Believe it or not, at one point this season, the Cleveland Cavaliers sat atop the Central Division and were on pace to earn a playoff spot against the Miami Heat in the first round.
OK, so that was on Nov. 9. But after a tumultuous offseason (and that's about as positive of a spin you can put on it) the city of Cleveland and the Cavalier faithful needed something to build on. They were ready to rally around this team, to embrace it in a manner unique to the way northeast Ohio typically supports their franchises.
Then the spokes started to wobble, the wheels began to loosen, and before you knew it the Cavaliers were riding around on four flat tires and any trace of hope that this team could show that they more than just a one-man band was long abandoned.
Eighteen losses in 19 games—their worst stretch since March of 1982 when they lost 18 consecutive games to finish the season.
Fourteen straight road defeats.
An 8-27 record that is, thanks to some recent wins from the Sacramento Kings, now officially the worst in the NBA.
An impending fire sale that is sure to blow up whatever is left of an ailing roster.
And seemingly little hope of finishing the season out of the cellar in not only the division but the conference as well.
However, it's not like the franchise is heading in an irreversible direction towards mediocrity. In hindsight they were probably better off struggling this year and not making a playoff run that could have delayed the rebuilding process by a year or two or, even worse, forced the front office to ink a few of these players to long-term extensions.
That's not what fans want to hear—nobody enjoys losing by 15 at home to Toronto or squandering a double-digit fourth-quarter lead against the lowly Timberwolves. But in reality these are lumps the organization (and fans) will have to swallow in order to transform themselves back into perennial playoff contenders by the mid-2010s.
That's not an excuse for a lack of progression and development, though. And in a season full of disappointment and despair, the player who has regressed and most closely emulated the way the Cavaliers season has unfolded is J.J. Hickson.
On opening night he outplayed Kevin Garnett (Kevin Garnett!) and helped engineer an upset over the defending Eastern Conference champions.
He hit double-digit points in eight of the first nine games, cracking 15 or more points six times, and put in a career-high 31 points on an efficient 11-of-17 shooting against Atlanta.
Then he began to fade. Opposing scouts and defenses took away his strengths (i.e. his right-hand dribble-drive) and the confidence and swagger he displayed early in the season looked like a distant memory.
This is clearly evidenced by his struggles with his mid-range jump shot, which looked smooth and fluid in November and now is virtually nonexistent. His effective field goal conversion stands at a paltry 32.3 percent yet it's nearly from where half of his field goal attempts come.
When he was a starter for the first 20 games of the season, it was the opening five that struggled to play with any consistency. Now that he's been moved to the bench, it's the second unit that routinely is outscored and puts the team in deficits that are often too great to overcome.
For the season his plus/minus sits at minus-202, the worst on the team and second worst in the entire NBA (DeMar DeRozan "leads" at minus-231). Plus/minus isn't a foolproof statistic but in this case it backs up the obvious: the Cavs are actually worse when Hickson is on the floor.
The decline in his overall production has coincided with Antawn Jamison's increased scoring and playing time over the last month.
Kenny Smith on Inside The NBA made a great point last night talking about Sacramento's position players. Since they have players with similar skill sets at multiple positions, when one guys plays well and produces, the others typically don't.
That same idea can correlate to the Cavaliers as well and it makes sense why you rarely see Hickson and Jamison both playing well. While their offensive skills are actually quite different, they're both the same build and have the same weaknesses when it comes to defense and rebounding.
But if one guy is scoring, communicating defensively and providing a spark while the other is in a funk and making several key mental lapses a game, who do you think will earn more playing time?
Not helping Hickson's cause are the discrepancies between him and coach Byron Scott. The two haven't seen eye to eye about Hickson's role and there have been minor quaffs between them all season, the most recent coming on Monday when Hickson missed a mandatory practice and Scott benched him for Wednesday's game vs. Toronto.
It's a catch-22. At age 22 and being initially designated a much bigger role in the organization, not just this year but in the foreseeable future as well, Hickson needed consistent minutes to grow more comfortable in the system, learn from mistakes and become a valued rotation player.
Scott isn't just going to give playing time to guys who don't deserve them—he needs to play guys that are focused and mentally sharp. And right now that doesn't include Hickson.
The team isn't playing for the now, they're playing for the future. And they've already invested more in Hickson than anyone else on roster by refusing to include him in any potential deals at the last two trade deadlines.
Were expectations a bit too high for the third-year forward? Probably. But again, that's not a viable excuse for showing minimal signs of progression and development.
The Cavs kick off a five-game road trip at Golden State tonight...and will do so without Booby Gibson (ankle), Anderson Varejao (ankle), Leon Powe (knee), Anthony Parker (back) and Joey Graham (quad).
With a third of the roster out and his primary competition for playing time being Ryan Hollins and Samardo Samuels, Hickson has to take advantage of this opportunity. He has to be disciplined and aggressive in his approach, meaning the days of standing at the three-point line when shots go up instead of attacking the glass must be gone.
You can't write a player off in his third year. Especially when this is (or was supposed to be) his first season as a featured player instead of the last option on a 60-win team. In the "win-now/what have you done for me lately" world that is the NBA, draft picks routinely don't get a fair chance to pan out.
This could be Hickson's time to show his value. But if he doesn't show signs of improvement and displays the same tendencies that have resulted in him riding the bench, then perhaps his future with the Cavaliers isn't a certainty.