The midseason firing of general manager Chris Grant appeared to be the lowest point of the year, but it also looked like the throwing in of the towel this season. Yet after a 90-76 win over the Indiana Pacers, Cleveland has won four of its last five, all without Irving and all behind a cohesive offense and capable defense.
In an Eastern Conference where 10 games below .500 currently makes a playoff team, the Cavs find themselves just 2.5 games out of the final playoff spot held by the sputtering Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks are losers of six straight, but the New York Knicks are also a hill to climb should Mike Brown's team make the postseason. New York sits a game ahead of Cleveland in the standings.
How have the Cavs gotten here? With turbulence behind them, there's still hope to end the year on a high note, even with just seven games left and a 30-45 record.
Photo: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sport
They've finally developed roles
The Cavs spent a good portion of the year tirelessly trying to include center Andrew Bynum into their plans, and according to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, they blame themselves for that failed project.
The Cavs privately believe all the hours and games they spent trying to incorporate Bynum into the system played a large part in this team's early-season struggles. They finally excused him from the team near the end of December, traded him for Luol Deng in early January and have gone 18-22 since Deng's arrival.
As a stretch center and an underrated passer, Hawes has complemented mid-range threats in Deng and guard Dion Waiters. With the comfort level finally there, Cleveland's offense has excelled in the last five games. The Cavaliers have produced 108.2 points per 100 possessions over that time span, according to NBA.com's stats tool, which is the 10th-best offense in the league and second-best mark in the Eastern Conference over that span.
Deng has been efficient and seems comfortable. Jarrett Jack has run the offense well starting in Irving's place. Anderson Varejao has come off the bench to complement Hawes' offense with rebounding and defense, and rookie Matthew Dellavedova has likewise brought another dynamic set of skills to back Waiters at shooting guard.
Simply put, the Cavs are playing like a dynamic team that know each other well. Four players are dishing out at least 3.8 assists per game over the last five outings, a sign the offense is clicking.
Dion Waiters is happening
Waiters' recent growth might be the biggest part of Cleveland's uptick.
The second-year pro began the year seemingly in Brown's dog house. He was accused of causing problems in the locker room and was later involved in trade rumors that Cleveland denied. But over the last eight games while Irving has been sidelined, Waiters has averaged 22 points and 5.1 assists per game. Though he's taking nearly 20 shot attempts per game, he's shooting 44 percent.
Waiters' mid-range shooting has been strong all season long, but that he's remained efficient without Irving says a lot. Against the Detroit Pistons last Wednesday, Waiters drilled a contested jumper on the right wing as time ran out to steal a 97-96 road win.
Two questions loom for Cleveland with seven games left on the year.
Will Irving's return disrupt any on-court chemistry built over the last few weeks? And finally, will the Cavs have enough time -- or get lucky enough as the Hawks' losses pile up -- to reach the playoffs?
Cleveland has a favorable schedule moving forward. New York must face the Utah Jazz before closing the year with seven games against top-5 seeds from the Eastern Conference. Atlanta has games against Chicago, Miami and Indiana left on the season. The Cavs face Orlando, have a must-win at Atlanta, and then finish against Charlotte, Detroit, Milwaukee, Boston and Brooklyn.
It won't be easy, but Cleveland could finish out the year with more promise than could have been imagined just a week ago.