Welcome to If City. As the season opens, no team in the league has a higher ceiling and a lower floor than the Cleveland Cavaliers. If all goes well, they’re a playoff team; if it goes wrong, they’ll be back in the lottery. Let's take a look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios facing the Cavs and a few of their key players.
After being instantly dismissed from the national consciousness following a dreadful 4-28 start, few people noticed when the Washington Wizards quietly showed signs of a promising future during the second half of this past season. The Wizards’ improved play coincided with the return of John Wall, whose knee injury had kept him in street clothes through early January. With their promising young point guard back in the fold, the team morphed from disaster to, dare I say it, playoff-caliber force almost overnight.
Washington finished out the season at a .500 clip upon Wall’s return, which hardly screams “elite.” But the 25 games featuring a healthy core of Wall, rookie guard Bradley Beal, and veteran wing Martell Webster (whom the team intends to bring back despite his free-agent status) certainly do. No matter what roles Wall or Beal played (both came off the bench for a few games), the Wizards posted a point differential of plus-4.84, the equivalent of a 55-win team over a full season. And though a 25-game stretch isn’t something Washington can hang its hat on, it’s certainly an encouraging sign. That trio, combined with Nene and Emeka Okafor, also combined to form the league's most effective five-man unit that played at least 140 minutes together, per NBA.com. That amount of playing time isn’t enough to produce ironclad proof that the Wizards are set to the rule the basketball world, but it certainly is enough time to suggest that’s a lineup that can be quite effective.
For a franchise that’s been toiling in mediocrity for decades, there are enough bright spots from last year to suggest Washington is poised to make some serious noise in the Eastern Conference if it can inject one more talented piece into its core (and stay relatively healthy), a real possibility thanks to some incredible lottery luck. By selecting the right player with the third overall pick, the Wizards can become a legitimate contender in the East as early as next year, something no one could have predicted six months ago. Unlike some of the more desperate teams, Washington doesn’t necessarily need to hit a home run at the top of the draft, but to break through from mid-standings irrelevance, the Wizards probably have to avoid coming up empty. If the team can get an impact player with the third pick while also finding a competent backup point guard with one of its second-round picks, the Wizards have the opportunity to completely change the course of their franchise. No pressure, right?
Coaching news has rudely interrupted the endless stream of first-round playoff games, as both Charlotte and Cleveland came to major decisions about their head-coaching positions on Tuesday. The Bobcats’ semi-surprising decision to fire Mike Dunlap with one season left on his contract marked the fourth departure of a head coach since the end of the NBA regular season, which happened just one week ago. That round of firings followed four in-season dismissals, and three of the teams that made in-season changes — Milwaukee, Phoenix, and the Nets — are at the very least going to think very hard about making new hires in the next month or two.
On February 13, the Spurs and Cavaliers were tied at 93 with about 15 seconds left in the game. Dion Waiters was dribbling near midcourt and about to make one of the biggest shots of his career. With just under 14 seconds left, Tristan Thompson set a screen on Kawhi Leonard near the top of the arc, enabling Waiters to advance the ball a little closer to the basket along the left side. As Waiters approached the left elbow, he lunged toward Tim Duncan, but quickly stepped back to create space for a long, off-balance 2-point shot. The ball left Waiters’s hand from about 20 feet out and went through the net with 9.5 seconds remaining. Despite not passing the ball once, the Cavs scored, the score was now 95-93, and Dion made this face:
People realize this is happening, right? That the Cavaliers have a real chance of finishing with the league’s worst record this season, after finishing with the second-worst record in Year 1 of the Post-LeBron Era and the third-worst record in Year 2 of the PLE?
Their chances got better today, when the team announced that Anderson Varejao would undergo surgery this week to repair a messy problem around his right knee. Varejao, Cleveland’s second-best player by about 10 miles, will miss at least six weeks, meaning his minimal recovery time would take him just past the trade deadline. He’s effectively off the market for solid playoff teams who could use an extra big man — Boston (lacking the assets, barring a continued jones in Cleveland for Jeff Green), Oklahoma City (no confirmed interest despite endless trade machine proposals), Miami (stop laughing), New York (no realistic package), Denver (always a wild card), San Antonio (what they’d send is unclear), and perhaps one or two others. Cleveland’s GM, Chris Grant, reportedly loves Varejao, and it’s unclear if he was ever seriously interested in dealing a guy who still isn’t old and could serve as a nice role model for all the young guys here.