Orbiting Cleveland: The Cavaliers securing a playoff spot is a big deal

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/NBAE via Getty Images)
If you’re ever in need of a reminder of just how far the Cleveland Cavaliers have come, consider this past Friday night.

Playing against an Indiana Pacers team that had beaten the Cavaliers the last two times the teams met, the Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, grinded out a 95-92 win. It was a gritty, defensive effort on the court by both teams, indicative of the style of games that have become the norm for James whenever he’s played against the Pacers in recent years.

With the win, the Cavs improved to 45-26 and, most importantly, clinched the first playoff berth for the franchise since 2010. Not that anyone needs a reminder, but 2010 was also the last season that James was a Cavalier before he took his talents South to join the Miami Heat.

However, the key takeaway from Friday’s win was the way in which almost every member of the Cavaliers organization responded. It appeared as if this was just another game. No big deal.
Except, here’s the thing. 

It is a big deal.

But the organization’s response is just the latest example of the 180-degree turnaround this franchise has undergone since the last couple of seasons.

As you may recall, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert famously said the following after winning the 2013 NBA Draft Lottery:
“We were hoping regardless of what pick we got that this would be our last lottery. We thought originally after everything had to be reset that it would be a three-year process. You never know. It could be four. We thought three years, but having No. 1 and 19, we've got a pretty good chance of this being the last one for a while.”
Now, to be fair, the Cavaliers certainly did not want to end up at the lottery again this past June. In fact, the team did everything in its power to avoid going back there, but we all remember how that turned out.

In an effort to try to sneak into the playoffs last season, the Cavaliers made not one, but two big trades throughout the course of the season. First, on January 7, 2014, the team sent center Andrew Bynum, three future draft picks and the right to swap 2015 first round picks with the Cavs (1-14 protected) to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Luol Deng.

Then, on February 20, 2014, the team sent the Philadelphia 76ers two second-round draft picks, backup forward Earl Clark and backup center Henry Sims in exchange for Spencer Hawes. To recap, the team essentially sold off a handful of valuable assets in an attempt to back its way into the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed.

Well, we all know how this story ends. The team never gelled, and an alleged locker room fight between Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters was probably the biggest headline that the team made all season. When the dust had settled, the Cavs finished with a record of 33-49, a full five games behind Atlanta for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Here’s the irony in this all. Cavaliers’ management fought tooth and nail to secure that final playoff spot, and ultimately failed. But that singular failure might now be considered the greatest victory in Cleveland Cavaliers’ history. That’s not hyperbole, either. It’s a borderline fact.

By missing the playoffs, the Cavaliers once again qualified for the NBA Draft Lottery. As fate would have it, the team happened to win its third lottery in four years, despite having just a 1.7-percent chance. As we all know, the team then used the No. 1 pick to draft Andrew Wiggins, who was ultimately shipped to the Minnesota Timberwolves along with Anthony Bennett in exchange for Kevin Love.

Had the Cavaliers not won the lottery, do you think James would have even considered a return to the shores of Lake Erie? No one will ever really know that answer, but there is reason to suspect that James understood the power that the Cavaliers wielded upon acquiring that No. 1 pick. At the very least, it’s fair to conclude that Love would not now be in a wine-and-gold jersey had the team not won that lottery.

That then brings us back to Friday night. As noted above, the Cavaliers clinched their first playoff berth since 2010 with the win, but you would not have known this by the organization’s response.
There was no massive celebration.

It was an afterthought during the game coverage and in the stories that have since been published by media outlets.

Confetti did fall from the rafters, but that trend happens after every Cavaliers’ home win. It’s also a trend we’ve seen a lot of lately as the team has won 15 straight home games, and 27 out of their last 33. No team in the NBA has been hotter during the second half of the season.

The response from the team, its players, coaches and management is quite the opposite from what we would have expected last season. Had the Cavaliers actually managed to sneak into the eighth seed last year, it would have been a cause for celebrations. It would immediately be deemed the brightest day for the organization since the departure of James.

On Friday though, it was just another game. Another win. How’s that for juxtaposition?

We all know how different things are this season, and I myself, have been adamant that we as fans not lose sight of that.

Worst-case scenario, we are looking at a Cavaliers team that wins more than 50 games, secures the conference’s second or third seed, ultimately loses in the Eastern Conference Finals but is still setup nicely for seasons to come.

Best-case scenario, we hold onto the second seed, get hot in the playoffs and I’ll let you fill in the final blank.

After so many bleak seasons, things are as bright as ever. The reason that this organization chose to not make a big deal out of Friday’s victory is because they know what this team is capable of, and securing a playoff spot is just the tipping point.

But make no mistake about it, for the Cleveland Cavaliers — a team that has averaged 53.75 losses during the past four seasons and struggled to find its identity in the absence of James — Friday’s win was a big deal. It’s just that the biggest deal could be yet to come.

Orbiting Cleveland is the regular Monday column from EHC Managing Editor Steve Orbanek. You can contact Steve via email at Follow him on Twitter at @orbaneks.

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