Forty-three wins for the Cleveland Cavaliers. That was my prediction this season. I still kinda believe this team is 43-wins good, too. At least that's what I've been telling myself lately. But just as soon as my right brain suggests that this team could still finish above .500, my left brain scoffs at the idea of going 32-22 starting on Saturday against the Boston Celtics to get there.
Assuming you haven't stopped reading already, my internal debate continues below.
'The postseason is still well within reach for the Cavaliers.'
Technically speaking, the Cavs could rip off five-straight wins and find themselves in the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference. It's mathematically possible, scientifically feasible and we haven't even hit the All-Star break yet. Heading into the weekend, the Cavaliers are only 1.5 games behind the No. 8 seeded Boston Celtics who they play on Saturday. Cleveland is also only 2.5 games out of the seven spot and three games out of sixth. The Charlotte Bobcats, meanwhile, are the team in sixth.
'But the Eastern Conference is historically bad right now and the Cavs are also four games out of last.'
The Milwaukee Bucks are in last place in the Eastern Conference. They are also the NBA's worst team. If Arizona, Syracuse and Ohio State fielded an All-Star team that was placed in the Eastern Conference, they might only be four games behind the Milwaukee Bucks right now. The Cavaliers recently used an overtime session and a 39-point effort from Kyrie Irving to beat these last-place Bucks three games ago. At home. The Cavs have also lost three-straight since, and are currently only four games up on Milwaukee.
'It takes time for head coaches to implement their system with a new team.'
It takes time for a new head coach to build a culture of winning. Gregg Popovich went 17-47 during his first season as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. Lenny Wilkens was 31-51 during his first year with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Things weren't easy for Norman Dale when he initially arrived at Hickory, either. Furthermore, Mike Brown is attempting to do the impossible: convince NBA players to commit themselves defensively. That's going to take time, obviously, but it's also the ultimate path toward sustainable winning.
'But first-year NBA head coaches are exceeding expectations elsewhere.'
Brad Stevens coached at Butler last year. His new team just traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Rajon Rondo is still injured. Despite that, the Boston Celtics are a playoff team right now who has already beat the Cavs once. Steve Clifford was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers. He now has the Charlotte Bobcats at the No. 6 spot with Kemba Walker as his team's leading scorer. Mike Budenholzer's Atlanta Hawks are 16-13 without Josh Smith and have also defeated Cleveland twice. Budenholzer, like Clifford, was an assistant coach last season who is learning on the job.
'Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters can be effective together on offense, regardless of what Twitter says.'
Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters are currently learning Mike Brown's system. They are also learning how to play alongside each other and with the rest of their teammates. Brad Daugherty and Mark Price had chemistry built on nine years of playing with each other. Joe Dumars played with Isiah Thomas for nine years as well. We have to let these guys breathe. It's also worth noting that in the nine games that Waiters has scored 20 or more points this year, Irving has averaged 24.
'But man can these two guys be turnstiles on defense sometimes.'
I know that Irving and Waiters didn't guard Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver exclusively on Thursday. But they each did spend significant time defending the other. By the end of the night, Teague and Korver combined for 54 points and 19 assists. Besides Teague shaking Irving to hit the game winner, their total accounted for roughly 10 more points than Irving and Waiters did. This is with Irving and Waiters going for 60 points and 11 assists. Meaning, Kyrie and Dion combined for roughly 82 points (11 assists x 2) and helped allow the opposing guards generate 92. That just can't happen.
'Matthew Dellavedova has been an awe-inspiring success story this year.'
Delly represents everything Cleveland prides itself on as a community. Hard-working, team-oriented. Never given a fair shake. Unafraid to measure himself against the best. Willing to buy upper-deck seats and watch Browns games on cold days at the stadium. And he's also provided a huge spark on defense, knocked down clutch free throws and continues to lead all NBA rookies in three-point field goal percentage.
'But Jarrett Jack being benched in favor of an undrafted rookie free agent is still a bad look.'
Jarrett Jack was supposed to be that perfect piece to Chris Grant's roster-puzzle. Man was I high on this guy. I still think he can be good but it's hard to blame Mike Brown for sitting Jack in favor of Delly with the game on the line. The same Jarrett Jack that looks like Ramon Sessions out there and is earning $25 million over the next few years regardless of what happens.
'There is nothing wrong with sending Anthony Bennett to the D-League to get him going.'
There doesn't need to be a stigma associated with sending Anthony Bennett down to the D-League to fully complete the rehab of his injured shoulder. He missed most of the offseason with a shoulder injury, never really got back into shape, still isn't in shape and can't possibly be 100 percent right now. Mike Brown has appeared open to the idea and there's been no reports of Bennett's camp objecting to the move, either. Canton is right down the street, it should happen, three weeks of regular game action could change everything.
'But the Cavs were too indecisive with Bennett already and left him vulnerable to massive scrutiny.'
The result of sending Bennett to the D-League now may crush his confidence for the rest of the year. According to the minutes he's earned, he is healthy enough to play for six minutes per game but not good enough to play longer. He will never get the hang of NBA basketball playing six minutes per game. His confidence will continue to wane and he'll never become the player he can be while playing for half of a quarter. He needs to play 30-minutes per night for three-straight weeks. If it's not Canton then start the guy. Or make him inactive and put him into a conditioning program until he's back in shape.
'Kyrie Irving is the least of the Cavaliers problems.'
Irving is in the process of learning to become a competent defender under Mike Brown. He is attempting to learn how to become more of a facilitator and adjusting to life in the NBA with expectations of winning. He hasn't been perfect, or even as good as I thought he would be to this point, but he also hasn't taken a step backwards, either. He's averaged 24.5 points on 45.2 percent shooting during the month of December to go along with 6.4 assists. He needs to be better for this team to be great, but he's still an All-Star.
'But he is doing too much mixtaping at times, and that needs to change.'
"I don't know why he spun. I'll have to watch the tape. That was a costly turnover for us." That's what Mike Brown said about Irving dribbling off his foot and out of bounds late against the Atlanta Hawks. In my opinion, at times, he seems to be going for that killer-cross too much. Which is the most frustrating part of his game right now. What made Irving great as a ball-handler during his first two seasons is that those street-ballish moves came naturally. He was killing people in the flow of the game, in the flow of the offense. He wasn't trying to be Kevin Johnson or Tim Hardaway, it was just happening. He needs to stop forcing all that and just be Kyrie. Nobody can guard him when he plays like himself.
UPDATE: Bynum Suspended
Press release from Cavs.
"Cavaliers center Andrew Bynum has been suspended for conduct detrimental to the team, Cavaliers General Manager Chris Grant announced today. Bynum did not travel with the team to Boston last night for the team’s game this afternoon at 1:00 p.m. vs. the Celtics and has been excused from all team activities indefinitely. His status will be updated as appropriate."
I still think the Bynum experiment was worth a shot. No matter how it eventually ends. But we'll have more on all that later.
Photo: AP Photo/Mark Duncan