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Danny Cunningham column: Even with a disappointing end to the season, the sky is the limit for the Cleveland Cavaliers

It's okay to be disappointed after Friday's play-in loss to the Atlanta Hawks, but this team has still given us plenty to smile about.

CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Cavaliers saw what was once an incredibly promising season come to a crashing halt Friday night against the Atlanta Hawks.

A team that found itself just one game out of first place in the Eastern Conference as late as Feb. 11 before floundering down the stretch of the season due to a number of different issues ended up losing its second of two NBA play-in games to end up eliminated. It wasn't the storybook ending to a season that no one saw coming, but it is the ending that the franchise will have to live with and learn from.

"This was the most fun I've had since I've been in the NBA," head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said following the team's 107-101 loss to Atlanta. "This was the most special group of guys that I've been around, collectively."

Bickerstaff's sentiment felt common after the game. This was a team that never had the feeling there was going to be a last game played together as a group, which made the tone after the game all the more somber. It made Friday night one that the team shouldn't soon forget. This night should be one that the Cavs build upon and look back on as one of their lumps taken on a journey to a more successful place.

The result on Friday night doesn't change how bright the future is for the Cavs, even if it does dampen the good feelings that surrounded this season, in particular. The Cavaliers are only going to get better in the future, which is both a reason to feel good after Friday's loss and let it sting a little bit more.

This team gaining playoff experience would have been a huge boost for the future. Failing in the playoffs is often a stop on the journey for teams that reach championship levels. This was certainly a big moment, as was Tuesday's loss in Brooklyn, but it wasn't the playoffs.

The Cavs are missing out on the experience of having to make the adjustments that come with playing the same team for two weeks straight. It's a big step in the maturity of a young team and certainly the career arc of a head coach. Missing that hurts more in the long run than the pain of coming up short in a win-or-go-home game against the Hawks.

The good part for the Cavs is that they have point guard Darius Garland and big man Evan Mobley to build around for the foreseeable future. The duo is one of the best young pairings in the NBA. Their talents are undeniable and draw the eyes of some of the NBA’s best on a regular basis. The growth Garland made this year was impressive, and Mobley's ceiling is higher than anyone that's played for the franchise other than LeBron James. He can be that good.

The tweet Draymond Green sent out during the game obviously doesn't call out Mobley by name, but it's clear who he is talking about. Comparing a rookie to three of the best big men of all-time may not be something that's fair to a 20-year-old rookie, but it's consistently the company he's mentioned in. The player that he turns into next season and in the time after that should be truly special. To say that the sky is the limit for Mobley would be shortchanging him.

Garland already made the All-Star Game this year, and that should be a regular occurrence for him moving forward. He made the leap from a player oozing with potential to a player that's realized plenty of it. There's still more that he can achieved, and by no means has he reached his ceiling. Garland has superstar capability, and now it's expected of him.

Credit: Nick Cammett/AP
Cleveland Cavaliers' Darius Garland (10) reacts to a basket during the first half of the team's NBA play-in basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, April 15, 2022, in Cleveland.

"Nobody expected us to be here," Garland said after the game.

Now, everybody is going to expect the Cavs to take multiple steps forward. They'll be able to look back at Friday night as they progress thanks to the talent of one of the NBA's best young duos.

The Cavaliers still have the future of a playoff team, but it's okay to be disappointed that the playoffs are happening this year without them.

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