaded with talent. The flashes of greatness when the team works together have become more frequent, most notably during the team’s current eight-game winning streak. Whether or not this streak will continue and resemble that of the Heat’s 21-1 tear in 2010-2011 is yet to be seen, but it appears that the Cavaliers are beginning to mesh like most expected to happen long ago. Recent trade acquisitions in J.R. Smith and Timofey Mosgov have already impressed in just their first few games, and once newly-acquired Iman Shumpert recovers from a shoulder injury, the Cavaliers could be even more dangerous.

After a rocky start, the Cavaliers are nearly at full health once again and are entering the second half of the season with a full head of steam. I’ve backed off from my preseason prediction that the Cavaliers were going to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals at the end of this season, but I fully expect the Cavaliers to be a serious force throughout the second half of the season and into the postseason.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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