The 2018-2019 season is finally over for the Cleveland Cavaliers. From a purely win-based perspective, the season was an utter failure. After spending last offseason claiming that they had every intention of competing for the playoffs, an early-season injury to Kevin Love derailed those hopes. The Cavs finished with a 19-63 record, tied for second-worse in the NBA.
Yet in spite of all the losing, this season was legitimately enjoyable. The team had fun, especially towards the end of the year. Progress was made. Players improved. Without the pressure of competing for a championship with LeBron James, the Cavs were free to just play basketball.
The official team Twitter said it best:
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) April 10, 2019
Even with players coming in and out all season long, the team gelled together extremely well, especially off the court. Early in the season, reports stated that there were some veterans who weren’t thrilled with rookie Collin Sexton, and thought he “didn’t know how to play.”
But since then, there have been zero locker room issues, and the team really came together once Channing Frye announced his retirement. Frye has been one of the league’s best teammates, and is responsible for keeping the morale of the team up during difficult stretches over the past four years. He will be dearly missed, as evidenced by the spectacular sendoff he received.
Getting fan and player favorite Matthew Dellavedova back early in the year certainly helped matters, and Delly ended up being a fantastic backup and mentor for Sexton. His intensity rubbed off on the rookie, and so did his court smarts; Sexton’s basketball IQ increased dramatically throughout the season, and Dellavedova is surely a big reason why.
Speaking of Sexton, the improvement he showed is nothing short of remarkable. In 58 games (48 starts) before the All-Star break, Sexton averaged 15.1 points while shooting 41% from the field and 39% from beyond the arc. He showed the ability to score at a pretty high level, but his shot selection was awful and his passing wasn’t much better.
In the 24 games after the break, he improved his averages to 20.8 points on 48% from the field and 41% from three-point range. More importantly, he increased the amount of three-pointers he took from 2.7 to 5.8 per game. His season culminated with a 10-assist performance against the Hornets, the first team he had reached more than seven in a game. Sexton’s defensive rating was an awful 117.5 and his assist rate was just 15.4%, so he has plenty of work to do, but he did develop, and is one of the hardest-working players in the game.
Larry Nance Jr. took his increased role and ran with it, averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. Other young players like Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic also showed improvement as the season wore on. The end goal was always to just get better, and without the pressure to win, the team was able to accomplish that.
Can you imagine last year’s team taking a team photo and goofing off like they did in the video above? The atmosphere this year was a total reversal from last season. The absence of James can pretty much explain that, as the Los Angeles Lakers are currently the most toxic organization in the league. The Cavaliers needed a deep cleanse after they’d gone through over the past four seasons, and it seems to have worked.
This team will look very different next season. J.R. Smith is likely to be traded during the offseason, although he was exiled from the team for most of the year. Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson, and even Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova could be traded at or before next year’s deadline for more salary and draft picks. There will be free agent arrivals and departures.
There will be new rookies added to the mix, including whoever Cleveland drafts with their first selection, which will range anywhere from first overall to seventh, depending on the pending coin toss with the Phoenix Suns and the Draft Lottery in May. But no matter how much the group changes, the culture will be a welcoming and supportive environment, not with a “championship or bust” attitude, but instead one focused on gradual development and improvement.
Winning 19 games isn’t great, but at the very least the Cavs are tied for the best odds at landing a top-three draft pick. Sexton, Osman, and others got better as they played more. But the biggest improvement the team made this season was that of its atmosphere; there is no longer a toxicity in the air, and that will make this rebuild enjoyable.