The State of the Cavs
LeBron is gone again. In his wake is another rebuild. Before you get confused on the tone of what I’m about to say, read my initial thoughts on his departure. In short: LeBron brought a championship to Cleveland and has earned something nearing total immunity in my eyes. I think he could’ve broken the Laker news to me by personally egging my car and I would have been okay with it. LeBron has done incredible work in Cleveland in the past 15 years — 11 of which came in a Cavs uniform. He gave us everything we could’ve possibly asked for and then some.
Now it’s time to move on.
How did we get here?
Since apparently not everyone shares my respect for the departing champion, I feel like I should trace the path that got us to this point. Most (if not all) of the blame in this case falls on the shoulders of owner Dan Gilbert. He benefited from more than a decade of James’ services, and probably eight of those were during LeBron’s current reign as the greatest player on the planet. Yes, he won the ultimate prize. But to walk away with just one title in those eleven years is a dazzling display of inefficiency. The organization has always been a roller coaster of drama and ineptitude, and the amount of dysfunction and distrust at work makes the 2016 finale seem not like a bare minimum, but like a miracle.
June 19, 2016 was the greatest day in franchise history. June 19, 2017 is the day the downward spiral began. Dan Gilbert had a GM just 365 days removed from a championship season made possible largely by deft trades and salary cap trickery. David Griffin was successful and respected. Gilbert let him walk. Had Gilbert gone to him after the 2017 season and said, “Thanks for the trophy. You’ve earned the right to call the shots when it comes to basketball stuff. Here’s a raise,” I truly think the roster today has Kyrie Irving and LeBron James on it.
I repeat: Dan Gilbert lost a superstar point guard and one of the greatest athletes of all time — reportedly worth $300 million to the franchise — largely because he refused to (1) shell out a few million dollars to an executive that had earned it and (2) step out of the way and let proven professionals handle their job.
Do LeBron and Kyrie earn some of the blame here? Of course. They ultimately chose to leave. But having two players of this caliber bolt within two years of a championship is the type of thing that only happens in toxic franchises.
All credit to Dan Gilbert.
Where are we headed?
As a noted fan of “the process,” I’m stupid enough to be excited.
Championships are still the ultimate goal, but the agony and struggle to get there is what makes them special. The joy of the 2015–16 season will last me a lifetime, so I’ll welcome a rebuild with open arms. Here’s what we’re looking at:
The Elephant In The Room: Kevin Love. Who could’ve possibly seen this coming? Poor Kevin Love endured two careers worth of trade rumors over the past four seasons, and now he stands as the last remaining member of Cleveland’s Big Three. It seems impossible.
I’m a huge Kevin Love fan, but it’s time to move. The team fell short of trading him last summer when his value had peaked, and now the 29-year-old forward won’t command the same return. I don’t really care about that. Give me a first round pick, a young player and the additional losses that come with losing an all-star. It’s time to tank and Love is too expensive, too old and too talented to serve a purpose in Cleveland’s immediate future.
While I think the idea of Love getting his time as the The Man sounds romantic, it isn’t practical. Keeping him isn’t practical. Scrambling to put together a .500 team and praying for an 8-seed next season isn’t practical. I think there’s a chance it happens for a bit though. Love may not command peak value until next season’s trade deadline, so it may behoove the Cavs to run out a Love-centric team for a couple months. The mini victory lap for a guy that’s earned it will be something I’ll enjoy this year.
Time to Cut Bait: George Hill, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, Jordan Clarkson, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green. Yes, that list is long. Gunning for championships each year in LeBron’s world means signing a bunch of guys that have little to no value on a team that isn’t built around LeBron.
Jeff Green is a free agent and probably shouldn’t be brought back. He’s 31 years old and probably not who you think of when looking for a guy to mentor young players. If they do keep him, I’d be okay with a two-year deal.
The other five have two more years on their contracts, and the figures are ghastly: $74 million next season and just over $73 million in 2019–20. Fortunately for the Cavs, that second number is slightly deceiving. Just $1 million of George Hill’s $18 million 2019–20 salary is guaranteed. For JR Smith it’s just $3.9 million of his $16.8 million. For Kyle Korver it’s $3.4 million of $7.5 million. That’s $34 million in cap space the Cavs can shave off a year from now.
This means that the 2018–19 roster has tons of poorly-spent money guaranteed to guys I want nothing to do with. It also means that 2019–20 is deceptively rosy for a salary cap standpoint. Hill, Smith, and Korver will all be fairly easy to ditch at some point in the next year. Thompson and Clarkson won’t be as easy to unload, but withstanding two seasons of this mess isn’t torture. It could be worse.
Solid Pieces: Larry Nance, Cedi Osman, Rodney Hood and Ante Zizic. These are the guys perfect for tanking teams. Are they great? No. Are they young, potentially talented and fun to watch? Yes. It’s the perfect situation. Each of these guys are 25 or younger with a career outlook that will likely be the same or better in two years when the Cavs shed the last of the LeBron-era salary. If you get out from under some of the players I mentioned above, you build your team around guys like this and see where it goes. Some will bust and you’ll move on from them in a few years. Some may hit and give you a solid piece for a future playoff run.
The Future: Collin Sexton. Leading up to this year’s NBA Draft, nobody in Cleveland knew if the Cavs would even keep their draft pick. A trade to entice LeBron seemed possible and I didn’t want to waste my time falling in love with a guy I’d never see put a jersey on. I did, however, allow myself to watch highlights of just one player — a guy I thought would be on the board and in Cleveland’s wheelhouse at #8: Collin Sexton.
To make it brief, Sexton is short on shooting ability but tall on confidence. The jump shot may not be there consistently (yet), but the kid is quick and athletic and has a chip the size of Big Z on his shoulder. He’s only 19. Most quotes coming out of the organization after choosing Sexton were centered around his personality. He’s a fighter and he can attack the rim and play defense. He probably won’t ever be a player of Kyrie’s caliber, but there are certainly worse guys to build a team around. He’s gonna be a ton of fun to watch this year.
The future of the franchise has certainly been brighter, but it’s also been bleaker. Anyone crying about the road ahead right now is outing themselves as a bandwagoner who wasn’t around for the years between LeBron stints.
Just over four years ago, this franchise featured:
Mike Brown in his second lap as head coach
A rookie #1 pick that was fat and couldn’t shoot
Hail Mary trades for Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes in an attempt to make the playoffs. (Instead, the team finished 33–49.)
In 2019 the Cavs will miss the playoffs for the first time since that 2013–14 disaster. With any luck they’ll win even fewer games. They still have a head coach that instills no confidence and an owner that can’t get out of his own way.
Despite all of that, things look better than they did in May 2014. That isn’t saying much, but I’ve been through lower valleys, and I did it without a trophy.
This stuff I can handle. Bring it on.