Cleveland Cavaliers looking at the big picture, in a “good place” despite the beast and uneven month

Cleveland Cavaliers looking at the big picture, in a “good place” despite the beast and uneven month

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Years ago, before stepping foot on an NBA court, while still playing for Barcelona, ​​Cleveland knights Veteran point guard Ricky Rubio felt the suffocating pressure every night of a must-win game. Expectations abroad bordered on the absurd. Anything less than a constant glow was unacceptable.

When he left Europe and moved on to the NBA, Rubio learned to better navigate the nighttime turbulence. He avoided getting caught up in the exhausting emotional roller coaster often fueled by a marathon-like regular season.

He began to see the bigger picture.

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“It’s one of the hardest things to do in professional sports,” Rubio said recently. “My mantra is never too high, never too low. To find out how to be the best version, you have to go through mistakes. There aren’t many teams that are ready and good right away. They’re going to go through ups and downs.

“When we won eight in a row at the beginning, it doesn’t mean we won the championship right away. Just like it doesn’t mean anything that we’ve lost a couple lately. It’s about knowing who you are. We’re a team that didn’t make the playoffs last year. We are very young and learning. Learning happens through experience and sometimes through mistakes. It doesn’t come right away. I believe in this team. That’s why I came back here. I think we can be very good. But it takes time.”

That large-format viewpoint has made its way through the Cavallers’ dressing room, especially in view of a diabolical month.

When the NBA calendar was released about six months ago, members of the organization immediately noticed January. Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff included. As he helped organize travel and planned training sessions, filming and movies, January’s cruelty hit him even harder.

“When you look at the amount of games, the amount of travel, you understand it’s going to be a bear,” Bickerstaff said. “January is a tough month, but all NBA teams have them. Not that this is the pick of the league against the Cavaliers. There are different times for different teams. There are no excuses and no one throws us pity parties. You have to go out and do the work. That’s why the things we do in training camp to put ourselves in adverse situations shouldn’t come as a surprise when we have to deal with some adversity during the season.”

It’s a similar scenario every year, with Disney on Ice at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse sending the Cavs on a long road trip earlier in the month. But the January grind was more relentless this time.

Sixteen games in 30 days. More than half on the road, a place where the Cavs have been surprisingly unrecognizable. Thirteen against playoff/play-in teams. Two sets of back. Eight time zone changes. Donovan Mitchell’s grueling return to Salt Lake City. Ricky Rubio’s emotional debut after a 380-day recovery from a torn ACL. This is just the part related to the schedule.

Mitchell played sick for a few days and then hurt himself, missing six games this month. The Cavs went 2-4 without him. All-Star hopeful Darius Garland sat out twice. Dean Wade, a versatile forward who would be a staple of Cleveland’s nightly rotation, returned from a seven-week absence in January. The Cavs are 3-2 since their comeback.

With Wade and Rubio back, Bickerstaff has been experimenting with different lineups and combinations while trying to reintegrate the duo and find minutes for everyone, an impossible task given that Bickerstaff prefers to keep his rotation tight, unwilling to expand to 11 or 12.

The rotation adjustments have caused problems in the short term.

“Adding those bodies to the team during the season is one of the hardest things to do,” Rubio said. “There’s no time to go five-on-five and make mistakes in practice first. We have to figure out how to be the best version of ourselves. We have the tools and weapons to be a dangerous team and I think people feel that. Al end, it’s part of the process. We have to learn.”

After a fast start, going 8-1 to open the campaign and raising expectations even higher, adversity struck, causing the Cavs to flounder slightly in recent weeks. They haven’t won back-to-back games in over three weeks.

As a result, Bickerstaff has received criticism for his lack of in-game adjustments, predictable offense at times, roster management and decision-making, flawed plays after timeouts, and minutes allocation . Some of these criticisms are justified. Bickerstaff hasn’t been perfect and still has a lot to prove, especially in a playoff series. Some of it is nonsensical, over-the-top, sports-radio-type commentary that surprisingly ignores its role in establishing culture, managing personalities, creating special team chemistry, and getting the team to acquire a defense-first mentality while also playing hard (mostly) every night and repeatedly coming back from double-digit deficits.

He’s done it all while juggling 19 different starting lineups and a still-flawed roster with a dearth of two-way shooting and wings — the most prized components of team formations.

Cleveland’s 8-7 record in January — including an inexcusable loss against Golden State, a baffling shootout at Utah and a botched road finish at Memphis — has led to fanatical claims that a team young at 31 . -21, good for fifth-best in the formidable Eastern Conference and seventh-best in the NBA, is in some ways. with lower performance.

It doesn’t matter that the Cavs are No. 1 in defensive rating, 10th in offensive rating and second in net rating. Or that they are one of three teams that are in the top 10 in attack and defense; Boston and Philadelphia are the others. Or that they have the second best point differential in the league.

Counting just 15 games this month, the Cavs rank 10th in defensive rating, 12th in offensive rating and seventh in net rating.

“There’s games we’ve had on the table, I thought we could have closed and done, but this is not a league where you skip steps,” Bickerstaff said before Sunday’s demolition of the Los Angeles Clippers. “We have to take care of business, but there is a learning process. Look at where we started building this thing to where we are now, and we’re very advanced. Look at the group that is among the top teams, and how many of them have 21, 22, 23-year-olds who are their main targets for the most part? There are experiences that our boys have to learn. We are in a great place. Obviously in some circumstances we’ve left some food on our plate, but we’re above or beyond where we expected to be.”

It’s hard to argue when comparing Cleveland to other top tier teams, though Boston, Milwaukee, Brooklyn and Philadelphia have always been and should continue to be viewed on a separate level.

Philadelphia started 1-4. Mighty Milwaukee has had several losing streaks, including a four-game losing streak. Boston has somehow lost to rebuilding Orlando three times and is already going through a stretch with five losses in six games. Even star-studded Brooklyn has two four-game skids, including one recently after Kevin Durant’s injury. The Nets are just 4-6 without Durant.

What the Cavs have been through can be frustrating and disappointing, especially given the nature of some of the mistakes. But it’s also…common.

The 73-win warriors are no more. Nor the Bulls of the Jordan era. Every competitor has flaws. And Cleveland’s clock isn’t ticking as quickly as the others.

The road record is ugly. Late-game mental breakdowns and fourth-quarter meltdowns can be hard to bear. But it’s all part of the journey.

The Cavs have been saying for months that their goal is to peak in April and May, not January or February. Given the youth on this roster, and some health and schedule-related circumstances tied to their current record, there’s reason to believe they can continue to grow organically the rest of this season and beyond, even no outside additions at the trade deadline. Although this aggressive reception that improves the list before February 9 should not be discounted either. They are still actively looking for updates.

“Right now we’re a playoff team, but we’re working toward something bigger,” Rubio said. “We have to go through a bumpy road to get there. If we have to lose some games along the way to figure it out and be good at the end of the season, then I’ll take it.”

Mitchell, a Rubio protégé, had the same thought.

“The biggest thing is to understand and have more grace with us as a group,” Mitchell said Monday. “Where we want to go, many of us haven’t been and we have to understand that many of the teams we play know what it takes. They know how to get close every night. Understand the energy they will bring. I think we all want to say we’d like to learn and be in the second seed right now, but at the end of the day, that’s not the case. You have to keep building and growing, and the season is far from over. Keep an eye on the bigger picture. I think we’re doing a good job of that, but also being patient with ourselves and understanding that we’re growing into what we want to be.”

Before leaving on their latest road trip, Bickerstaff spoke to the team about this issue. These chats are held regularly. It was just the most recent.

Approaching the All-Star break, entering the dog days of the NBA season and with the second-easiest schedule remaining, Bickerstaff felt it was important to take stock of where they stood. Not just their place in the standings, but how they have already evolved over the course of the season and where they can still improve.

“When you start integrating bodies into the lineup and figuring out your rotations, guys that haven’t played in a while, it’s going to take a minute,” Bickerstaff said. “This is a team sport and each individual has an impact on the next. We’re all caught up in the moment, especially in gaming, you get frustrated because you see what’s available. But when you sit back and look at it, no team has ever been through these situations before. All teams in this league have had three, four and five game losing streaks. It’s part of the deal. You play 82 games for a reason. I’ll say it again: we’re in a good place.

“You’re moving toward an end goal, and you’re hoping to be at your best when that end goal arrives.”

Time will tell. But that time is not now.

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