The joy of the Cavaliers’ Junkyard Dog Chain

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The Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the NBA’s biggest surprises this season and have now introduced a new reward for grit: The Junkyard Dog Chain

The Cleveland Cavaliers have not been very good lately. They have gone  6-10 since the All-Star Break, and are now in the seventh seed where they would be forced to play for a spot in the postseason. The team’s problems have been exacerbated by the absence of Jarrett Allen, the team’s young All-Star center who has been, with Evan Mobley, the backbone of their interior defense as well as an efficient scorer near the basket.

Cavaliers fans are hoping that the team will be able to string together some wins to end the season and overtake the Raptors for the sixth seed. Yet there is another reason for Cavs fans to hope for victories: the recent introduction of the Junkyard Dog Chain.

With few expecting the Cavaliers to be a competitive squad this year, the team has embraced an underdog mentality. It became a bit more literal when players began barking together early in the season to celebrate their hot start. Recently, the Cavaliers introduced the Junkyard Dog Chain after defeating the Wizards last month in their second game after All-Star Weekend, giving it to Lamar Stevens.

It’s given by Coach J.B. Bickerstaff after each win to the Cavalier who most fully personifies the “scrap mentality and intensity” that the team is aiming for. The chain, reminiscent of the Miami Hurricanes’ Turnover Chain, was designed by The Foundry at Jared and consists of 14k Yellow Gold and contains 1,702 Natural Garnets. On the front of it are the words, Details, Toughness, Compete, Together, and 1 More. On the reverse side are several previous Cavs logos, a Larry O’Brien Trophy commemorating their 2016 Championship, a JYD acronym, and several buildings from the Cleveland skyline.

The Cleveland Cavaliers turned their gritty mentality into a shiny piece of art

Junkyard Dog may not be as lovely a phrase as “cellar door,” but it does stick with you. Those hard sounds at the end of each syllable pop emphatically, capturing the spirit of the award itself. And it’s not meant to be comical, but there is something amusing about it, making this writer think about the dogs in the classic Looney Tunes short “Dog Pounded,” who continuously ruin Sylvester’s day. It’s not the same thing as Evan Mobley blocking an otherwise easy lay-up attempt, but it’s close.

I am in a group chat with some of my oldest friends. The conversation constantly veers as most do, but more than anything else, we talk about Cleveland sports. During each of the last several Cavs games, we have speculated who would win the Junkyard Dog Chain if they went on to win the game. The awarding of the chain is not why we cheer for the Cavaliers — hometown pride and misplaced loyalty explain that — but the Chain has become a fun addition to the game for us.

It provides an opportunity for us to focus our attention on something goofy, less consequential and more fun to speculate on than the game’s end result. And if the Cavaliers lose, as they have often done lately, then we can all pretend we would have been right. However, I must admit that, when they have won, we have repeatedly been wrong.

Since the Junkyard Dog Chain rewards players for contributions that may not show up in the box score, it’s hard to know what will make someone its recipient. Barring a bevy of dives for loose balls, with Bickerstaff determining the winner presumably by himself, it’s ultimately unpredictable. Literally hours after I made an offhand remark about how I’d be surprised if Lauri Markkanen, a big man not especially known for his love of bruising play in the interior, ever received the chain, he won it after the Cavs beat the Clippers in overtime. That’s the thing about an honor-based ultimately on vibes; you never really know.

Northeast Ohio loves to imagine itself as a gritty and resilient place. It is a region where, in the words of LeBron James, its most famous native son, “Nothing is given. Everything is earned.”  It’s not that Cleveland natives will scorn a flashy dunk, but that performing one will not endear you to them quite like getting tangled up with an opponent and forcing a jump ball. The Junkyard Dog Chain is a way for the team to lean into the Rust Belt city’s self-image, a way to reward the toughness and scrappiness that many of its fans prize and value. And for a franchise that has struggled to find an identity apart from LeBron James over the past two decades, this could be a way to create and reclaim one.

The Cavaliers have been one of the NBA’s most surprising teams this season, entering the year with most projections expecting them to win between 25 and 30 games. Despite being hampered by injuries and slowing down since their hot start, Cleveland still appears to be one of the most promising young teams in the NBA. With Evan Mobley, Darius Garland, and Jarrett Allen looking like a trio of future stars, Cleveland’s ceiling appears to be higher than Terminal Tower’s. The hope is that the team will continue to refine itself, playing a more intentional style that also retains the “scrap mentality and intensity” that Bickerstaff is rewarding each night with the Chain. The Junkyard Dog Chain may not ensure that this happens, but it does provide an incentive for it to remain throughout the rest of the season and perhaps beyond.

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