CLEVELAND — It’s not fair to judge the Cavaliers right now.
I know, I know. We’ve said the same thing for the past three seasons. I know it’s getting a little old.
The Cavs are about to finish dead last in the Central Division for the third straight season. That’s a franchise first, and this franchise has been through some dire stretches.
It didn’t even get this bad when Ted Stepien owned the team in the early 1980s. Stepien changed coaches like Larry King changes wives.
Still, even those Cavs weren’t in last place every season.
But those Cavs didn’t have anyone like Kyrie Irving, either.
Of course, neither do these Cavs — as Irving could miss the rest of the season with a sprained shoulder.
Rookie shooting guard Dion Waiters (sore knee) is also out, perhaps for the rest of the campaign as well.
Irving and Waiters form the Cavs’ starting backcourt, and when you toss in the somewhat forgotten injury to center Anderson Varejao … well, you get the picture. It ain’t pretty. Again.
But even if the Cavs had been totally healthy, we sort of expected a season like this. Maybe not this bad, but it likely wouldn’t have been much better.
If Irving, Waiters and Varejao had been healthy for most of the season, the Cavs likely could hold on to a 20-point lead (or a 14-pointer like in the loss to Boston the other night).
Instead, the Cavs have no one to turn to, no one resembling a dynamic closer, when things start getting shaky late in games.
That means they have to rely on defense, and even with everyone in uniform, they have a ways to go in that department.
Right now, their starting backcourt consists of Shaun Livingston and Wayne Ellington. Livingston was waived by the Washington Wizards on Christmas Day, and Ellington was obtained in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies about a month after that.
Both are nice players, both very well could return next season. But both were doing a nice job as calming influences off the bench. They were never brought to Cleveland to start. Yet that’s exactly what they’re doing at the NBA’s most athletic positions.
Cavs coach Byron Scott has also had to distribute more minutes than initially hoped to several others. Those minutes have been meaningful and come against some quality competition. When you make a mistake or two (or six or seven) against the Miami Heat or playoff-hungry Celtics, well, you’re doomed.
It’s maddening, it’s ugly, it flat out stinks. Nobody wanted to spend another season counting ping-pong balls.
But it’s also reality for a team that’s been unable to remain healthy and has had it’s maturing rotation shattered.
Next season, the Cavs will likely start the season with a couple of home games, then another wild trip out West. It buried them earlier this year.
It can’t happen again next year. The entire franchise is on the clock with the people who buy the merchandise and fill the seats.
But today, we can’t expect much more than what we’re getting. It would be unfair.
All we can ask is that the Cavs play hard, play smarter, and try to hang on at the end. They’re doing two of those three, and with even two of their top three players healthy, they’d probably be doing it all.
So here comes another summer of what the Cavs repeatedly have called “a process” of more draft picks, more free agency, more space under the salary cap. Give them credit for sticking to the plan despite some considerably trying times.
Truth be told, they don’t really have a choice. Trying to rush things would be a major mistake.
Now all we can do is hang on with an eye toward next season, then hope for the best.