Riders Wrap Up a Big Season Looking Forward to Bigger Things Ahead
by Joe Gabriele (@CavsJoeG)
4/18/22 | Cavs.com
It’s understandable for Cavaliers fans to be a little down after last Friday’s ouster against Atlanta. Seven months ago, we didn’t expect them to get as far as they did – and once they did, we wanted more.
It’s only human nature.
But now that the smoke has cleared over the weekend, it’s time to remember: In any postseason scenario, in any sport, only one team wins its final game.
JB Bickerstaff’s young guns had a season for the ages, announcing a new era of Cavaliers basketball. And as important as the 44 wins and the well-earned accolades were, it’s equally critical that the Cavs have re-established a culture.
All season long, the team proved that they play for one another. That they enjoy each other’s success. They don’t want to let the next man down. As Kevin Love repeatedly said throughout the year: the strength of the team was the team.
”That’s the one thing about being a family, being together,” said Jarrett Allen following Friday’s loss. “I think that has transcended us as players, as individuals. I think us, this year, playing how we did, how we were on and off the court – I truly think we made that ‘Cavs Basketball.’ Being together, playing for one another and making this team a family.”
Allen made a valiant return to the lineup on Friday after missing 18 games with a fractured middle finger on his left hand. The All-Star center was obviously favoring it towards the end of the night.
The 5th-year man from Texas had a career year in 2021-22, averaging career-highs in scoring, rebounds, assists and steals. His .677 mark from the floor was tops in the Eastern conference and he led the Cavs with 32 double-doubles (with Cleveland going 26-6 in those contests).
And with Allen’s 24th birthday coming up this week, it’s still valid to point out that this year’s Cavaliers were the only Eastern Conference team with a winning record whose top three scorers are 23 years old or younger.
There’s no telling how Cleveland’s season might have turned out different if not for the rash of injuries all season long – from Collin Sexton to Ricky Rubio to Allen and so many others in between, they definitely took their toll. Over the course of the year, the Cavs went with 29 different starting lineups and lost a total of 291 combined games missed.
”Injuries are a part of the game, and you never want to blame anything on that,” said Caris LeVert, who Cleveland acquired just before the Trade Deadline and missed eight games with a foot sprain not long after the deal. “But I think that definitely, down the stretch, the timing of the injuries kind of messed with the chemistry.”
LeVert never quite found his rhythm with the Wine & Gold – averaging 13.6ppg in 19 games down the stretch. In his defense, the injury and an inconsistent role hampered his ability to find jogging over the season’s final seven weeks.
With an offseason working with his new squad, LeVert will almost certainly come into next season with a renewed confidence.
His head coach expects that from the entire team, one he knows won’t surprise opponents like they did in the first half of this year.
”We’re good enough to beat people, so we won’t have to catch them by surprise,” said Bickerstaff. “We just need to play well and if we play well, we’re going to continue to win our fair share of games. And our guys are going to continue to get better. This version of the team you see in front of you isn’t the team you’re going to see next year. That team’s going to be better, because I know our guys are going to work their tails off this summer to get better.”
It’s odd to think that one way the Cavaliers will look different next year will be with Collin Sexton back on the floor. The Wine & Gold’s first round pick back in 2018 didn’t miss a single contest through the first 155 games of his career. But this year, the Young Bull was sidelined 11 games into the campaign, watching the remainder in street clothes.
“This version of the team you see in front of you isn’t the team you’re going to see next year. That team’s going to be better, because I know our guys are going to work their tails off this summer to get better .”
”I’m very motivated to be part of this, and just get us over this hump (next year),” said Sexton from CCC the day after Cleveland’s season ended. “Just bring production and whatever I bring to the game to help us get to that point on that given night. Whether it’s scoring, whether it’s defense, whether it’s just being tough, being a leader.”
The essence of this year’s surprise squad began growing over last summer. The Cavaliers left something on the table this season; they know that. And they’ll be even Hungarian to take the next step in 2022-23.
And now they have a culture to build around. The five core values – Details, Toughness, Together, Compete, 1 More – that hang at the practice facility mean something. Being a Cavalier means something.
The Cavaliers have young superstars in the making. We witnessed their coronation at the midseason classic in Cleveland this past February. But this team was also built around versatile, rough-and-tumble role players, guys who did it – as JB Bickerstaff likes to say: “in the trenches.”
The embodiment of that gritty player Cleveland’s coach loves is the original Junkyard Dog, sophomore swingman Lamar Stevens.
“Throughout the year, dealing with injuries, we’ve always responded,” said Stevens. “With guys going down, different lineups, guys having to play different positions. I think that just goes to how deep this team is, and what we stand for – everybody being ready, and everybody being built into that mentality. No matter who was playing, we played the same style of basketball and had that identity. And that means we have a group that’s completely bought in to the identity of the team and the identity of the coach.”
They say every dog has its day. For Stevens and Co., it promises to be one day very soon.