The Cleveland Cavaliers are a playoff-bound team. Or at least that's one interpretation of their progress approaching the regular season's halfway mark.
With a potentially disastrous West Coast road trip complete, the Wine and Gold have finally returned to the friendly confines of The Q for a five-game homestand. Luol Deng will be making his home debut, and fans will have the opportunity to see firsthand the man who has single-handedly shifted the team's culture.
Make no mistake: This is not the same Cleveland squad that lost eight of nine games leading up to the new year. Its 3-spot, arguably once the worst position in the league, now features an All-Star-caliber player who can get his own shot and play defense.
Entering the second half of the season, it's clear that there's still work to be done. However, the Cavs have consolidated their mistakes and are primed to rise through the Eastern Conference ranks given the lessons observed by personnel and fans alike through the first 40 games on the year.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats provided by NBA.com and are current through Sunday, Jan. 19.
A general manager can generally be forgiven for whiffing on a bad signing or two. But striking out on three free-agent signings? Then it's time for an intervention.
The Andrew Bynum ordeal has been discussed ad nauseam. Jarrett Jack has underperformed; his averages are down across the board, and he's shooting below his career mark. Earl Clark is only marginally more useful than a cardboard cutout on the floor.
Compounded with the whirlwind of talk suggesting rookie Anthony Bennett be the first No. 1 overall pick to be demoted to the NBA D-League, and Cavs GM Chris Grant doesn't exactly have the cleanest resume in the league.
Still, it's hard to fault him too much, given Cleveland's reputation as a free-agent destination. There's still more overall talent on the roster than either of the previous two seasons, by a long shot. In the hands of a competent head coach, this would be an excellent opportunity to both solidify rotation minutes and develop a concrete identity around the team's youthful core. Although whether or not Mike Brown is able to seize the opportunity remains to be seen.
On a brighter note, Grant's offseason ingenuity in engineering Bynum's contract technically resulted in Deng. Technically.
Behind Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao, the Cavaliers are having little trouble coming up with second-chance opportunities. Currently, the Cavs rank sixth in the league with 12.1 offensive rebounds per game.
While this should come as no surprise given the aforementioned duo's trademark hustle, it's what the team does with those extra boards that should draw some furrowed brows. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Cleveland is only scoring 0.88 points per possession following the recovery—a mark that ranks dead last in the league.
Obviously, there can only be room for improvement.
Instead of immediately going back up amidst traffic, Thompson and/or Varejao should look to facilitate ball and player movement from the inside back out to the perimeter, resetting the possession while the defense is still scrambling. Given that the team also ranks second-to-last in assists per game (19.4), literally any additional opportunities for assists or even secondary assists would be huge.
It's almost too fitting that in his first two games as a Cavalier, Deng experienced both sides of his new team's coin.
In his debut, Deng helped the Cavs effectively blow out a reeling Utah Jazz squad. Everyone who could have had a great game did in what became a team-wide spanking.
Merely two nights later, on Jan. 12, they suited up in Sacramento's Sleep Train Arena and were promptly steamrolled after the first quarter en route to a 44-point loss, their worst of the season. Kyrie Irving was thoroughly outplayed by the smaller Isaiah Thomas, who scored 26 points compared to Irving's seven.
So it goes with this Cleveland squad—you never know what you're going to get sometimes. Despite Coach Brown's preaching, it's hard to argue that his system is being bought into. Having a vocal, veteran leader who can be act as a beacon within the locker room helps, which only further heightens Deng's already apparent value to the team.
Thankfully, winning also has its own appeal, and games at The Q have so far typically slanted in favor of the home team. With Bynum's sulking gone, this is the prime hour for the coaching staff and team veterans to establish some night-in, night-out professional discipline.
The early signs are hopeful; whether or not they're an indication of a wider, subtle shift in the team's culture is yet to be seen.
After shrugging off a sluggish start to the season, Irving seemed to come alive in the month of December, scoring 24.1 points per game on 46.1 percent shooting. The Cavs won a few games before combusting down the stretch against a brutal schedule, but on an individual level, it seemed like Irving was taking the next step in his player development.
Then the calender flipped to 2014, and suddenly, Irving seemed sluggish again. Which is to say, he seems like the same player he's been for the past two seasons.
While that still equates to an All-Star-level player, don't think the front office isn't on alert. Point guards are often a microcosm of their teams—if a team gets better, then the point improves as a reflection.
In this case, Irving has been equipped with the best teammates he's had in his short career—and yet, his shooting woes are amok and his assist numbers have barely budged as the team has ebbed and flowed with his season-long inconsistencies.
Excuse it on age if you want, but a score-first playmaker who goes entire possessions focusing on his handle rather than his teammates' positioning won't win a team as many games. He's throwing just six assists per game, a mark ranked 19th among league points. That number wedges him between the Sacramento Kings' Isaiah Thomas and the Phoenix Suns' Goran Dragic—both of whom are having arguably better seasons than Irving.
Fortunately, the situation can be remedied, but it begins with Irving's ability to embolden his teammates and trust them with the ball. It might cost the team possessions, but not more than would have been lost on errant shots from Irving himself.
But unlike their compatriots, the Cavs have reaped immediate dividends from their midseason activity, allowing for the possibility of a breakout uptick in wins.
Consider this: ESPN.com's NBA Playoff Odds gives Cleveland a 27.2 percent chance of cracking the postseason, assuming the Pistons fall out.
However, as Hollinger's formula is based purely on mathematics, there's no way it can properly digest the fact that the team has gone 3-2 since the Bynum-Deng swap, and on the road no less (pre-trade road record: 2-15). Nor can it process the fact that, according to Hardwood Paroxysm, the starting lineup averaged 131.6 points while only giving up 100.7 per 100 possessions in those three road victories.
Can the Wine and Gold potentially secure a trip to the league's second season by going .500 the rest of the way, given that they have more home games than road games remaining and that only seven of their next 18 opponents have winning records?
A-duh. Almost anything is possible right now, and that's the simple and honest truth.