To those who have followed the Cavs all season, this is nothing short of miraculous. Through all the drama, inconsistent play and roster shakeup, Cleveland hasn't given up on its season yet.
As of April 4, the Cavaliers are just two games behind the New York Knicks for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Atlanta Hawks also sit two games in front of the Cavs, but are on a slide that has them outside of the top eight spots for the first time all year.
With all the frustration that this Cavaliers' season has brought, would making the playoffs finally turn the year into a positive one?
After three seasons of terrible basketball that ended in lottery trips, this was supposed to be the year Cleveland would make it back to the postseason.
Kyrie Irving was entering his third professional season, having already been named an All-Star. Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson were beginning to showcase their skills.
Veterans Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark were all signed to help bolster the young roster. Mike Brown was hired back to help fix a defense that finished 27th in defensive rating in 2012-13.
Surely in this Eastern Conference, the Cavs could make the playoffs, right?
Turning the Negatives into Positives
One of the early positives for Cleveland was the return of Andrew Bynum.
The former All-Star center, who missed all of 2012-13 while with the Philadelphia 76ers, was able to play in the Cavaliers' very first game. He actually did a great job rehabbing from his previous knee surgeries and never missed a game due to injury (Bynum was held out of two back-to-backs and left Cleveland for two more games due to a family matter).
This resurgence was short-lived, however, as Bynum returned to his immature ways. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports tells us more:
Bynum never made it to the early January guarantee date for his full $12.5 million salary in 2013-14, and self-destructed. He stopped trying on the floor, and became a disruptive presence in practices. Before Bynum was thrown out of his final practice and suspended, he was shooting the ball every time he touched it in a practice scrimmage, sources said – from whatever remote part of the court he had caught the ball.
For what it's worth, basketball-reference.com tried to guess what this shot chart may have looked like for Bynum at the Cavs' practice facility.
Deng helped shore up what had been the weakest position for the Cavaliers at small forward. Since the trade to Cleveland, Deng has averaged 14.7 points and 5.3 rebounds while helping the young team push for the playoffs.
"We’re all trying to do whatever it takes to make it." Deng recently told Alex Kennedy of basketballinsiders.com. "For me, it means a lot not only to see them go through it but because I think we deserve it. We’re a way better team in the second half than we were in the beginning of the season, so I just want to see the maturity of this team get rewarded.”
Trading Bynum was a huge positive for Cleveland, as classy veterans like Deng are always welcomed inside young locker rooms.
Recent Team Improvement
When the Cavaliers fired Chris Grant on Feb. 6, the team's record sat at a lowly 16-33.
Since replacing him with acting GM David Griffin, the Cavs have been much better. Cleveland is a very respectable 15-12 since making the switch, and the Cavaliers have won five of their last six games.
Several players have helped lead this turnaround. Spencer Hawes has been a huge pickup since his trade over from the Philadelphia 76ers. Hawes is helping spread the floor for Cleveland on offense and is averaging 14.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.8 three-pointers per game.
Dion Waiters was recently inserted back into the starting lineup and has responded in a big way. In his last 10 games, Waiters is putting up 21.7 points and 4.9 assists.
Even Jarrett Jack, who was off to a terrible start to the season, has picked up his game as of late. Over his last 10 contests, "Captain Jack" is averaging 14.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 49.6 percent from the floor.
Kyrie Irving recently returned after missing eight games with a strained bicep tendon, scoring 17 points to go along with eight assists in a win over the Orlando Magic.
Players are finally stepping up, something we've been waiting on nearly all season.
Still Playoffs or Bust?
So if Cleveland makes the postseason, this year can be viewed as a positive, right?
I would disagree.
Obviously, making the playoffs would be huge for the Cavaliers, as a young team needs to experience success to build off of.
That being said, just making the postseason isn't enough to forget about all of the frustration and disappointment from earlier in the year. The team's offense took a step back this season, as did many of the young players. Brown has done a poor job managing the locker room, one filled with trade rumors and accountability issues all year.
If the Cavs somehow grab the eighth seed and get swept in the first round, how much would they have really accomplished? After all, finishing eighth in the East may be done with a record around 35-47. The final playoff spot in the West is currently being held by the Memphis Grizzlies, who have already won 44 games. If not for playing in a terrible East, Cleveland wouldn't even be having a playoff conversation.
No, just making the playoffs isn't good enough.
To consider this a positive season, Cleveland needs to continue to show the fight it has demonstrated the past six games all the way into a first-round matchup.
The Cavs don't necessarily need to win a round, as they'd be facing either the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat. Instead, putting up a good fight and winning a game or two would be enough to send a message to the fans and the rest of the league that Cleveland basketball is back.
A competitive playoff series isn't just something the Cavaliers would like, but rather what they need to prove they're ready to take the next step as a franchise.
If the Cavs do advance to the postseason and continue to fight the way they have the past few weeks, only then can we consider this year a success.
All stats provided by basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.