'We had to find something to play for': Cavaliers' special chemistry born amid last season's failures

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Cavaliers guards Isaac Okoro, right, and Darius Garland celebrate during a victory over the Houston Rockets earlier this season. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]
Cavaliers guards Isaac Okoro, right, and Darius Garland celebrate during a victory over the Houston Rockets earlier this season. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]

The upstart Cavaliers’ chemistry and trust didn’t begin with the drafting of Evan Mobley.

It didn’t come from the August trade for Lauri Markkanen, from Kevin Love’s career renaissance, or Darius Garland’s leap into the league’s upper echelon.

It wasn’t born from winning, but rather from losing, from the agony and gloom of a 2-16 finish to the 2020-21 season that included 11 consecutive defeats.

That’s when the Cavs found their determination not to let each other down, when they learned to pick each other up.

A 5-20 grind in April and May led to a 22-50 record that also included a 10-game losing streak in February. Sixteen players missed a total of 299 games, leading to 31 different starting lineups.

In the third year of the Cavs’ rebuild, the light at the end of the tunnel was seemingly halfway around the world. There was little to cling to but each other.

“Toward the end of the season last year, it was rough. We all knew it was rough,” center Jarrett Allen said Wednesday. “Things weren’t going our way, we weren’t playing for anything. We had to find something to play for. We all took a step back and looked and we had each other to play for.

“I think that blossomed over the summer and we really took the identity of that and are bringing it to this year. You can see it growing and growing with every single game.”

Cavs continue dramatic rise: Cleveland Cavaliers are piling up 'statement' wins, proving they can punch back in NBA's Eastern Conference

That growth has resulted in the Cavs' rise from 13th in the Eastern Conference at the end of 2020-21 to third going into Thursday’s games. At 30-19, they have already exceeded their projected win total, with Tipico Sportsbook listing their over/under at 27.5.

There are plenty of tangible basketball explanations, including their three big-man “Tower City” lineup of Allen, Mobley and Markkanen, but much of their dramatic improvement is due to the intangibles.

Coach J.B. Bickerstaff said that’s why the Cavs didn’t fall apart after the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks made 14 of 19 shots, 6 of 9 3-pointers, in taking a 35-26 first-quarter lead Wednesday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. The Cavs rallied for their signature victory of the season, winning 115-99.

Mobley joins elite company: 'He's The One': Evan Mobley leaves Cavs teammates awestruck as rookie makes franchise, league history

“Their inability to disappoint one another. That’s how they approach it,” Bickerstaff said. “Not one guy in that locker room is OK taking a step back or laying down because they know how much it means to their teammates and they do not want to disappoint one another.

“It is rare, it is unique, but it’s how they are, and that’s why we’re able to come back from adverse situations and give ourselves a chance to win.”

Center Jarrett Allen, left, said the Cavs began bonding and playing for each other during the final stretch of a difficult 2020-21 season. Now, Allen and guard Darius Garland, right, are helping to lead the Cavs toward a playoff spot.
Center Jarrett Allen, left, said the Cavs began bonding and playing for each other during the final stretch of a difficult 2020-21 season. Now, Allen and guard Darius Garland, right, are helping to lead the Cavs toward a playoff spot.

A five-time All-Star in his 14th season, Love agreed that unique feeling started last year.

“There were obviously ups and downs for each and every one of us,” Love said. “I’m sure there's sound bites from last year of us all talking about celebrating each other, wanting the next guy to do well. I think I probably say that every time that we speak, but it's because it's a true feeling. It's what each and every one of us would sit up here and say.

“High character individuals that come to work, that play for each other. We just kind of ride the hot hand and play extremely hard and go out there and compete. And we like competing together.”

That began last season, when the Cavs acquired Allen as part of the multi-team trade that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets. That’s when the key pieces started to come together and the rare I've-got-your-back feeling began.

“That’s the nature of the guys that we had and that’s the foundation we were trying to set,” Bickerstaff said. “A lot of times, you can’t see it because the results aren’t what we strive for, but the foundation is the most important piece of what you build. The guys actually getting after it, competing, scrapping, all of those things, we saw it. We saw guys trying to play unselfish basketball.

“Add that to the frustration of losing and the summer off, and that was brewing, and now guys want to do more to make sure that that doesn't happen again.”

Kevin Love becomes Cavs' sixth man: 'Old Man' Kevin Love no 'energy vampire', becomes young Cavaliers' igniter after role change

Allen said that feeling was the reason so many Cavs showed up at Cleveland Clinic Courts last summer, even if just to play pickup games.

“I don’t know what was different from last summer; I wasn’t here to experience it,” Allen said. “But I truly think that makes a big impact on how we’re going to play during the season.”

Cavaliers forward Cedi Osman, right, hugs Darius Garland after a win over the Boston Celtics earlier this season. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]
Cavaliers forward Cedi Osman, right, hugs Darius Garland after a win over the Boston Celtics earlier this season. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]

Analytics rule the modern NBA, but Bickerstaff knows team chemistry can’t be quantified.

“The analytics and all those things that people want to try to tie together and give reasons why, but you can have all the talent in the world and have poor chemistry and you're going to underachieve every time,” Bickerstaff said. “You can have less talent and more chemistry and you'll achieve. You can’t put numbers to it, you have to put time and care into it.”

Northeast Ohio fans have seen teams with similar bonds. The Mike Hargrove-managed baseball teams of the 1990s and the 2016 NBA champion Cavaliers had strong chemistry. Even the 2009 Browns that finished 5-11 decided to play for each other to alleviate their misery under coach Eric Mangini and won their final four games. That backfired, earning Mangini another year before he was let go.

Cavs deal with Markkanen's ankle injury: Cavs to look to Dean Wade, others in Lauri Markkanen's absence

The Cavs have built something much more sustainable. Markkanen, 24, is the oldest among the regular starting five. President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman has constructed the core around Allen, Mobley and Garland. A franchise plagued by a lack of continuity has given Bickerstaff and Altman contract extensions since Christmas. Allen is locked up through 2025-26 with a five-year, $100 million contract signed in August.

Even with Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio out for the season with knee injuries, the Cavs were 1.5 games out of first entering Thursday night. They’re riding their underdog mentality and gaining respect at a rapid clip.

If they reach the top of the conference at the All-Star break, Bickerstaff would coach the East for the 75th anniversary game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Turns out a spot in the play-in tournament, a goal that kept them going last season, wasn’t dreaming big enough.

But the misery of April and May won’t be forgotten as they continue their journey toward the 2022 playoffs. The Cavs know the seeds of success were planted in the previous season’s failures.

“Chemistry and culture, we didn't really force any of that,” Love said. “Regardless of how things went last year for us, you could feel it.”

Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff and veteran forward Kevin Love have helped to foster a new attitude that has kick-started a rebuilding team into a playoff contender. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]
Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff and veteran forward Kevin Love have helped to foster a new attitude that has kick-started a rebuilding team into a playoff contender. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read more about the Cavs at www.beaconjournal.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.

Cavaliers at Pistons

Time: 6 p.m. Sunday

TV: Bally Sports Ohio

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Bond helps Cleveland Cavaliers rise to top of Eastern Conference

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting