For the Cleveland Cavaliers, nothing ever comes easy. Especially not the postseason.
But as any fan of mid-'90s cinema can tell you, hope is a good thing, and no good thing ever dies. Which is why, despite being mired with injuries and a renewed losing streak, the road to the playoffs hasn't been walled off yet—not so long as the team can get even a little boost from the following handful of players in the season's stretch run.
For the sake of convenience, only players who have been steady contributors this season (including games played under another team) have been included. Anyone currently injured and unavailable for an indeterminate number of games is off the hook—for now.
So, who made the cut? Who still has time (and the potential) to flash something more even with two-thirds of the season through? Click below and find out.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats provided by NBA.com and are current through Sunday, Feb. 23.
"But we just got him! How could you possibly ask him to 'step up' after just two games?"
It's simple. Prior to the trade deadline, Spencer Hawes was a player clearly suffering from the side effects of playing for a squad that had gone all-in on tanking. He put up stats by virtue of playing for the league's fastest team, but his month-by-month efficiency was circling the drain: from 51.2 percent in November to 33.3 this month. Same with his three-point game, which similarly nosedived from 47.4 to 27.3 percent in that same period.
Did I mention Hawes stands at 7'1"?
Obviously, it will take time to adjust, although he's already had two relatively solid games for the Cavaliers. But with Anderson Varejao sidelined and sophomore Tyler Zeller giving up size at the 5, Hawes will need to continue producing at a consistent level—if not for this playoffs-or-bust Cleveland squad, then for the sake of his next contract.
Luol Deng makes this list under the same criteria that qualify Hawes. Namely, when a team is prepared to invest completely in your continued play, and you've shown yourself capable of doing more earlier in the season, then it's time for some self-evaluation.
This isn't meant to undermine what Deng's already accomplished. He is irrefutably the team's best small forward, wing player and defender. And if he made it known that he was inclined to re-sign with the Cavaliers, there's zero doubt in my mind that owner Dan Gilbert would be at the ready to overpay for his services.
However, within an offense that has often struggled to score points and several double-digit scorers out of the rotation, Deng needs to be primed to assert himself. His points (15.1), rebounds (5.2), assists (2.1) and overall shooting (41 percent) are all markedly lower than in his first 23 games of the season with the Chicago Bulls.
Although that can be attributed to a difference in familiarity and talent level, Deng is in a better position with Cleveland to showcase himself more ahead of what looks to be a raucous summer for the free-agent-to-be.
Tristan Thompson has been a double-double machine as of late, which is exactly what the Cavaliers need from him.
I've said it before, and it remains true: Three years into his NBA career, Thompson's production has essentially remained the same—12-13 points and 10-11 rebounds per 36 minutes. Not that there's anything wrong with averaging a double-double, but when you're young, athletic and your frontcourt partner in crime goes down with injury, then that warrants just a little bit extra.
No one is going to ask Thompson to start putting up 20 and 10 every other night (although if he did, this would be an entirely different team), but to see a few more of those occasional explosive nights in terms of cleaning up the glass or playing above-average defense would go a long way toward filling the void that has been left due to Varejao's injury.
As a team, the Cavs need to do a better job of converting second-chance opportunities. With Thompson as one of the team's leading offensive rebounders (and frankly, one of the better rebounders on that end in the league period), it's up to him to keep the play alive and either finish or facilitate the next play. Let's see if he can't become a 15-10 or 15-12 guy in either of these next two months.
If Jarrett Jack has anything to smile about these days, it should be the fact that after almost being dealt twice at the deadline, he's still in Cleveland—whether fans like it or not.
For the past two months, Jack, who was signed as a free agent to ignite the team's offense, has averaged between 6.3 and 6.4 points. Or put another way, he's averaging one point for every $1 million he's due this year.
Combine that with his shooting and lack of defense, and Jack might actually be the worst contract on the entire team roster. On the other hand, with injuries to C.J. Miles and Dion Waiters, he's also the only other proven guard to slot next to Kyrie Irving, unless head coach Mike Brown decides that it's time to promote Matthew Dellavedova.
The ball is literally and figuratively in Jack's hands at this point. A veteran over the age of 30 who already has his long-term future secured could continue to relatively coast, pout and revel in the paychecks coming his way after one solid season on the West Coast. Alternatively, he could embrace taking over the backcourt reins, attack the basket with renewed ferocity and occasionally carry the offense a la Waiters on a good day. The choice is his.
Even All-Star Game MVPs aren't exempt from this listing.
If there was one thing that the league's annual exhibition game showed, it's that given a free-flowing offense, superior teammates and absolutely zero defense on the other end, Irving belongs as much as any other player in the conversation for elite point guards.
But unfortunately, All-Star Games are not a reflection of how regular-season games work, and Irving has clearly struggled as a result of being the best player and first offensive option of this team. His shooting and aggressiveness continue to wax and wane, and everyone in the world is waiting for a sign of definitive progress from the third-year guard.
Now, with the Cleveland season hanging by the thread of each loss, now would be a perfect time for Irving to deliver.
However, that doesn't mean he should be taking every shot in the fourth quarter. If that's the correct play, then go for it. But on nights like Sunday, when the team is struggling and you personally can't hit the broad side of a barn, you have to get someone, anyone going. It's what will ultimately separate Irving, the All-Star, from Irving, the leader and winner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. And something tells me the team would prefer the latter.