INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Sports are at the top of everyone's mind these days, especially with the Indians winding down and the Browns heating up. High school and college football are also in full swing, but in the midst of it all, the NBA is also starting to show up on the radar.
The Cavaliers held their annual media Monday at their headquarters in Independence, their first large-scale in-person event since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northeast Ohio 18 months ago. The team had an eventful offseason, and those involved are excited to once again pack the stands at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
RELATED: More Cavs coverage from 3News
"We're looking forward to getting back to some normalcy," head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "We're so routine-oriented, and last year that was disrupted, so it'll be good to get back to our normal routine."
The club hopes health and safety won't be as much of a hinderance as they were the last two seasons. On the contrary, it seems those within the organization are more than up to speed when it comes to protocols.
"I can confidently say [that] within a few weeks we'll have everybody fully vaccinated," general manager Koby Altman declared. "We're really happy."
Besides Altman and Bickerstaff, several players addressed reporters as well. Here are some of the main takeaways from today's events.
Obviously, the recent on-court results have not been good. Following a run of four straight Eastern Conference titles that included an NBA championship, the Cavs have been one of the league's worst teams over the past three years, going just 60-159 while failing to even sniff the playoffs. Last year showed some promise, but a rash of injuries were too much to overcome and the team collapsed to a 22-50 record.
This year, Altman says he wants to see the organization "take a step forward" and have "an eye on the postseason." However, as far as specific expectations go, he added he was "not going to put ... a win-loss number on it."
"Organically, we are going to get better, because even the young guys have a lot of minutes under their belt," Altman said. "[The question is], 'How do we put that together into some tangible success in wins and be competing and be looking towards [the] postseason towards the end of the season.'"
Cleveland made some intriguing additions in the offseason, including veterans Ricky Rubio and Denzel Valentine. So far, Bickerstaff is happy with the passion and drive he's seen from all members of his club, as well as the overall culture in the building.
"We've created something that our guys that are with us want to be a part of," he told reporters. "That's the reason they kept coming back in the summer ... is because of the environment that we've created here, and that they've helped create."
Depth in the frontcourt
As part of their offseason, the Cavaliers decided to get bigger, and now have four players at least 6 feet 11 inches tall. Jarrett Allen was already with the group and signed a five-year contract extension, while Evan Mobley was drafted third overall out of USC. Twenty-four-year-old Lauri Markkanen (13.6 points per game last year in Chicago) joins via sign-and-trade, and 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall adds an option off the bench.
"I think we have a lot of young, talented guys [and] anybody can get hot on any given night," Markkanen said. "What me and coach talked about, he expects me to be me. Just be aggressive, not be one-dimensional, do different things on the floor offensively and defensively. ... I think I'm good to go."
The new look of the lineup might take some by surprise, especially in an NBA that seems to be getting smaller and quicker by the day. Still, the Cavs feel they can be a force with the lineup they have now.
"I think there's going to be little friendly competitions," Allen said of himself and the rest of the bigs. "We're going to try to strive to be the best we can be and challenge each other."
Of course, the mainstay in the Cavs' front court for the last seven years has been Kevin Love, whom Altman called a "future Hall of Famer." However, for a while it seemed like that would no longer be the case.
Love missed much of last season with a calf injury and also made his frustrations known about the team's lack of success. Adding insult to injury (literally), he was selected for the U.S. men's Olympic team before pulling out right before the games, with director Jerry Colangelo claiming he was "out of shape." For a while, it seemed inevitable that Love would either be traded from Cleveland or bought out from his massive contract.
On this day, Love declined to go into more detail about his recent comments criticizing Colangelo, but said he left Team USA because he didn't feel he was in the right place physically or mentally after missing so much time. He also said buyout discussions "had never even come up" and promised to be a "positive force" in the locker room.
"Listen, it's a young team," Love said. "That's obviously where this is headed and where this is going. ... Wherever this ends up, I just want to make sure that — at least internally and when we walk into this building — that it's positive."
On the court, Love had some high praise for some of his young teammates, including Markkanen. The Finland native has at times been compared to the five-time NBA All-Star, although Love joked he's "always been able to move a little bit better than me."
"I'm interested and excited to get to know these guys, and hopefully I'll bring them up to speed as quickly as I can."
A night to remember
Speaking of All-Stars, the NBA's edition of the game will be headed to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse this coming February. It will be the first such game filled to capacity in two years, and also the first in Cleveland since 1997.
"I think it's a wonderful chance to showcase the city," Altman said. "I do think this is a great opportunity this year to showcase our city and where we are and the momentum that we have, and it being a great place for all athletes to come and get better at their craft."
The All-Star Game will also be a chance to showcase the arena, which underwent an extensive renovation process over the last two years.
Much has been made about the potential of young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. All Monday, it seemed no one on the Cavs could stop raving about the former.
"You started to see him put together 10, 15, 20 games in a row of 20 points a game, seven assists a game," Koby Altman said of Garland's 2020-21 season. "[He's a] really exciting, playmaking point guard at 21 years old [who's] really just scratching the surface."
Folks around the country are taking notice, too: Garland was a part of the U.S.'s "select team" prior to the Olympics, and even Stephen Curry said he "is going to be a flat-out star." Still, Garland tries not to listen to the noise.
"It's no pressure," he said. "I'm just here to play my game and win basketball games."
As for Sexton, all he did was average 24.3 points per game last year, but he's ready for a taste of team success as well.
"We all want to win," he said. "We know how it feels to lose, and we want to change it and turn it around and just continue to build."
Neither Sexton nor Altman would discuss specifics about a rumored contract extension, but the general manager made his feelings about the former No. 1 pick crystal clear.
"We want him here long-term, and he wants to be here long-term."