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Halfway Heroes

Cleveland Cavaliers Midseason Recap

With yesterday afternoon's defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks 102-97, the Cleveland Cavaliers have reached the midway marker. We're there: 41 games up, 41 games down, with 41 more games to go in the 2013-2014 campaign. At this point in the season, we've seen playoffs hunts take shape, contenders flex their dominance, and individuals performances begin to escalate quickly. This past weekend alone, Paul George nearly brought the house down with a 360-Jam we haven't seen the likes of since Air Jordan racked up frequent flyer miles at the United Center. This past weekend also featured Kevin Durant dropping 54 points. Meanwhile, in the place where pleasant Cavalier dreams lie, the Miami Heat dropped three in a row.

But we're not here to talk about The Association. We're here to talk Cavaliers, Wine and Gold, Cleveland. And, for once, there's a lot more to talk about than just poor defense and unbridled frustration. At this midway checkpoint, the Cavaliers are 15-26. It's a subtle improvement over last year's abysmal 9-31 record at the halfway mark, but it's an improvement nonetheless.

What is most unlike last year, if you can hardly believe it, is the level of consistency the Cavaliers have had in the win column this season. This year, the Cavs won four games in November and five in December. I know, hardly flattering, but stay with me. While I'm not as devout an optimist as I probably could be, I try to favor my silver lining observations over any other. Last year, Cleveland only won three games in November and tallied only three more victories in December of the 2012-2013 season. While our strides aren't great, wins are wins, and the Cavs appear to be collecting more of them this year than any of the three previous seasons. Subtle improvements yes, but improvements nonetheless.
...and management couldn't be happier.
At 15-26, the Wine and Gold are now in position to have their first 30+ win season since the 2009-2010 campaign. The last time the team experienced such a drought in wins was just prior to the arrival of Lebron James in 2003, and prior to that the Ted Stepien-era and the early years of the franchise in the 1970s. The offense appears to be gelling with the addition of Luol Deng acquired in the trade-and-waive with the Chicago Bulls for the listless Andrew Bynum, who was suspended indefinitely by the team just hours before a narrow 103-100 loss to the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on the road.

Shortly after the season began, members of the media began reporting Andrew Bynum as saying he had lost his love for the game of basketball. They were peculiar sentiments considering the week following those comments Bynum was inserted into the starting lineup, his production went up, and the Cavs started winning more consistently. But Bynum's play began to regress after a while, and the once promising big man was reduced to the bench and ultimately exiled from the team.

As a clause written into Bynum's contract, the Cavaliers had until January 7, 2014 to either exercise the team option to trade or waive Bynum or make good on the additional salary promised to the seven-footer. In the midnight hours just before January 7 turned into January 8, Cavs GM Chris Grant pulled the trigger on a deal with the Bulls that sent the existentially funked Bynum to Chicago for Forward Luol Deng and a future first-round draft pick. The Bulls promptly waived Andrew Bynum to clear space for the new salary cap restrictions set to go into effect later this year, and let the door hit him on the way out.
Case Closed on Andrew Bynum.
File Opened on Luol Deng.
Out with the Old...
...And in with the New.
What might go down as one of the best trades Cleveland has ever made, Luol Deng arrived to practice with the Cavs at the Cleveland Clinic Complex in Independence the day after the trade was finalized. The media swarmed him, the excitement was palpable, and with good reason. Deng is a two-time All-Star and a 2012 All-Defensive Second Team member. He boasts career averages of 16.2ppg, 6.4rpg, and 2.5apg. He's also on pace to have over 700 career steals in 10 years by the end of the current season, and at age 28 is right in his athletic prime.

His presence was instantly felt even before setting foot on the court. On January 7 in a home game against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Wine and Gold manhandled the visiting team without a single shred of (brotherly) love lost. The 111-93 final score is nearly indicative enough of the way both Cleveland's offense and defense patrolled the pine. The Cavaliers posted a then season high 36 points in the first quarter in the route of Philly, notably highlighted by C.J. Miles, who couldn't miss from the floor. C.J. went on to set the franchise record for most 3-point makes in a game with ten. Miles had 8 at the intermission, which tied the NBA record for most 3-point field goals in a half. The red-hot, nay, SIZZLING shooting guard is scorching the net during the month of January, with a 15.4ppg average through the halfway checker, scoring in double-digits in all but three of ten contests in 2014 thus far.
C.J. Miles lights it up against Philadelphia January 7 at the Q.
At the time, Cleveland was 12-23, with a monster West Coast road trip set to begin the upcoming Friday featuring stops in Portland, Sacramento, Denver, Los Angeles, and Utah. Prior to the Andrew Bynum/Luol Deng trade, a scene like that would have been a massacre. Heading into the road trip, the Cavs only had three wins against the West and abysmal (there's that word again) record on the road of 2-15. Not exactly the type of road record that wins championships historically. But with a decisive victory of Utah on Friday night 113-102, the Cavaliers appeared to be rolling…until they got to Sacramento. We won't talk about Sacramento, except to say everything that could go wrong did.

But the Cavs rebounded from the loss in Sacramento January 12 to post an encouraging victory over the Lakers in L.A. They lost the next night on a back-to-back to Portland, but hung tough, again, with what many consider is the best ball club in the NBA this season. And that brought us to this past Friday in Denver, where the Cavaliers set the tone early, scoring a team-high 42 points in the second quarter on their way to another definitive victory over a Western Conference team 117-109.

During the road trip, the Wine and Gold averaged 105.2ppg, well above the team season average of 96.7ppg. They also averaged 21.4apg, which shows signs of Mike Brown's "Pass First" offensive strategies beginning to work, or at least seemingly. The ball appears to be flowing more smoothly, and fast-break offense is finally working its way back into a scheme that largely showed flat, half-court play throughout the first two months of the year, with shooters relying heavily on poor looks and off-balance heaves as mainstays of scoring points.

And we all know that it always has been and always will be about getting buckets.

Smoother transition defense, heads up basketball play and extra effort on the defensive and offensive glass, sharing the ball, and looking for the open man are beginning to rack up in stats and wins. Anderson Varejao is Canned Heat that opens up on opposing centers every night he steps out onto the floor. In the month of January Wild Thing is averaging 11ppg and a blistering 15.4rpg, including a career-high 25 rebounds against Orlando on January 2.
In the past ten games, Cleveland, for the first time in who knows how long, is playing .500 basketball. The disruptive force that was Andrew Bynum that served as nothing more than a black hole on the court more often than not is gone. Enter: Luol Deng. Defensive efficiency improved, the Cavs have a 19ppg scoring option to turn to that can now take the pressure off of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, and Anderson Varejao is back where he belongs, as the Cavs starting center.
I know, we can't believe how well you're playing either. Keep it up, Wild Thing.
On Monday, in the loss to Dallas, the Cavs opened up a 5-game home stand, the longest the Wine and Gold will entertain all season. Cleveland holds a 10-9 record at home this season. Up next are the monetary benefactors of the Andrew Bynum trade, the Chicago Bulls, tomorrow at 7:00pm. Emotions are expected to be high as Joakim Noah has expressed his disapproval of the Luol Deng trade in the media, and on the court, for the last two weeks. The premise alone should provide for an excellent matchup. The Cavs just need to continue to improve offensively and defensively. They sit only two games out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and three in back of Brooklyn for the seventh. The playoffs are right there, which is something a Cavs squad hasn't been able to even let accidentally slip for the last three years, let alone express publicly. We're in the hunt. Get buckets, Youngbloods. Get buckets.