Being part of a franchise’s history means something. It has weight, significance. To a city, a region, a worldwide fanbase.
And in that history, there are teams that are footnotes and there are teams that are chapters. And on Sunday night, this young Cavaliers team will now begin to write their own chapter – clinching a Playoff berth for the first time in five years and the first time without LeBron James since 1998.
All Cavalier fans know the teams that have carved their name in franchise lore. The Miracle of Richfield team of the mid-70s. Lenny Wilkens’ precision squad of Price, Daugherty and Nance of the late-80s and early-90s. LeBron’s first drive to the NBA Finals in 2007; then his second when he returned from Miami – finishing the job in epic fashion in 2016.
Hell, some of us even remember with great fondness Karl’s Comeback Cavs, who reached the 1985 Playoffs after a 2-17 start – willed there by the indomitable World B. Free.
All these chapters have one thing in common. They’re the tale of a team “rising from the ashes.”
The “ashes” are where these current Cavaliers came from.
After winning the title in 2016, the Wine & Gold made two more runs at the title – rebuked by a Warriors team that had added Kevin Durant after their stunning defeat.
And after LeBron departed for Los Angeles – not unexpectedly this time – things disintegrated quickly in Cleveland. Hungover from four straight runs to the NBA Finals, the 2018-19 squad dropped their first six games of the season before Tyronn Lue was fired. Larry Drew admirably picked up the pieces, but the Wine & Gold were now a team in decline.
After sputtering to 19 wins that season – led by rookie, Collin Sexton, a pick acquired in the deal that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston the previous summer – the Cavaliers made a drastic change the following offseason, hiring former University of Michigan coach John Beilein as the new top man, with former NBA head coach J.B. Bickerstaff as his lead assistant.
More importantly, that offseason produced three First Round picks in the Draft – led by the No. 5 overall selection, Darius Garland.
After playing all of five collegiate games at Vanderbilt, Garland was almost immediately given the keys in Cleveland, but the young Cavaliers continued to struggle. By the 2020 All-Star Break, the team had a grand total of 14 wins – and Beilein was given his walking papers. He was replaced by Bickerstaff, who guided the squad to a 5-6 mark before the COVID pandemic brought an immediate end to the season on March 10.
That summer, the Cavaliers made Bickerstaff their official head coach and tabbed Isaac Okoro – the Draft’s top perimeter defender – with the No. 5 pick out of Auburn. With no fans in the stands and the regular season tipping off just before Christmas due to health and safety measures, that year’s squad would proceed to win its first three games of the season and then drop 13 of its final 14.
On the surface, the highlight of that 2020-21 season – which produced 22 wins after 19 each in the previous two – seemed to be dropping the Kyrie Irving/Kevin Durant/James Harden-led Brooklyn Nets in back-to-back home games in January. In actuality, the highlight was the trade just before those two victories that landed Harden in Brooklyn in the first place – with the Cavaliers acquiring promising young big man, Jarrett Allen (along with reserve guard, Taurean Prince) in the four-team deal.
Three moves the following summer is where the franchise began turning things around.
One was the Cavaliers landing the No. 3 overall pick in the Draft, which they used to land USC freshman big man, Evan Mobley. The second and third both came in August – dealing Taurean Prince to Minnesota for veteran guard, Ricky Rubio, fresh off dropping 38 points on Team USA in the Tokyo Summer Olympics, and landing Lauri Markkanen from Chicago in a three-team deal trade that sent Larry Nance Jr. to Portland.
And despite losing Collin Sexton to a season-ending knee injury in November, last year’s Cavs took the NBA by storm – hosting the 2022 All-Star Game and sending a pair of players (Garland and Allen) to the midseason classic here in Cleveland. The Cavaliers showcased their frontline of seven-footers, Garland emerged as an elite point guard, Rubio had one of his best seasons as a pro, Kevin Love flourished in his new role, finishing second in Sixth Man voting and Mobley was an absolute revelation.
At the Deadline, Cleveland sent Rubio – whose season had ended due to a knee injury in late December – to the Pacers for veteran swingman Caris LeVert. (Rubio would re-sign in Cleveland the following summer.)
J.B. Bickerstaff’s young squad stubbornly remained in the Playoff picture all season, despite injuries decimating their dream season in the final month. Cleveland held in for a pair of Play-In games – but fell in a noble effort in Brooklyn before a barrage by Atlanta’s Trae Young sent them home for the summer.
But despite the rapid trajectory, the Cavaliers brass weren’t done. Far from it.
Instead, Cavs President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman and General Manager Mike Gansey swung for the fences – and just weeks before Training Camp tipped off, landed one of the game’s true superstars, three-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell, sending a Markkanen, Sexton, the recently-drafted Ochai Agbaji and picks to Utah for the high-scoring guard.
The blockbuster began paying dividends immediately. Mitchell topped the 30-point mark in each of his first three games and the Cavaliers won eight of their first nine. Mitchell would make his fourth All-Star appearance – appropriately back in Salt Lake City – in a season in which he’s topped the 30-point mark on 27 occasions, set the Cavaliers all-time single-season record for three-pointers and erupted for the biggest game in franchise history – scoring 71 points in an overtime win over Chicago.
More importantly, Mitchell has taken the team to new heights – and the team has allowed him to.
Garland is having another All-Star-caliber season, with career-highs in shooting and scoring and is one of the league’s top 10 assist men. The same can be said for Jarrett Allen, who posted his career-high-tying 32nd double-double of the year on Sunday. Evan Mobley has somehow gotten better as the season has progressed and has All-Star (and All-Defensive Team) written all over him as a 21-year-old.
In terms of getting better, the Cavaliers bench has found its rhythm over since the calendar flipped to March. Caris LeVert has tallied double-figure scoring in eight straight games and has been a demon defensively, Cedi Osman has found his shooting stroke and Ricky Rubio is starting to look like himself again after offseason knee surgery.
The most beautiful part of all this is that the young Cavaliers are just getting started.
Donovan Mitchell was two years old when the Cavaliers – led by Shawn Kemp and a rookie named Zydrunas Ilgauskas – last made the Playoffs without LeBron. Jarrett Allen was two days old.
J.B. Bickerstaff was averaging 8.6ppg as a forward for Oregon State. Evan Mobley, Isaac Okoro and DG the PG weren’t even born.
“I think, organizationally, this is a big deal,” said Bickerstaff, clinching a postseason berth against the team that let him go after taking them there back in 2016. “To come from where we came from and every year take steps in the right direction, in a positive direction, all the hard work the people in that organization have put in to help get us here should be acknowledged. Koby, Mike Gansey, the front office crew. Their work to tirelessly not just find the talent, but the right type of people to fit in and be a part of this. Our coaching staff should be acknowledged for the development and the time they put in with guys, the hours nobody sees, spending time with them, helping them get better, being there for them when things aren’t going as well as we’d like them to be. Having to bear and carry some of their emotions as well. I think they should be acknowledged, also.
“And then our guys. Our guys have bought in to something bigger than themselves. It’s unique for such a young team to do that at such a rapid pace. Typically, young guys are so busy trying to figure out themselves, that the team comes secondary. We’ve got a bunch of guys where the team is the primary thing, and the only thing. And any individual awards, rewards, glory comes because of our team’s success.”
Now, the team is THEIR legacy.
What happens when the regular season wraps up in six games is how these young Cavs will be judged from this day forward. On Sunday night, they clinched their chapter in the history of the franchise, and they’ll begin writing it in late April and beyond. There’s no going back now.