OKLAHOMA CITY — The Cavs have hit the road for one of their longest trips of the season.
Four cities. Nine days. Multiple time zones. Three potential playoff teams. It’s the kind of early-season test that can temporarily galvanize or fracture.
“I think it’s good for us,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said following Tuesday’s practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “I think our guys are trending in the right direction. I think we’ve figured some things out. Obviously, health is a huge part of that. But understanding who we are, how we play, how we make each other better, I think those are things that we’ve seen. Our job is just to reproduce that. It’s not gonna be perfect, but do it tomorrow, do it the next day and then just continue to get better.”
The Cavs didn’t leave for Oklahoma City with grandiose goals in mind. There’s no specific record that will define success. The objective is simple.
“Just get better,” Bickerstaff said.
A rash of early-season injuries altered plans and led to a discouraging start. But Cleveland is finally (almost) full strength.
While reserves Isaac Okoro, Ty Jerome and Sam Merrill won’t play Wednesday night, center Jarrett Allen — who missed most of camp, all four exhibitions and the first five regular season games — spent the last few games sending a reminder about his two-way impact, returning to his role as defensive security blanket and menacing screen-setter. Point guard Darius Garland, who missed four straight games with a hamstring strain, is coming off his best night — a 24-point outburst in Sunday’s 115-104 win over the Golden State Warriors.
With Cleveland’s starting puzzle assembled, Bickerstaff is on a fact-finding mission. He’s trying to find different pairings and partnerships. He’s looking for stability within his rotations. He’s trying to identify the best starting — and closing — lineup. He’s still attempting to incorporate new pieces Georges Niang, Max Strus, Tristan Thompson, Damian Jones and Jerome. It’s been a bit more difficult with Jerome sidelined since Oct. 27.
“We need reps to continue to improve,” Bickerstaff said.
One of the things Bickerstaff has talked about since training camp opened in October is taking players out of their comfort zones. The goal is for them to be comfortable in the uncomfortable — a deficiency that was spotlighted in the postseason flameout.
What better place to do that than the road?
Hostile environments. Crowds against them. Traveling from city to city. Living out of a hotel. Strange beds. New routines.
For the next week-plus, players will essentially escape their daily lives. They have no other choice but to come together. They are all they have. Flights. Bus rides. Team dinners and get-togethers. While that camaraderie stuff is often just as important, the basketball part can’t be overlooked.
This is a business trip too.
The Cavs had one of these lengthy jaunts last November. It started great — back-to-back wins over the Pistons and Lakers, building momentum and looking like a contender. But then came an ugly stretch — five straight losses that led to a heart-to-heart inside Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum. They left Cleveland as junkyard dogs and came back as, to use Bickerstaff’s words at the time, fat cats.
“I think this is a different group,” Bickerstaff explained. “Guys can bond, get to know one another a little bit better, spend some quality time together, build more trust and watch it translate to the court.”
In more ways than one, for better or worse, last year’s November trip became a critical moment in the season.
Will history repeat?
“Everybody knows when you go West, it’s a different playing field, different types of teams, however you look at it,” Allen said. “Just putting us up against different competition. Not on our home court. Not with things we are used to. Definitely going to challenge us.”
It starts Wednesday in OKC — a chance for the Cavs to avenge a loss in the home opener. Garland didn’t play. Neither did Allen. Strus was still in the infancy stages of his acclimation process. He knows better now where his shots are coming from, how to function within Cleveland’s offensive system and where he needs to be at both ends of the floor.
The new-look starting lineup — Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley, Garland, Strus and Allen — has decimated opponents. Those five boast an offensive rating of 119.1 and a defensive rating of 100.0 — the kind of numbers Cleveland’s front office envisioned when targeting Strus this past summer. And there’s plenty of room for that specific group to evolve.
But even with two wins in their last three games, the Cavs understand how dangerous upstart Oklahoma City can be. Dynamic guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the league’s scoring leaders. Chet Holmgren — the No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft — looks like a future star, allowing the versatile Thunder to deploy a 5-out look that can be nightmarish for opposing defenses, including stout Cleveland that has suddenly risen near the top 10.
“There’s just so many ways that they can attack you and find space. They play unselfish and for 48 minutes,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s been so many games that I’ve watched of theirs where they may get down, but they never stop playing. You can’t take a lead for granted. You have to continue to play 48, and that’s hard to do in the NBA.”
The Holmgren-Mobley matchup will be spotlighted Wednesday night — again. Both appear on every top-25-under-25 list and have similar skill sets. But with Allen back, Mobley has plenty of assistance when it comes to trying to minimize the Thunder’s Rookie of the year candidate.
“It’s always amazing when somebody that tall is so skilled and fluid,” Allen said of the 7-foot Holmgren. “I don’t know too much about him but watching his game, he does it all. That’s the prototypical big that the modern era is moving towards.”
Following Wednesday’s rematch, the Cavs head to San Francisco for the final regular season showdown with old rival Golden State. Then it’s on to Sacramento before the exhausting roadie finishes against young, rebuilding Portland.
Mixed in will be plenty of activities and opportunities to grow — if all goes according to plan.
“Just another opportunity to play basketball,” Strus said when asked about the trip. “It’s gonna be a long one. It’ll be fun to get on the road with the guys and get some more team-bonding in and be around each other a lot more. I think it’ll be good for us.”