Early-season optimism quickly turned into arguments, rumors, pouting and a collection of losses for the 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavs, who many believed to be a playoff team after a promising summer, began the year with just 16 wins in their first 49 games. Much of the attention paid to the Cavaliers focused on the suspension of Andrew Bynum, a now infamous players-only meeting and Kyrie Irving being rumored to want out of Cleveland, per ESPN's Chad Ford.
Since flipping the calendar to 2014, the Nets are actually 18-8 and find themselves sixth in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. The Knicks remain a mess, have lost five in a row and are six games out of the eighth seed. Their playoff hopes look shot.
The pressure is now on Cleveland in the East.
Following a recent win streak, can the Cavs continue playing the kind of basketball we thought they would, or will early-season dysfunction once again consume them?
Well, for starters, the general manager.
Cleveland fired Chris Grant, the man responsible for acquiring 14 of the Cavaliers' 15 players at the time, on Feb. 6. The franchise named David Griffin acting GM following Grant's dismissal, a move few thought would make much of a difference in the team's play at the time.
After all, Mike Brown was still the head coach, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters weren't getting along and even Luol Deng was struggling since his trade from the Chicago Bulls. Players showed little effort, the team got blown out on a regular basis and negative vibes consistently oozed from the locker room.
The Cavs were coming off their sixth straight loss, this time to a 17-32 Los Angeles Lakers team that finished the game with just four eligible players.
Even with everything that had gone wrong in Cleveland, this was a new low.
When the Cavaliers' poor play eventually cost a man his job, it seemed to wake the players up. Some key meetings also lit a fire in the locker room and perhaps worked to relieve some pressure as well.
Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal gives us more:
The Cavs actually held a couple of meetings after Grant was fired, including one in which acting GM David Griffin addressed the team and another in which owner Dan Gilbert spoke to the players. But Irving said it was a meeting in which players aired their grievances that helped clean what was becoming a toxic locker room. ...
... "Some of us put too much pressure on ourselves, including me. I put the burden all on my shoulders," Irving said. "I feel like once my teammates saw me let everything go and be free, everyone can do that."
Change was obviously needed, whether at head coach or another prominent position.
Grant's firing was unfortunate, but it seemed to be just what the team needed to rally around.
The Cavs always had more talent than their record showed.
A team with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Luol Deng, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao should be enough to make the playoffs in the East. Instead, problems with effort, consistency and trusting teammates plagued the Cavaliers for the season's first three months.
Thanks to those meetings that followed Grant's firing, Cleveland has showed its best energy all year. Guys are trusting each other more and seem to be having fun playing basketball once again.
Here are some of the biggest improvements the Cavs have undergone since making the switch at general manager.
Let's start on the offensive end.
The Cavs haven't just been better passing or rebounding the ball; they've improved in almost everything.
Defensively, Cleveland finally seems to be buying into Mike Brown's system.
This starts with Kyrie Irving. Irving has never really played defense in his three NBA seasons but has been much better as of late. Luol Deng, although battling a sore Achilles, has helped anchor a defense showing new enthusiasm on that end of the floor.
Here's how the Cavs have improved defensively in the past 12 games.
Better energy on defense has ultimately led to more contested shots and lower shooting percentages for the opposing team.
Reasons for Hope
Right now, the Cavs' entire focus needs to be on making the playoffs.
We've seen the difference Grant's firing has made, but these five additional factors should help inspire the Cavs to make a playoff run:
1. The Cavs have won two of their last three games without Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters and C.J. Miles. All are expected to return within the next 10 days, if not earlier.
2. Spencer Hawes has proved to be a great acquisition. He's helping spread the floor on offense and is averaging 13.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting a remarkable 50 percent from deep.
3. Irving and Waiters are getting along better than ever and will hopefully keep the good vibes going when the latter returns to the court.
4. The Atlanta Hawks, who currently hold the eighth seed, started a six-game road trip Feb. 26. Their next four games are against the Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.
5. The Cavs' March schedule is extremely tough as well but gets easier towards the end of the season. In their last 10 games of 2014, only one opponent currently holds a winning record.
Will the Recent Success Last?
Cleveland has won eight of its past 12 games for a winning mark of 66.7 percent.
Looking ahead at the schedule, there's just no way to keep that kind of record going.
The Cavs face powerhouses like the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers in the month of March. A few more winnable games are sprinkled in here and there (Charlotte Bobcats, New York Knicks twice, Detroit Pistons), but for the most part the Cavs are in for a fight.
That's not to say the playoffs are out of the question.
Thanks to a similarly tough schedule for the Hawks, Cleveland can still hang around even if it plays sub-.500 basketball. The key to the postseason is weathering the early March storm and making it to those last 10 games with a fighting chance.
The Cavaliers will need Waiters, Varejao and Miles back as soon as possible. All three are crucial to the Cavs' scoring, rebounding and overall depth.
Cleveland won't keep up the winning pace it's on since switching general managers, and that's OK. The key will to continue to play hard, steal some wins here and there and remain in the playoff hunt.
If the Cavaliers can accomplish all three, the playoffs are still very possible.
All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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