One of eight teams whose COVID-19-interrupted season ended when the league decided to resume play with 22 teams in Florida next month, the Cavs are using their omission as fuel.
“Whatever it is we have to do as a group this summer to get better, we need to go out and do that,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said Tuesday on a Zoom call. “Whatever party the NBA is throwing, this one happens to be in Orlando, we need to do whatever we can in our power to make sure that we’re getting invited to the party - and that’s been the message to our guys.”
The Disney slight was an odd finish to the Cavs’ strange, staggered season. It will be remembered for first-year coach John Beilein’s stunning departure at the All-Star break, the acquisition of star center Andre Drummond and the team’s brief resurgence under Bickerstaff, who exuded restraint while making it clear he isn’t happy about Cleveland’s exclusion.
Bickerstaff said the Cavs will be “good partners” with the league in showing support for the 22-team format. However, they’re missing out on opportunity to bond, compete and develop. Bickerstaff is hoping the league will come up with a suitable alternative to offset what he believes is a significant competitive disadvantage for the outside eight.
“We’re fighting like hell to get something done,” he said.
Bickerstaff has had discussions with coaches from the other seven teams as they try to navigate through yet another unexpected challenge. He worries about the adverse impact of a prolonged layoff - the Cavs’ last game was March 10 before the shutdown - on his young squad.
Based on the league’s revamped plans, the playoffs could last until mid-October, and there are discussions to push the start of the 2020-21 season to early December. If that happens, and if something isn’t done to accommodate the Cavs and the others, it’s possible they wouldn’t play competitive games for eight to nine months.
“Our expectation is the league is going to let us do something,” he said. “I can’t imagine they would allow us to go eight months without doing anything with our guys and expect realistically for the teams that went eight months to be competitive in an upcoming season when you are competing against teams who had extra practice time, extra games together.”
Although the Cavs went 19-46, drove away a respected college coach in Beilein and finished with the East’s worst record, the season wasn’t a complete wash.
“The guys could have punted, but they didn’t,” he said. “They went out every single night and they competed. The foundation for the good teams is people willing to buy in to something greater than themselves. And that’s where I thought we were. And we have to keep milking that as best as we possibly can during these times.”
Tristan Thompson’s long run with the Cavaliers is likely over. The energetic big man’s five-year, $82 million contract is expired and he’s expected to explore free agency after nine seasons with Cleveland.
It’s difficult to currently gauge a market for Thompson. But with the Cavs heavily invested in front-court players Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr. and Drummond, who is expected to exercise his $28.7 million player option, it’s hard to imagine them keeping Thompson too.
Guard Matthew Dellavedova and center Ante Zizic are also free agents.
Bickerstaff was pleased with guard Collin Sexton’s progress in his second season, especially on defense.
Sexton raised his scoring average to 20.8 points, but Bickertaff was most impressed by the former first-round draft pick’s maturity and commitment. Bickerstaff was surprised to join a recent conference call with players looking to coach when their careers are over and Sexton was one of them.
“He didn’t know I was going to be on that call, but he was doing what he could because he wants to get into coaching when he’s finished,” Bickerstaff said. “Being able to see the game through a coach’s eyes would be extremely helpful for him.”
Depending on what they can accomplish in the coming months - Cleveland could use some luck in the draft lottery - the Cavs believe they can contend in 2021.
“We want to be in the hunt next year,” Bickerstaff said. “We’re not having expectations of 19 wins in a shortened season to champions, but there needs to be steps forward no doubt. In the East, if there’s steps forward, you’re battling for the eighth spot going down the stretch. I think that’s a realistic expectation for us.”
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