One would think that a team coming off the heels of four straight NBA Finals appearances would be a heavy favorite to win their respective conference. Ok, if not their conference, at least their division… Right?
Well, throw in the context of losing arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time in the offseason, and things change a bit. We’re talking, of course, about the Cleveland Cavaliers and their dealing with the departure of LeBron James for the second time in a decade.
As we know, the Cavaliers selected fifth in the NBA Draft a few days ago and took Darius Garland. Let’s take a look at how these Cavs’ journey from contenders to lottery participants went down.
EARLY LIFE WITHOUT LEBRON (AGAIN)
The Cavs, who looked much differently on opening night than their final home game, weren’t slated to be in the lottery when it was all said and done. In fact, this team was looked at as a lower-seeded Eastern Conference playoff team. And why not? All-Star forward Kevin Love was still in town with Tristan Thompson and others from the Finals runs. Rookie Collin Sexton had high expectations. Even championship coach Tyronn Lue was still at the helm.
Things quickly came unglued, however. The Cavaliers started 0-4 before Kevin Love received toe surgery that kept him sidelined until February. Following two more losses post-Love injury, Ty Lue was fired and assistant coach Larry Drew was named interim head coach. Multiple articles released surrounding Collin Sexton on November 5th to further add to the drama. Multiple veterans believed the rookie Sexton did not truly understand the game of basketball, and they were vocal about it.
Cleveland was 1-9 at this point and reality set in: this team was not making the postseason. It was rebuild time once again in “The Land”.
In late November, the Cavs made their first move of the rebuild. They sent Kyle Korver to the Utah Jazz in exchange for Alec Burks and two future second round picks. This allowed Cleveland to unload the contract of Korver, and allowed Burks to eat minutes in Cleveland with his contract expiring at the end of the year. Burks was solid with the wine and gold, averaging 11.6 points a contest on 40% shooting. However, he would later be involved in another trade. We’ll get to that shortly.
Then there was a three-team trade in December, involving both the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks. Cleveland shipped out Sam Dekker to the Wiz in exchange for a 2022 second rounder. The bigger part of this deal, however, was sending George Hill to Milwaukee, as his contract was set to expire. Cleveland received friendly face Matthew Dellavedova, who was part of their 2016 title run, along with John Henson.
The Bucks also threw in both a first and second round pick in the 2021 draft. Henson is yet to play a game with Cleveland as he’s been sidelined since last November with a torn left wrist ligament. “Delly”, a fan favorite in Cleveland, provides a nice veteran presence for a young Cavs backcourt despite being limited offensively.
You Guessed It… More Trades
Early February was another busy portion of the Cavs season, at least from a transaction standpoint. Rodney Hood was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers for Wade Baldwin, Nik Stauskas, and two future second round picks. Three days later, another three team trade occurred, this time with the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings. Burks was traded to Sacramento with nothing in return from the Kings. Stauskas, Baldwin, and a 2021 second rounder (from the Portland deal) were sent to H-Town for Marquese Chriss, Brandon Knight, a 2019 first round pick, and a 2023 second round pick.
Houston waived Stauskas, only for Cleveland to pick him back up for the rest of the year. February was quite a ride for the Michigan product. Chriss and Knight would both play needed minutes for Cleveland, who really were just looking for bodies to finish the rest of the season.
It’s also worth mentioning the Cavs toyed with the Golden State Warriors, offering Patrick McCaw a multi-year deal and forcing the Dubs to make a decision on bringing him back or not. The Warriors decided to let him walk, and McCaw was waived seven days later. Golden State was unable to pick him up as his contract conflicted with cap restrictions. McCaw would turn out fine, landing with the Toronto Raptors and winning another NBA championship. He’s now won three titles in his first three seasons, solidifying his status as the G.O.A.T. (just kidding).
One would think these deals allowed the Cavs to shed all kinds of salary cap and put them in a good position for the 2019-2020 campaign, right? Well, these moves actually ADDED salary to the Cavs payroll. Cleveland entered last year with a payroll of about $115,000,000. They currently sit at roughly $134,000,000, with that number due to creep up towards $145,000,000 once the 2019 rookies are signed.
Shedding the contract of J.R. Smith is the key for avoiding the luxury tax. That would get Cleveland under the $132,000,000 mark. However, if they are unable to find a trade partner, another roster move will have to be done. The Cavaliers would still owe Smith $3,870,000 even if they waive him before June 30th (the date he is guaranteed all of his upcoming salary if he is on an NBA roster). The clock is ticking on this one for GM Koby Altman.
The immediate question after looking at this is simple: why add salary? For a team trying to rebuild, shouldn’t you look to shed salary? The Cavaliers still did that… just delaying things an extra year. There’s only about $52,000,000 in guaranteed salary set for the 2020-2021, not including the 2019 draftees.
So, while delaying the big salary dump by a year, the Cavs acquired a good amount of picks with all those midseason deals, albeit mostly second rounders. This gives Altman tons of freedom financially after this season to chase a big free agent, or maybe a couple. Part of the plan rides on the development of the newly drafted guys, who we’ll get into next.
HIGH RISK, HIGH REWARD
The Cavs are gambling with fifth overall pick Darius Garland, but the payout could be huge. Garland played just five games at Vanderbilt last year but showed star potential with is explosive offensive prowess. The combo guard has already shown NBA range from the perimeter, while also being effective off-ball. If used correctly next to Collin Sexton, we could see one of the best young backcourts in the East. If Garland turns out to be a dud, well, the results could rival that of the Kyrie Irving–Dion Waiters experience. This is something I mentioned before the draft, if the Cavs were to go with Garland.
The later two picks are interesting in Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr. Windler, a wing player, played his college ball at Belmont and was named 2018-2019 All-Ohio Valley Conference. He shoots it from deep at about a 43% rate and is another solid off-ball player. However, he’ll need to put on weight to hang with some of the top NBA wings. Kevin Porter Jr. has the potential to be the steal of the draft.
The USC product had an early season injury along with a suspension for personal conduct issues, forcing him to miss some time. He feels he was a top five pick before all that went down, and he certainly showed flashes of potential throughout the year. Most of the concerns around this guy seem to be off-court related, with a few shot selection concerns as well. If he figures it out, Porter Jr. could be a staple in the Cavs rotation.
Cavs Draft Overview
My initial reaction to this Cavs draft wasn’t great, but the feeling has started to change a bit. These picks all seem like a bit of a gamble, but isn’t that the nature of the draft anyway? One thing is certain, however. Cleveland will need to play elite team defense, or add another defensive stopper. The Cavs finished dead last in defensive rating this past year, and none of the new draft picks specialize on that side of the ball.
Something that’s been swept under the rug a bit when discussing the Cavs is the hiring of John Beilein. The longtime Michigan coach made a surprise splash when it was announced that he was joining the Cavs. He has zero NBA coaching experience, so that instantly raises concerns. However, his player development ability while at Michigan is undeniable, and many are confident he will help these young Cavs.
Lindsay Gottlieb, previously the head coach of the UCLA Bruins women’s basketball team, was brought on recently as an assistant on the staff. Gottlieb is also on the “no NBA experience” list, but she has expressed her confidence in the situation in Cleveland regardless.
It would be nice to tie this up with a “The Cleveland Cavaliers have everything they need to be dominant once again in two or three seasons”, but that’s a bit of a stretch. Maybe a big one. Collin Sexton did improve in terms of efficiency scoring last year, but he still hasn’t added enough to his game to make others on the floor with him better. The Cavaliers are hoping one of him or Garland can do that this year, if not both. They should remain patient with Garland, however, as his first season in Cleveland could be a bit of a rollercoaster.
Kevin Love is on the books through 2023, but will Cleveland be competitive enough for that to make a difference? This all rides on the development of the rookies, second year guard Collin Sexton, and others. Cedi Osman has shown promise, but still appears to passive at times. Ante Zizic is also another young question mark in the frontcourt.
Time will tell what’s in store for these Cleveland Cavaliers moving forward. I don’t expect them in the postseason next year, but I also don’t anticipate them landing in the top 5 of the lottery, either. LeBron James bailed the Cavs out of their first rebuild following his departure, so I qualify that has a half-rebuild. He’s not walking through the doors of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse unless it’s in purple and gold, so the Cavs will have to do it on their own this time around.
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