Before the season, more than a handful of NBA teams would have traded places with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who spent the past three post-LeBron James years stockpiling talent and approaching respectability.
They brought back Mike Brown as coach, and he was supposed to guide the brilliant Kyrie Irving, the improving Tristan Thompson, the emerging Dion Waiters, and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett into the postseason, and that success and potential would lure James into a ceremonious return to Cleveland as a free agent this summer.
So far, so bad.
Before Saturday’s 103-100 loss to the Celtics, the Cavaliers announced that center Andrew Bynum, who actually had motivated himself enough to play 24 games and look interested in the process, had been suspended indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team.” NBA sources say Bynum is not up for playing for a 10-19 team on a contract that’s not fully guaranteed and wants out, hopefully catching on with a contender.
The Cavaliers were supposed to be a contender, but Saturday they displayed why they aren’t. They sleep-walked through the first three quarters and then suddenly turned into a passionate team in the fourth, outscoring the Celtics, 34-18, with a three-guard offense that featured a scorching Irving along with an effective Waiters and a clutch Jarrett Jack. Also utilizing a surprisingly productive Bennett at forward, the Cavaliers cut a 19-point deficit to 2.
Yet when it counted, when the Cavaliers needed a basket to complete the comeback, Irving didn’t touch the ball on the final two possessions. Waiters’s layup attempt was blocked by Brandon Bass and Earl Clark decided to dribble when receiving the inbounds pass with 1.4 seconds left and never got off a potential tying 3-pointer.
It was a typical maddening day for the underachieving Cavaliers, who have dropped six of seven games since a three-game winning streak. Brown, who led the Cavaliers to the 2007 Finals before being ousted to appease James, who then signed with the Miami Heat, is left to explain why this amassed talent can’t stay focused.
“That’s our biggest problem right now, our consistency in terms of what we’re doing out there on the floor is just not there,” he said. “We’re good in one area and then bad in another. And then the next game we’re good in this area and not good in the same area we were in the last game. When you make too many mistakes and you’re not used to winning, it all adds up. It’s my job to keep searching, keep trying to find a combination that may have a chance.”
The Celtics shot 58.1 percent and scored 59 points in the first half, an indication of Cleveland’s defensive apathy. The natural assumption was that Brown would have little trouble motivating his young team seeking respect to play hard every game, much like Brad Stevens has done with the Celtics.
“It was our defense that wasn’t really good,” Brown said. “They are shooting 55 percent, maybe higher, at halftime. They got 60-something points at halftime. Are you kidding me? We come out, find a way to play the right way, end up getting stops, and we do a better job moving the basketball.”
But motivation and consistency have been major issues. In the first half Bennett, who is chasing LaRue Martin for most disappointing first overall pick, launched three jumpers in four minutes, all misses. On the third miss, he forgot to cover the streaking Jared Sullinger and got beaten for a fast-break layup. He was removed from the game after a timeout.
While it appears to be Irving’s team, Waiters has made it clear he wants opportunities to close out games and to score down the stretch. The problem is, with Irving and Waiters both trying to go Iverson on the Celtics, nobody distributed the ball. Bennett led the Cavaliers in fourth-quarter assists with two. He had four total entering the game.
“I sit back as a coach and see good moments on the floor, but just as many good moments I see on the floor, I see bad ones,” Brown said. “The biggest thing for us is offensively the ball will stick. Defensively, we won’t play with a physical presence at times.”
Bynum was supposed to be that physical presence, but evidently he has given up on the team.
“It’s a terrible situation internally with our team but it’s something we’ve got to get over,” Irving said. “He’s going to be missed, but he has a few things he needs to address for himself before he comes back with the team, and that’s where it stays.”
Irving’s responsibility as the team leader, despite being 21 and in his third NBA season, is nudging his teammates toward consistency. The Cavaliers realize they were pathetic for the first three quarters, but no one had any answers why.
“It’s more frustrating when you just get the effort in the fourth quarter and we didn’t have it for the previous three quarters,” Irving said. “We cut the lead down from 20 to  in seven minutes. That just shows you if we come out and play our tails off for the whole entire game, we’re not in a position like that.”
Said Waiters, “Imagine if we could play the whole game like that? It’s just frustrating knowing you can do those things and can’t do them on a consistent basis.”
So Brown’s job will be tougher than expected. He has 53 more games to drive the organization in a positive direction or the Cavaliers will stay in neutral for the long term. Right now, any thought of attracting LeBron back home is just a fading fantasy.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashburnGlobe