CLEVELAND—Five years felt like 50.
When the Cleveland Cavaliers beat Houston, 108-91, on Sunday night to clinch their first playoff spot since 2018, it ended a modest postseason drought for a franchise and its fans, who had grown spoiled by winning and challenging for National Basketball Association (NBA) championships.
Blame LeBron James for that.
The superstar led Cleveland to four straight Finals, delivering the city its first pro sports title since 1964 in 2016. But since James left as a free agent five years ago—for the second time—his immense shadow had engulfed, if not overwhelmed, the Cavs.
They finally emerged from it.
After just missing the playoffs a year ago, the Cavs reached one of their goals and have a few others on their to-do list.
“They’re not satisfied with just this,” said coach JB Bickerstaff, who has been instrumental in the team’s post-LeBron rebuild. “We ain’t done yet.”
Currently just two games behind Philadelphia for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, Cleveland is healthy, playing its best ball in weeks and peaking as the regular season eases into its final days.
Taking advantage of a soft section in their schedule, the Cavs, who were knocked out in the play-in tournament a year ago, have won 9 of 11 and are on track for their first 50-win season without James on the roster since 1992-93.
The road back to relevance wasn’t smooth.
James’s departure in the summer of 2018 was followed by several notable failures, including coach Tyronn Lue’s firing six games into the 2019 season and the flawed decision to hire former Michigan coach John Beilein, who only made it to the All-Star break in 2020.
There were a pair of 19-win seasons, excursions into the NBA lottery, major injuries, team in-fighting, roster teardowns and general malfunction.
“The first year I got traded here, it was rough,” recalled center Jarrett Allen, whose arrival from Brooklyn as part of the three-team James Harden trade in 2021 accelerated the turnaround. “While it was still fun, a lot of things weren’t going our way at the time. Not playing for anything at the end of the year, looking forward to the summer, I think we all went through that.
“The next year, we lost in the play-in game and now we’re finally here. It was a journey.”
Along the way, Koby Altman, the team’s president of basketball operations, has made astute moves to restructure a roster left in virtual ruin following James’ departure. The Cavs now have one of the league’s strongest and most promising young cores.
Altman jump started the process in 2019 by first drafting Darius Garland, who has blossomed into an elite guard at age 23. Isaac Okoro came a year later and is the team’s best on-ball defender.
Forward Evan Mobley came aboard last year, and the 21-year-old not only pairs with Allen to give Cleveland a formidable frontline—it leads the league in defensive rating—but his growth on offense makes the Cavs tough to guard.
Nothing, though, has changed them more than Donovan Mitchell.
When Altman swooped in and landed Mitchell, who was thought to be headed to the New York Knicks, in a blockbuster trade with Utah in September, Cleveland sent a clear message that it’s home remodeling was finished.
One of the game’s most prolific scorers, Mitchell has blended in seamlessly, almost effortlessly. Not only has the supremely confident 26-year-old raised the Cavs’ win total, but the team’s expectations and outlook are soaring at levels not seen since James was wearing Cleveland’s wine and gold colors.
Following Sunday’s win, Mitchell reminded his teammates there was more to do.
“We have a bigger goal at stake. Not just making the playoffs, not just winning a first round, second round, third round,” he said. “Making it all the way. It’s going to be tough. There’s going to be guys or teams that have a lot of experience and have been there, but I think we’re up for that challenge.
“We have that hunger. You see it with this group and on a night-to-night basis. It’s continuing to prepare and continue to play all the way until June.”
After pulling away from the Rockets to wrap up their 30th win inside noisy Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the Cavs barely celebrated on the floor before retreating to their locker room. To them, it was just another win, routine, expected.
But it meant so much more. It was the first time Cleveland had made the playoffs without James on the roster in 25 years.
“Since 1998?” Mitchell asked incredulously while looking at the scroll on the bottom of the TV. “I had no idea.”
It had only felt like forever.