Like many Cleveland fans who had been waiting eagerly for the third year of the Cavaliers’ rebuilding process to take place, former NBA All-Star and current ESPN analyst, Antonio Davis, thought this would be the year. All of the losses, all of the assets, all of the trips to the lottery—it would all start to take fruition as the Wine and Gold would begin their ascent among the Eastern Conference. And like many Cleveland fans who had been waiting eagerly for the third year of this rebuild, Davis is perplexed as to what has unfolded over the course of the team’s first 14 games, a stretch that has seen just four wins, two of them needing overtime and one being a cliff-hanging one-point victory where their opponents simply ran out of time.
“The league has been crazy,” said Davis in an interview with WFNY. “Cleveland was a team that I had right there, battling for the seventh or eighth seed if Kyrie [Irving] and [Anderson] Varejao could stay healthy. I thought they had the pieces to compete.”
Davis has seen his fair share of Eastern Conference basketball. Playing 13 years in the NBA, he suited up for the Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls, making the postseason with all three teams, totaling 93 playoff games. Davis has also played with players ranging from established veterans like Reggie Miller and Rik Smits all the way down to young up-and-comers—Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, Ben Gordon to name a few—who relied on that veteran leadership to guide them through the next chapter of their respective careers. Regardless of the situation, be it a perennial contender like the mid-90s Indiana Pacers or a Bulls team coming off of a 23-win season with a 38-year-old Scottie Pippen in two, Davis maintains that the ultimate success or failure comes down to the team’s best player. Not how many points they can score, but how much work they’re putting in to make the team better.
“Each team is only going to be as good as it’s best player works hard,” said Davis, not confusing God-given talent with work ethic and dedication to the craft. “Unless you are making guys around you better, you’re not going to win.
“This is what has to happen for Kyrie: He has to start trusting somebody. We know what he can do, we know he can get to the basket whenever he wants, but in the end, he has to make guys better.”
The third-year point guard and former No. 1 overall selection has already built himself quite the personal resume. In just one-and-a-half years of professional basketball, Irving has turned himself into one of the more marketable players in the league. He was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, missing a unanimous declaration by the narrowest of margins. He’s been to an All-Star game, playing key minutes alongside the game’s best. He is the reigning three-point shootout champion. Fantasy basketball owners love him. A 40-point outburst is never out of the question. In his third season, with two 40-point games already under his belt, he’s averaging his typical 21.4 points per game despite shooting a career low mark from the floor (41.0 percent). His assist numbers are the best of his young career, and he continues to get to the line with the best of his peers. But the team which he leads is presently among the worst in the league.
Certainly, Irving has had his trademark offensive explosions. It was only two games ago as the Cavaliers were fighting to top the New Orleans Pelicans on the road where the final box score may have looked acceptable, Irving was instrumental in a fourth-quarter collapse that sealed the loss for his team—turnovers, missed jump shots, missed lay-ups, and an offense that rarely saw the ball leave the point guard’s hands. Ball movement is a pipedream. Easy shots are a rarity. The end result is a team that is currently 28th in offensive efficiency, one that has already been forced to have a players-only meeting, and one that continues to search for answers.
Fingers can be pointed at the front office for roster construction. It can be pointed at the head coach in Mike Brown for having a team that isn’t replicating the defensive philosophies that are being taught. But at the end of the day, Davis maintains that the successes of failures of the Cavaliers will come down to how Irving handles himself both on the court and within the locker room when surrounded by his teammates.
“Professionalism every single day is key,” said Davis. “It’s very hard to overcome a lot of things… For a certain type of player, a certain type of kid, it’s easy to point the finger at everyone else. I haven’t seen that quality in Kyrie Irving. Everybody wants to win and losing leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
For all of the torment, disappointment and woeful basketball that has been displayed, for all of the turnovers and missed jump shots and invisible transition and frontcourt defense, Davis still believes that this young group of Cavaliers—as led by a hard-working, defensive-minded coach with playoff experience—will turn things around. While they may not confuse any fans into thinking they’re the San Antonio Spurs, Davis believes that the Cavaliers have too much talent to let the entire situation get toxic and irreconcilable this early in what is just the third season of their rebuilding process. As the entire Eastern Conference struggles, a run of wins will not only instill some confidence, but will put Cleveland right in the thick of things by the time the postseason participants begin to shake out.
“This is going to sound cliché, but it’s early,” said Davis. “We’re talking 14, 15 games. Things look crazy, but crazier things have happened. I’m not wavering from my preseason prediction. I still say that Cleveland will still be fighting for that seventh or eighth seed when it’s all said and done.
“But until Kyrie figures it out… It’ll ultimately come down to maturity.”
Former NBA All-Star Antonio Davis joined ESPN as an NBA studio analyst prior to the 2012-13 season. He provides analysis on SportsCenter, NBA Coast to Coast, NBA Tonight and on additional news and information programming. Prior to joining ESPN, Davis provided basketball analysis for NBA TV. In addition to a decorated NBA career, Davis was also elected President of the NBA Players’ Association in 2005 and served until 2006. WFNY thanks him for his time. Tonight’s Cavs-Heat game is on ESPN, ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN. Dave Pasch, Doug Collins and Chris Broussard have the call.
(Photo of Irving by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images, photo of Davis by Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)