Question: How does a team in the third year of a massive rebuilding project with no expectations other than gradual improvement have a disappointing season? Answer: When it's the Cleveland Cavaliers. Whether it was 30 wins or token contention for a playoff bid, the Cavs have seemingly regressed, or at least marked time, through an injury-plagued campaign with little tangible progress.
There have been bright spots. Kyrie Irving made his first All-Star team and continues to look like a superstar in the making. Tristan Thompson made solid strides across the board in his second season and looks like a legitimate building block. Rookie Dion Waiters had his moments as a scorer before suffering a knee injury and Tyler Zeller has been a credible NBA center, especially without Anderson Varejao around to help his development.
But it hasn't translated in the win/loss column where the Cavs are 23-52 and have just two more victories than last year's lockout-shortened season. Injuries have been the dominant theme. Irving missed 23 games and Waiters is out for the year after injuring his knee. Varejao's injury was the real killer. He was in the midst of a career year before undergoing knee surgery, which robbed the Cavs of their defensive anchor and one of the best rebounders in the league. So what's realistic?
"I can't give you a big picture yet because I don't really know," Cavs coach Byron Scott said on Friday. "We haven't had all our pieces this season so we don't know where we are right now. I do know that our younger guys have gotten better. We really can't assess exactly where we are as a basketball team because we haven't had really a full year to come to that determination. I still think and feel that we're on the right track."
Even with a long-range rebuilding project like this one, a step back can feel like a wasted year, but Scott wouldn't go that far.
"I don't know if I would say stunted, but yeah, frustrating," Scott said. "Any time you have your top three guys out for an extended period of time is frustrating. You have to change your rotations. You have guys that are your second unit guys coming in all of a sudden have to play major minutes and be in a starter role, so it messes up a lot of things for you. The one thing we haven't done and we won't do is make excuses about it. We've had injuries just like every other team in this league. We still feel from a positive standpoint that we're still on the right track."
There's talk that Scott could be in trouble after three years at the helm. The truth is it's hard to gauge any coach when his roster is lacking talent and he's force-feeding minutes to young players. Still, a disastrous 10-game losing streak down the stretch that included blowing a huge lead to Miami at home hasn't helped matters.
In the aftermath of that streak, Thompson has emerged as something of a team leader. He strongly backed Scott earlier in the week and responded with a monster game against the Celtics on Friday with 29 points and 17 rebounds that snapped the losing skid. That in and of itself is real progress and there are better days ahead, mostly because of Irving's transcendent talent. GM Chris Grant also has a handful of draft picks on the way and ample cap space to maneuver when the team is finally ready to compete.
Injuries or no, the Cavs are at a crossroads. Irving and Thompson will be entering their third seasons and whether it's a fantasy or not, the idea of bringing LeBron James back to Ohio would look a lot more appealing with a few more wins on the board and more talent on the roster.
The Cavs aren't the only team trying to make sense of a lost season. From Charlotte to Philly, the lottery teams in the East span the gamut of the rebuilding process. Some took big swings and missed. Others are barely getting off the ground floor. As we prepare to bid farewell to the NBA regular season, let's pause a moment and consider the progress of the less fortunate.
Offseason Expectations: After years of 40-win teams and quick playoff exits, the Sixers dramatically remade the roster with the trade for Andrew Bynum that sent out mainstay Andre Iguodala and young prospects Nic Vucecic and Moe Harkless. With Bynum anchoring the middle around developing players like Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young and a handful of veteran shooters, the 76ers envisioned life as contenders.
What Went Wrong: Only everything. Bynum never played. Vucecic blossomed in Orlando, Harkless looks like a keeper and Iguodala helped the Nuggets win 50-plus games. Doug Collins destroyed his team with a March postgame teardown and the Sixers were never a factor.
Silver Lining: Holiday has taken an encouraging leap in his fourth season by upping his scoring and playmaking. Signed to a 4-year, $40 million extension he's at least a solid building block for the rebuilding process. Thaddeus Young has also quietly turned into a very good NBA player and is also signed at an affordable rate for the next three seasons.
What's Next: The Bynum decision will hang over everything the 76ers do this summer. If they let Bynum walk they could get under the cap and try again with Holiday and Young, but that would realistically take another year or two of rebuilding. If they bring him back they risk inviting another season of dysfunction. Then there's Collins. His mid-season rant enhanced his reputation as a coach who dabbles in revisionist history while attempting to shift blame when things fall apart. He's never lasted longer than three years in any of his stops and he's at that point now. Is he part of the long-term vision?
Disappointment Level: A Hindeburgian disaster set in a bowling alley.
Offseason Expectations: After making a Quixotic play for Steve Nash that included giving Landry Fields a questionable 3-year contract, GM Bryan Colangelo added Kyle Lowry and extended DeMar DeRozan. At the deadline, he acquired Rudy Gay giving the Raptors more than $33 million worth of wing players for next season. These were bold moves with the playoffs in mind, if not for this year than for next, especially with the addition of rookie Jonas Valanciunas.
What Went Wrong: A remarkable inability to win close games doomed the Raps from the start of the season and they never really recovered. Perennial disappointment Andrea Bargnani got hurt, messing up whatever trade value he had, and the defense regressed from middle of the pack to bottom third.
Silver Lining: Still just 25 years old, Amir Johnson played over 2,000 minutes for the first time in his career and looks like the long-term answer at the big forward position. Valanciunus' development has been slow, but his late-season performance -- he was named the East's Rookie of the Month for March -- gives hope for the future.
What's Next: Perpetual mediocrity. DeRozan and Gay are both high-volume, low-efficiency scorers taking up almost half the cap and Bargnani is still on the books for next year with an early termination out on the following year. Acquiring Lowry cost them a first-round pick and they are projected to be over the luxury tax next season unless Colangelo can move Bargnani.
Disappointment Level: High, but predictable to everyone outside of the front office.
Offseason Expectations: By turning cap space into Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, the Wizards were trying to move past the Romper Room vibe of the last few years and provide a stable foundation for John Wall and Bradley Beal to develop. Playoffs, maybe?
What Went Wrong: Wall got hurt, Nene wasn't healthy to start the season and Beal got off to a slow start leading to a 4-28 record through early January that included the short-lived Kevin Seraphin as a go-to-player era.
Silver Lining: Nene came back, Wall returned with a vengeance and Beal made impressive strides. Since Wall joined the lineup, the Wiz have gone 23-19 and emerged with a top-five defense. Also, the revitalization of Martell Webster is one of the best stories of the year.
What's Next: They're up against the cap, but Webster is the only rotation free agent on the roster. That's not the real issue, however. In half a season, John Wall has upped his numbers across the board and shown the athletic creativity that made him the top pick in the draft. He's eligible for an extension this summer. How this plays out will define where the franchise goes in the near future.
Disappointment Level: Tempered because of all the injuries but still real. If they had been healthy and made the playoffs this would have been a success. The key question is how far along are the Wizards? With better injury luck this could be a playoff team next season, but it's debatable how high their ceiling ultimately is with this collection of players.
We covered their season and future prospects in depth here.
Offseason Expectations: A lot of losing and lot of healing after the Dwight Howard fiasco mercifully came to an end. Starting over is one of the hardest things a franchise can do and there were no illusions this would be easy.
What Went Wrong: Injuries to the handful of veterans on the roster opened the door to playing time for their young players and the serious business of losing games commenced. This isn't the worst thing, but going 7-39 after January is tough on everyone.
Silver Linings: Let's start with Nik Vucecic, who is averaging better than 12 points and 11 rebounds in his first season as a starter. Moe Harkless and Andrew Nicholson have had promising rookie seasons. The J.J. Redick trade brought in Tobias Harris who has averaged 16 points and 8 rebounds since the trade and second round pick Kyle O'Quin has had a handful of impact games. There's more talent here than people thought at the beginning of the season, but it's very young and lacks an obvious impact player.
What's Next: More draft picks and patience. No team has enjoyed as much lottery luck as Orlando and if they could somehow grab a talent like Nerlens Noel in the draft that would help kickstart the rebuilding process. There are still a handful of veterans on the roster including Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis and Al Harrington who could be dealt in the future for more young assets. It will take time, but the Magic appear to be on solid footing.
Disappointment Level: Low. The second half has been a disaster in terms of wins and losses, but that was to be expected.
Offseason Expectations: Nothing more than a little competence after last year's debacle.
What Went Wrong: There's just not enough legitimate NBA talent on hand to compete over the course of an 82-game schedule. It is troublesome that Bismack Biyombo barely progressed in his second season, but he's still extremely young and raw so there's time.
Silver Linings: Kemba Walker has developed into a legitimate NBA point guard and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist turned in a solid rookie season. Gerald Henderson had his best season just in time for restricted free agency. The DeSagana Diop era will finally end this summer and Tyrus Thomas is one year closer to free agency.
What's Next: The Bobcats have first-round picks coming from Portland and Detroit in the future and are well below the cap despite having more than $21 million committed to Ben Gordon and Thomas. They are still years away from contending. Can they stay patient?
Hall of Fame Snubs: Coaches Edition
The Basketball Hall of Fame will make it's official announcement on Monday regarding its class of 2013, but already various reports indicate that Bernard King and Gary Payton will be inducted this summer. Payton is a no-brainer, while King rights a historical wrong.
Reports have indicated that coaches Rick Pitino, Jerry Tarkanian and Guy Lewis will also be inducted. I have no quarrel with any of these choices, but only one coach who made it to the finalist stage -- Tommy Heinsohn -- was selected because of his work in the NBA.
It's important to remember that the Springfield museum is not an NBA Hall of Fame, which is obvious when one considers the lack of NBA coaches in the Hall. Here's a shortlist of pro coaches who deserve consideration with a hat tip to the great Curtis Harris of Pro Hoops History who offered insight and suggestions.
Bill Fitch: Look beyond the losing record (944-1,106) and focus instead on the accomplishments. As coach of the Celtics in the early '80s he led the C's to Larry Bird's first championship and went 242-86 in four seasons in Boston. With the Rockets he ushered in the Twin Towers era and took Houston to the NBA Finals. If Ralph Sampson had stayed healthy his resume might look a lot different. As it is, Fitch won Coach of the Year twice while leading Cleveland from expansion rags to regular playoff appearances. He was a master turnaround artist who took over historically bad teams in Cleveland, New Jersey and the Clippers and led all three to the playoffs.
Dick Motta: A lifer like Fitch who is saddled with a losing record (935-1,017) after taking on numerous rebuilding projects. Motta began with the Bulls in their third season of existence. He had them in the playoffs by his second year and winning 50 games in his third, which they did for four straight seasons. He then won a championship with the Bullets and reached the Finals the following season. In his third act, Motta built the expansion Mavericks from the ground up and turned them into a perennial playoff team. His record took a hit after a tortuous run with the Kings and a second stint with the Mavs after they had bottomed out with 13 wins in 1993-94. They won 36 the next season under Motta.
Slick Leonard: Perhaps the most egregious of the snubs, Leonard won three championships with the Pacers and is the ABA's all-time winningest coach. Over a seven-year period, the Pacers won three ABA titles, lost in the finals twice and the conference finals two other times. He was among the first coaches to fully embrace the 3-point shot as a strategy and Leonard's team defined the ABA as much as Dr. J's dunks, creative contracts and Darnell Hillman's afro.
Cotton Fitzsimmons: A character whose teams were as entertaining as he was, Fitzsimmons won 832 games, two Coach of the Year awards and took four different franchises to the playoffs. He had the majority of his success in Phoenix where he coached the Suns three different times. His crowning achievement was overseeing an overhaul after the franchise was left reeling from a major drug scandal in the late '80s. The Suns improved from 28 to 55 wins and won 50 games for four straight seasons, reaching the conference finals twice.
Fitch, Motta and Fitzsimmons were nominated this season but didn't make the cut to be considered among the finalists. Leonard was among a group of ABA players, coaches and executives who were nominated by the ABA committee. Here's hoping the voters take a second, third or even fourth look at their resumes.