INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — They suffered through costly injuries, a relentlessly brutal schedule and lopsided losses.
The Cleveland Cavaliers didn't finish the season as much as they survived it.
"A grind," said coach Byron Scott.
It ended with a 32-point loss in Chicago and a roster that included eight players who spent part of the season in the NBA's Developmental League. But the Cavs, who went 8-28 after Feb. 21, found some optimism despite a 21-45 record that will place them in the NBA's draft lottery for the second straight season.
Kyrie Irving brought the Cavs hope.
The No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft, Irving was the league's top first-year player — by a longshot. Fearless with the ball in his hands, the 20-year-old, who played in just 11 games as a freshman at Duke before going pro, averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 assists, 3.7 rebounds and shot 87 percent from the free-throw line.
Beyond his statistics, Irving convinced the Cavaliers that the worst is behind them and they'll return to the playoffs one day.
Not now. But soon.
"We're headed in the right direction," Scott said Friday, speaking to reporters after meeting individually with his players. "It's still going to be a long process, guys. We're probably not going to be there this coming year, but if we hit home runs in the draft it puts us in a position to get much better quicker."
The Cavs will have two first-round picks and general manager Chris Grant estimated the team will be around $20 million under the salary cap. It can't hurt to have a little luck along the way, which is what happened a year ago when the Ping-Pong balls bounced Cleveland's way in the lottery and they drafted Irving.
Only a few hours into the offseason the Cavs have already had some good fortune.
On Friday, they won two tiebreaker drawings at the league offices in New York that will improve their position in the June 28 draft. The Cavs won a drawing against New Orleans and are slotted to choose third overall if no team jumps them in the May 30 lottery.
Also, the pick Cleveland got from the Los Angeles Lakers in the trade for guard Ramon Sessions will be No. 24 overall after the Lakers won a tiebreaker over Memphis.
Cleveland was represented at the drawings by owner Dan Gilbert's son, Nick, who was the lucky charm last year when the Cavs won the lottery. The lowest the Cavs will select is No. 6, a pick that should give them another player to pair with Irving.
"We're looking forward to the draft," said Grant, who will have three picks in the top 34. "We're excited about where we are and we understand we have a lot of heavy lifting to do, but we feel good about the direction."
Irving has the Cavs pointed toward contention.
Scott was careful not to build Irving up too much this season, but now that it's over, he acknowledged his young star was even better than advertised.
"The progression of Kyrie from game 1 to game 50, probably exceeded everyone's expectations," Scott said. "I don't think anyone expected him to do what he did this season."
Irving's first pro season will be rewarded next week, when he is expected to be named the league's rookie of the year. The award was a goal, but not his only one.
"If I do win it, I'll take it home and put it with the other trophies I have," he said. "But the main goal on my list was winning more games than we won last year and be the best player I can be. Those accolades would come along with that."
He's got bigger accomplishments in mind.
"There is no limit for me. The only way I can go is up," he said. "That's the only way I want to go. This season was a learning experience. I learned what to do and what not to do. Going forward, I want to apply it next season and take it to another level."
Grant and Scott were also pleased with the progress made by rookie forward Tristan Thompson, last year's No. 4 overall pick who averaged 8.2 points 6.5 rebounds.
In Irving and Thompson, the Cavs have two major pieces to build around. With another successful draft, and an offseason to work and develop players — the lockout prevented that from happening last summer — the Cavs, who are just 40-87 since LeBron James left as a free agent, feel they can climb back into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
It might take another year or two. But after this season and its many challenges, Scott says he's willing to be patient.
The goal remains improvement.
"It's still to continue to progress and get better as a team," he said. "We did that this year. Next year we look at the same. We want to get better as a basketball team. We want our individual players to get better as players. I don't think we're going to put expectations on our guys as far as playoffs or wins or anything like that.
"As long as we continue to get better, we'll be all right."