The Cleveland Cavaliers have emerged from their first 10 games with a 5-5 record, performing nobly at times and not-so-skillfully at others.
Nagging injuries have slowed their two most important players, center Anderson Varejao and guard Mo Williams. Williams, in particular, has been missed, having suited up for only half of the team’s games.
So how are they sitting at .500 and, for now, in the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference?
The emergence of guard Daniel Gibson is the team’s feel-good story thus far. Head coach Byron Scott has handed Gibson nearly 30 minutes of playing time per game, and the fifth-year pro has responded by averaging 14.2 points and 4.4 assists off the bench.
Ramon Sessions, obtained from Minnesota in the offseason, is averaging 11 points and four assists a game as Williams’ occasional stand-in.
Finally, despite his still-nagging tendency to go AWOL during the course of a game, J.J. Hickson leads the Cavs in scoring at 15 points per contest, including a career-high 31 points in a loss to Atlanta on Nov. 2.
Add a healthy Varejao and Williams to the mix, and occasional doses of old pro Antawn Jamison for good measure, and the Cavs are a competitive team with a shot at the playoffs.
Competitive, however, may not be enough to prevent a steep decline over the next two weeks. That’s because the NBA’s scheduling gods have handed Cleveland a dreadful stretch to kick off the holiday season.
Five of those teams are clearly superior to the Cavs right now, and the other three—Indiana (who have already beaten the Cavaliers in Cleveland), Milwaukee and Memphis—will see their game with Cleveland as one they can win.
In other words, the Cavs will be hard-pressed to win one or two games in the next two weeks.
This is the NBA, of course, so anything could happen. Middle-of-the-road teams often take the floor against league powers and steal a win.
However, the Cavaliers are deep only when they have all their players at full strength. Scott has come to rely on an up-tempo game that requires a 10-man rotation. For it to work, he needs all 10. When key players like Williams or Varejao are sidelined, the coach is left scrambling trying to plug the gaps.
If the Cavaliers are at full strength over the next eight games, an optimistic prediction would be for them to win three of those, which would leave them with an 8-10 record—still on the periphery of playoff talk.
Realistically, however, they may be fortunate to win one or two of their next eight. That would leave them at either 7-11 or 6-12.
That’s how quickly a season can go downhill in the NBA.
This is not to say that the sky is falling, or that all is lost. It’s simply meant to point out that if the Cavaliers hope to prove the naysayers wrong, they’ll need to close out November with some impressive performances against some of the league’s best teams.
When the final buzzer sounds on Dec. 2 to conclude their much-anticipated matchup with the Miami Heat, we will have a much better idea of what to expect from the post-LeBron era Cleveland Cavaliers.