Life After LeBron

On Wednesday night, Cavaliers rookie Kyrie Irving put up a performance that rivaled any LeBron James had in his rookie season. Irving scored 29 points, and was one rebound and one assist shy of a triple-double. With Cleveland one point down in overtime against the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks, Irving took it upon himself, as he has so many times this year, to take the game winning shot. Unfortunately he missed.

In many ways, however, it did not matter whether Irving made or missed that shot (he would of course tell you otherwise). What that final play signified, in the larger scheme of things, is what really counts. A 19 year-old rookie, who turns 20 on Friday, already has the poise and confidence to demand the ball when it matters most. The Cavaliers have a natural leader in their ranks. A player they can build around for the future.

It has been a long 18 months for Cavaliers fans, but as confirmed by Wednesday night’s game, there are brighter days on the horizon.

A Year Best Forgotten

I had a brief discussion with a friend recently about the most tortured sports cities in North America. We both agreed that fans in Philadelphia, Buffalo and Minneapolis have lived through their fair share of pain and heartache. However, Cleveland, in my opinion, tops them all for the sheer amount of anguish its fans have endured throughout the years. The Indians have come agonizingly close to winning the World Series, while Browns fans have undergone decades of hurt, including watching their team move to Baltimore. For fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the experience has been much the same.

The commonly held notion that Cleveland’s franchises are cursed was again underscored on that notorious date: July 8th, 2010.

LeBron James, the savior of a Cavaliers franchise that had endured ten years of awful basketball, before he rejuvenated their fortunes in 2003, was leaving for Miami. Not only did James, a native of nearby Akron, ignore the desperate pleas of a city begging him to re-sign, he infamously announced his decision to leave on national television.

The curse was alive and well. Cleveland had lost the best player in the NBA, the face of the city, and the greatest chance they had to win a first championship in their 42 years of mediocre existence. The backlash was fierce. Fans burnt LeBron James jerseys, and made videos expressing disgust at their former hero. Owner Dan Gilbert was particularly scathing, calling out James for his betrayal and stating that the Cavaliers would win a championship long before he would.

LeBron jerseys went on sale for $17.41, the year of Benedict Arnold’s birth. Ouch.

In truth, it all got a little disturbing. By the end of the summer the Cavaliers organization and fans began to resemble something of a scorned lover. They did their best impression of someone who had been unceremoniously dumped by a significant other, leaving them bitter and obsessing over every detail of the injustice.

In LeBron’s final year as a Cavalier, the team finished with the best record in the NBA. One year on and Cleveland was the worst team in the Eastern Conference, second only to Minnesota as the worst team in the league. It was a wretched turnaround. At one point the Cavaliers lost 26 straight games. To compound the misery, James dropped 38 points on Cleveland, in his much-anticipated homecoming, reveling in the booing and vitriol aimed in his direction. All in all, it was a miserable year.

A Change in Fortune

If there was one light at the end of the tunnel for a suffering Cavaliers fan, it was the knowledge that their team held two first round picks in the 2011 entry draft. As every Portland Trailblazers fan knows, having high draft picks is no guarantee of success, but it was at least a positive first-step in the desperately needed rebuilding process. The Cavaliers selected Brampton, Ontario’s own Tristan Thompson at number 4, and of course, Kyrie Irving as the first pick overall.

At the time there was much debate as to whether Cleveland drafted the right player with their first selection. No one is having that debate now.

Kyrie Irving has been a revelation for the Cavalier’s in his first season. Averaging 19 points per game and 5 assists, it is hard to imagine that there was time in the recent past when some analysts were claiming the organization made a mistake in not selecting Derek Williams. Indeed, the initial reservations about Irving were somewhat justified. He had spent most of his freshmen year at Duke injured and had only managed to play a handful of games.

It is safe to say now, however, that the front office made the correct decision.

Irving is everything a team could want and more from a franchise point guard. He has shown great athleticism and can drive to the basket and score in traffic. When defenders are worried about getting burned off the dribble (understandably so), and leave him too much space, he has the ability to punish teams with his dangerous perimeter shooting. Most impressive, as I earlier stated, is Irving’s natural confidence. For a rookie he has shown remarkable composure in high-pressure situations. He has already hit game winning shots against the Celtics and Nuggets, both on the road.

Irving has been the brightest spark on a team that, although still inconsistent, is performing well above expectations.

The Cavaliers have 17 wins this season, only 2 wins less then what they achieved in 82 games last year. Cleveland has scored road wins against the Celtics, Thunder and Nuggets, teams that would have destroyed them a year ago, a confirmation that there has been definite progress.

An additional positive is that the Cavaliers have become a fun team to watch. Coach Byron Scott has his team playing loose, with refreshing energy. Aside from Irving’s performances, Cleveland’s other rookie, Tristan Thompson, has been developing nicely. Starting recently against the Nets, Thompson had a break out performance, scoring 27 points and snaring 12 rebounds. The play of young shooting guard Alonzo Gee and veterans Antawn Jamison and Anderson Varejao (before his injury), has contributed to the surprise improvement of the team.

With the likelihood however, that older players like Jamison will not be resigned, the key for the organization going forward will be how well they draft.

Read Those Scouting Reports

Without wishing to offend Clevelanders, my Grandfather included, the city has never been the most attractive destination for free agent superstars. It lacks the vibrancy of New York, the glitz and glamour of L.A. or the beautiful weather of Miami or Phoenix. To put it nicely, Cleveland is never going to see a LeBron James type player come there voluntarily. Improving by drafting and developing young talent is therefore crucial.

At the recent trade deadline G.M. Chris Grant sensibly traded back-up point guard Ramon Sessions to L.A. for a first round pick. This means that the Cavaliers now have two picks in the first round of what is supposed to be an extremely deep 2012 draft. The potential of two more young, talented rookies joining the likes of Irving and Thompson should excite all Cavaliers fans.

Making the playoffs now, or even next year, should not be high on the list of priorities for Grant and Byron Scott. Continuing to nurture a young and talented roster should be. The Cavaliers have done a surprisingly respectable job of staying among the chasing pack for the 8th seed in the East, but given the general mediocrity of that conference and the fact that team who finishes 8th will more than likely be promptly swept by the Bulls, making the playoffs is not a concrete sign of positive progress.

With a promising, young core in place, led by Irving, the Cavaliers will eventually make it back to the playoffs. More importantly for now, the team has an identity again; something they lacked last year. People like myself, with no real stake in the franchise, have a genuine interest in following them. The curse may still exist, but almost two years on from that disastrous summer, Cleveland fans have a reason to feel cautiously optimistic.



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