Not all great stories were meant to have a happy ending.
Just one year ago, a young upstart Cleveland Cavaliers roster seemed primed to fill Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse with playoff attire and a hopeful round of postseason basketball for the first time in nearly half a decade. Cleveland had won 44 wins, its largest win total since the waning days of the championship era and the highest winning percentage in Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s career at the time.
The Cavs were set to face the Brooklyn Nets and the powerful duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the first round of the Play-In tournament.
“Not at all,” Bickerstaff said regarding whether he was bothered by how the Brooklyn Nets are perceived compared to the young Cavaliers, via Cleveland.com. “The perception or reality of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and the pieces around this team and the way they are coached, you can understand why people would want to do that.
“But I will tell you this: If we’re healthy, we’re not a team people want to face either.”
But, as confident as the young Cavaliers were, hope and determination can only get a team so far.
That hope quickly turned into heartbreak when Cleveland slipped out of the Play-In tournament with losses to Brooklyn and the Atlanta Hawks, leaving the Cavaliers with no other choice but to make yet another push for a postseason spot.
Armed with a revamped roster featuring a playoff veteran in guard Donovan Mitchell, Bickerstaff expressed the same confidence in his young corp before they faced a physical New York Knicks squad primed to win its first playoff series since Carmelo Anthony took up a leading role at the Garden in 2013.
“I’m confident in our group, period,” Bickerstaff said, via Bally Sports Ohio. “I believe, when we’re at our best, we’re a tough out for anybody. We need to make sure we’re aware and tighten up the details and the execution and all those things.
“It’s going to be a new test for us. We have guys that are going to be in their first playoff series. It’s never going to come easy, but I have a lot of confidence in our group.”
But hope and determination can only get a team so far.
The Cavs will again have to find a way to build upon their regular season success in the offseason and prove, once and for all, that they are capable of being the competitive team they spent so many seasons assembling.
The Cavaliers may not have fulfilled every one of their expected goals, but they have done more than enough to make the 2022-23 season a memorable one.
Donovan Mitchell’s 71-point Cavs game
On what seemed like a routine regular season game, Mitchell flew to scoring heights no Cavalier had seen before.
Mitchell scored 15 points the game before, hitting five of his 16 shots as the Cavs scraped by with a 1-point win over the Chicago Bulls.
“We did everything we could to lose that game, but we just have to survive and advance,” said former Cavs forward Kevin Love, via the Associated Press. “It felt like March Madness tonight.
“Really ugly game, but again, we have to win ugly sometimes and we’re thankful we did that.”
Mitchell erupted for 71 points when the Cavaliers took to Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse to take two straight wins over their division rivals, hitting 22 of his 34 shots and 20 of his 25 free throws as the Cavs took a 145-134 in front of a Cleveland crowd of just over 19,000.
Even then, Mitchell wanted more.
“I’ve always believed I can be one of the best players in this league, but I have to keep working,” Mitchell said. “This is a big milestone but at the end of the day, we have to continue.
“Those other guys have all won at the highest level and that’s my ultimate goal.”
The game, along with Mitchell’s ability to break LeBron James’s 40-point single-season game record and earn the team’s first All-Star starter selection since 2018, at least instilled some hope that the Cavaliers had a new franchise-defining star of their own.
Cleveland may have had its star on the offensive end, but could they hold up on both sides of the court?
Achieving the league’s top defensive rating
There was a time when Cleveland’s defense wasn’t even close to where it was this season.
The Cavs’ defense showed a meteoric rise for a team that once hosted a one-hour film session to fix its issues with then-head coach John Beilein in 2019. From the team’s 116.8 defensive rating in the 2018-19 season, the worst mark in the history of the NBA.com stats database at the time, according to the Athletic. From ranking worse in adjusted defensive rating than all four Central Division rivals, one of whom narrowly avoided a full-blown mutiny in 2018, during the 2019-20 season.
Cleveland ended last season with the top defensive rating in the league, both as a whole and with just their bench. Cleveland’s reserve unit ended the regular season with a defensive rating of 50, good enough to take the top spot in front of the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls.
Bickerstaff preached to stick by “Cavaliers basketball,” or a deviation from “playing hero ball, saying ‘my turn’ and playing selfish defensively,” since early in the 2022-23 campaign.
“It’s about embracing who you are,” Bickerstaff said in November. “Those (lofty) expectations don’t bring any added pressure. We have a talented group of players in that locker room who support each other, are there for one another and want to compete for one another.
“That’s where we want to focus on. If we do the right things, good things will happen for this group. We believe that if we play with the same spirit and defended the way we did last year, positive things will happen for us.”
Making the playoffs for the first time since the 2017-18 season
Mitchell, who scored 28 points during an NBA playoff matchup the night before, rode on 30 minutes of sleep as he addressed Cavs media on Wednesday.
“It’s not how I planned for it to end,” said Mitchell, via The Athletic Staff Reporter Kelsey Russo. “It’s tough. But trying to find that grace in it as well. We’ve accomplished so much as a group.”
Cleveland made its first playoff series since the 2017-18 season, when the Cavaliers all but started completely from scratch around LeBron James and Kevin Love as they traded a multitude of players in hopes of gaining the strength needed to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
The Cavs hopes of keeping an exciting season going are all but gone.
But so are the hopes of getting lucky in the draft lottery. The days of watching division rivals enter the playoffs while the Cavs cycle their way through multiple head coaches.
A new Cavs corp still has its young options locked down for the foreseeable future, giving them plenty of time to make memorable pushes for the playoffs in the old champion team’s stead.
Still, Mitchell wanted more on Friday.
“I’m six years in and I haven’t made it past the second round,” Mitchell said, via ESPN Cavs beat reporter Danny Cunningham. “There’s going to be a time where I figure it out and it’s coming. But if I’m not going to let this, and I don’t think any of us going to let this define us, define me and I’ll be better for it.
“We’ll be better for it.”