2018-19 Cleveland Cavaliers
Projected Record: 35-47 (9th in East)
2016: 50-32 (4th in East)
- Collin Sexton (Pick #8)
- Sam Dekker (Trade)
- Channing Frye (Free Agent)
- LeBron James
- Jeff Green
- Jose Calderon
- Kendrick Perkins
- Okaro White
- Useful frontcourt depth
- Three-point shooting
- Questionable upside on both ends of the court
- Very little top-end support for Love
For the second time in a decade, the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to try to answer perhaps the most difficult question in sports: how do you move on without the greatest player of a generation?
Last time, the answer was essentially “lottery balls.” After a brutal 63-loss season in their first year without LeBron James, Cleveland won the NBA Draft Lottery and landed their new future: point guard Kyrie Irving. Another lottery pick would yield the useful Tristan Thompson, and eventually, a third lotto win (no need to discuss the second) would yield Andrew Wiggins, who became Kevin Love upon LeBron’s return. The Cavaliers laid the groundwork for their 2015 triumph over the Warriors during their LeBron-less years, but it was ultimately LeBron’s return that took them over the top.
LeBron’s not coming back this time.
There aren’t any hurt feelings in Cleveland this time around, nobody’s burning jerseys. But he’s not coming home again. The era is finally over, and the Cavaliers must now build a future out of his shadow. Is Collin Sexton the next great Cleveland point guard? Will younger players like Larry Nance Jr., Cedi Osman, and Ante Žižić blossom into productive rotation players? Can Kevin Love return to his 26-point, 13-rebound form from his Minnesota days — and will that form lead to more wins than it did for the Wolves? There are no easy answers.
What does seem certain is that the Cavaliers are unlikely to play much meaningful basketball this year. I admit I’m a touch lower on the post-LeBron Cavs than many, and there is a reasonable chance they force their way into the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference. I’m just not quite there with them. Much of this roster is filled with a mismatched collection of either veterans who could contribute to playoff teams in more limited roles (Thompson, George Hill, Kyle Korver) or post-hype prospects who haven’t quite impressed during their time in the league so far (Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Sam Dekker). Love is great, but is he “40 wins without a second star” great?
The question becomes: what do the Cavaliers want to accomplish this season? Is pushing to win now worth it if it only yields a fringe playoff spot and a date with Boston or Toronto in the first round? I was happy to see the team reward Love with a max contract extension, and you don’t want to waste the remaining years of his peak, but it’s hard to draw a path to more meaningful contention with the assets they have right now. They lose their first-round pick to Atlanta if it falls outside the top-ten this summer, and they have few young players that might appeal to trade partners beyond Sexton, who you would assume to be untouchable.
Dan Gilbert isn’t exactly the type to tear things down, especially not while he has one eye lingering on LeBron and his young Lakers, so I think it’s more likely we see the Cavs “retool” than rebuild. Players like Hill, Thompson, Korver and maybe even Smith can net some useful assets in a trade, and their departure will free up more opportunities for the kids to prove their worth. Next offseason will be one of the most significant in NBA history, and approaching it with some useful draft picks and a clearer cap sheet could help the Cavaliers find their new identity in a post-LeBron world.
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Love
Over the past four years, Kevin Love has been saddled with the unenviable “Chris Bosh” role for the Cleveland Cavaliers — the supporting star who is expected to sacrifice their individual stats for the better of the team. Though at times he’s been the punching bag for Cleveland’s struggles, he has filled that role admirably. They don’t win that title without him. His new contract has been well-earned.
Now, Love is the top dog on an NBA roster once again. The last time we saw that, he was second-team All-NBA, pouring in 26 points, 12 boards, and 5 assists per game with a 59% true shooting percentage in one of the most complete offensive seasons from a frontcourt player in recent memory. The result? Forty wins and no playoffs.
I don’t want to entirely blame Love for Minnesota’s complete lack of playoff appearances while he was in town, because, well… they’re the Timberwolves. But the Wolves averaged 53 losses per season during Love’s time there, and for a time, he was the poster boy for what some considered “empty stats.” To those people, his on-again, off-again struggles to fit in with the Cavaliers served as further proof that he’s not really “that good.”
Obviously, Love is a great player, and obviously, he’s not entirely to blame for Minnesota’s failures during his career there. That said, I do think he’s a unique player to build around — he’s a tough cover on post-ups due to his strength and skill, and he’s one of the best catch-and-shoot bigs in basketball. He’s also a very good passer who will probably see a significant boost in assist numbers without LeBron around to orchestrate most of the Cavs’ possessions. As currently constructed, I’m not sure the Cavaliers are quite set up to fully take advantage of his skillset just yet, though. Finding ways to free him up behind the arc will be quite a bit more difficult without a top-flight passer — Sexton is likely the best-passing ball-handler they have, and he still has quite a bit of growth to do in that regard.
I’m pretty confident Love won’t get the Blake Griffin treatment, getting traded in the first year of his shiny new contract, but it’s highly likely the first season of the Love Era in Cleveland could get off to a slow start.
X Factor: Collin Sexton
If there’s one thing you can say for certain about Collin Sexton, it’s that the kid is a competitor. Last November, he was at the center of one of the most bizarre games of basketball I’ve seen in some time: an 89-84 loss to Minnesota that featured Sexton and Alabama playing three-on-five for over 10 minutes. Sexton scored 40 points for the game, and somehow, inconceivably, the Crimson Tide outscored Minnesota over the time that they played short-handed. That’s the kind of competitor Sexton is, and part of me will probably never put anything past him again after that.
I have to approach Sexton will some degree of objectivity though, of course. The question that has to be asked is: which Collin Sexton will Cleveland get? Is it the hyper-motivated, never-say-die maniac that dropped 40 on Minnesota? Or is it the half-effort, lackadaisical guard who sleepwalked through half the year, including a late-season five-game losing streak that nearly cost Alabama an NCAA Tournament berth?
Of course, it will be a mixture of both, but if Sexton is going to be the Cavaliers’ next star, the balance has to be heavily tilted towards the former. There’s no question of talent with him; he’s a prolific scorer who can dominate at the rim, with upside as a shooter from range (78% from the free throw line) and as a defender against either guard position. When he’s not engaged, though, that talent just doesn’t show — he slacks off too much on his defensive assignments, and chucks up too many terrible shots.
Being the follow-up act to LeBron James creates an immense pressure that can make a player (Kyrie Irving) or break one (Anthony Bennett). For all his flaws, Collin Sexton has the toughness to be a player who can succeed in that environment. Now, he just has to prove it.
Don’t Forget About: Cedi Osman
While Sexton is a highly-touted prospect and the new future of the Cavaliers’ franchise, the guy filling LeBron’s position is a much more unlikely one: second-year Turkish forward Cedi Osman.
It’s impossible to dislike Osman. He’s a fun, versatile, high-energy forward with the demeanor of a puppy dog. He’s been playing professional basketball since 2011, in the Turkish league. According to Basketball Reference, one of his nicknames is “Jedi.” He’s great!
In his limited run last year, Osman showed plenty to be excited about. He shot well from the field, avoided too many youthful mistakes (a big problem for the Cavaliers — even among their veterans) and even filled in capably as a starter for 12 games, posting a 9-4-2 line with a 56% true shooting percentage in 23 minutes per game. Osman isn’t going to step in and replicate one of the greatest players of all time (…probably), but he’s only 23 years old and already looks likely to be a steady contributor for years to come. That’s a clear win for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Justin Rowan, Fear the Sword (@Cavsanada)
This season for the Cleveland Cavaliers will be one of learning new lessons. The pressure and expectations that come with having LeBron James are no longer there and the team has an opportunity to take stock of what they have.
The one advantage the Cavs have over other teams that are struggling to become relevant again is both a blessing and a curse from an entertainment standpoint, and that is impatience. As long as Dan Gilbert is the owner, there is going to be an acceleration of whatever game plan they are attempting to execute. The team won’t be boring, as they are almost guaranteed to make moves under this front office.
The most likely outcome for this season is for the team to start the year aiming for playoffs, then making a course correction when they realize they don’t have the requisite pieces. Sure, they probably have the talent to fight for the eighth seed; however, the non-guaranteed contracts of George Hill, Kyle Korver, and J.R. Smith are valuable for teams looking to create cap space for next summer. We could see those veterans be moved near the deadline, while the young core is given the opportunity to make mistakes and learn under the leadership of Kevin Love.
How the team manages those assets, how Kevin Love adjusts to being the man again, if Tyronn Lue can make the Spoelstra-like change in perception after LeBron leaves, and how Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, and Ante Zizic develop will all be compelling story-lines for this team.
As long as the Cavs avoid falling between the 9 and 11 seed in the Eastern Conference, I would consider this season a success. If the team has a lot of success early on, it’s possible they attempt to be buyers and gear up for a playoff run. Sure they don’t have the core to ever be a contender without major moves or surprising free agent signings, but it’s possible they can build a consistently good team like the Atlanta Hawks or Toronto Raptors of the last few years. Doing so could help project a level of stability that is rarely associated with the franchise.
The other possibility is blowing things up, resting Love down the stretch and essentially doing what the Memphis Grizzlies did last season while keeping Marc Gasol. Their first round pick doesn’t go to the Hawks if it falls in the top ten and with the new lottery odds, having a bottom five record still gives you a good shot at a top pick. Being able to add another great prospect to Love, Osman and Sexton could help kickstart the rebuild and usher in a new era of Cavs basketball. Contending isn’t on the radar, but building a positive identity outside of LeBron James is essential to this franchise. Even if it means a one-year quick reset and tanking.