The Cleveland Cavaliers were expected to be bad this season, but no one was expecting the team to be historically bad.
The Cleveland Cavaliers lost their 25th game in a row Monday night, dropping to 8-44, and breaking the previous record for most consecutive losses for an NBA team, which the franchise previously held after losing 24 in a row over the course of the 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons. Last Saturday they broke the record for longest losing streak during a season and the team has now lost 35 of their last 36 games.
It wasn't all that long ago that the Cavs were routinely contending for the NBA title, but one superstar leaving in free agency and a new benchmark for futility later, the Cavs are in a fight to avoid becoming the worst NBA team in terms of wins and losses ever.
The 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers went 9-73, and were 4-48 at the same point in the season the Cavs are currently. That team began the season 0-15, and had losing streaks of 20 and 14 during the season before finishing with 13 straight losses. It seems unlikely that the Cavs would tie this low-water mark (then again, they would need to win again before they could start another prolonged losing streak), but where will they end up on the ignominious list of NBA losers?
That aforementioned 76ers team, the 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks, the 1997-98 Denver Nuggets, the 1993-94 Dallas Mavericks, and the 1970-71 Cavs all had less wins through 52 games (four, four, five, six, and six, respectively). Those Mavericks teams finished 11-71 and 12-70, respectively, the Nuggets also 11-71, and the Cavs 15-67.
The 1992-93 Mavericks are an interesting comparison. The team played much of their season without their franchise player (rookie Jimmy Jackson who engaged in a contract-holdout until March of 1993) and only rallied to finish with 11 wins after Jackson joined the team. The Cavs are in even worse shape since the player they lost was LeBron James, who was a high-caliber player than Jackson and is not joining the team next month. It ended up taking that Mavericks team some time to make the playoffs after their young core from the mid-90s of Jackson, Jason Kidd, and Jamal Mashburn--the latter two the team's rewards in the next two drafts--was unable to coalesce. It took until Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, and Michael Finley were united with coach Don Nelson under owner Mark Cuban for the team to become truly relevant in the NBA, and even then they didn't make the playoffs until the 2000-01 season.
This Cavs' squad's hope is that with 30 games left, they can emulate the teams that shared similar records as they currently have: the expansion 1988-89 Miami Heat, the 2000-01 Chicago Bulls (both were 8-44, both finished 15-67), the 2007-08 Heat (9-43, finished 15-67), or the 1996-97 Vancouver Grizzlies (9-43, finished 14-68).
The latter Heat team featured Dwyane Wade who missed most of the season with an injury, that Bulls team was rebuilding with a young Elton Brand, and the Grizzlies were in their second year of existence, had a young Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and soon added Mike Bibby in the draft. The Bulls and Grizzlies appeared to be on the rise even though history shows they were not and Miami currently has LeBron James and Chris Bosh assisting Wade. The expansion Heat team slowly but surely built a team through the draft, but it wasn't until Pat Riley took over a revamped team that included Alonzo Mourning, Mashburn, Tim Hardaway, and Dan Majerle that the Heat became a routine contender in the late 90s.
The Cavs future is likely to resemble those early Grizzlies or 1990s Miami Heat teams. The Cavs are currently tied up by an aging player making too much money (Antawn Jamison, who makes $13 mil this season and $15+ mil next), complimentary players who make too much money (Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao, signed through 2013 and 2015 respectively), and young players whose ceilings are to be complimentary players (J.J, Hickson and Manny Harris, chiefly). The team will have some salary coming off their books this off-season and might be able to use that space, Antawn Jamison's expiring contract, and the $14.5 mil trade exception created by James' departure to bring in a disgruntled star or more young players to couple with their sure-to-be high draft pick in this summer's NBA draft. It's small, but there is a glimmer of potential for a relatively quick turnaround if the team can perform some front office alchemy. But given the history of teams in similar situations--as well as the league's wavering financial-and-labor-issue-filled future--the Cavs are probably in for a rebuilding period of five or so years, in which time owner Dan Gilbert's promise that the team would win a championship before LeBron James does with the Heat or any other franchise is likely to be put to the test again and again.
But what about this year alone? Will the Cavs go down as the worst team in NBA history? No team has ever gone from best record in the league to worst, and the level of talent on the team is far from ideal, but there are bright spots in the loosest sense of the term. The team is playing hard under coach Byron Scott. They've tied or taken the lead during the 4th quarter of each of their last four games and in last night's loss to the Mavericks, they outscored Dallas 34-9 on fast-break points. Statistically, and by what the team is saying, it looks like the Cavs are coming around, or at least they have convinced themselves that they are. Of the teams they've beaten this year, the Celtics and Knicks are likely playoff-bound.
The next three games will show us if the Cavs are merely on the unlucky side of an anomaly, or if they really are historically bad. Their next game is against the Detroit Pistons, another struggling team that is going through its own series of issues. After that, they face Blake Griffin and the Clippers at home. Griffin has become a must-see ticket, but the Clippers themselves have underperformed this season, so a large crowd at Quicken Loans Arena is expected, one that could swing momentum towards the hometown team. Should the Cavs falls again, and be facing a 27-game losing streak, Sunday's home game against the Wizards will be the game by which the Cavs season can be judged. The Wizards are 0-25 in road games this season. A stoppable force will meet a movable object. A season's story will be written in stone.