Cleveland doesn’t handle breakups well. The Cavaliers went 97-215 in the four years following The Decision, and the first two seasons after The Press Release have taken the same trajectory. Yet again, LeBron James is an NBA champion somewhere else, and yet again, the king’s abdication has left Cleveland in ruins. The civil war between the old guard and new wave landed the Cavaliers in the lottery for the second year in a row, but with their karma spent on the James era, the basketball gods gave them unfavorable ping pong balls. J.B. Bickerstaff is the fourth coach in two years. Nobody on last season’s roster managed even four assists per game.
And unlike last time, LeBron isn’t coming to save them. James is under contract with the Lakers through his age-38 season, and he himself has indicated that he plans to follow his son after that. There isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel here. There’s no Akron-based savior to hand-wave years of mismanagement. All that’s left is a team struggling to find the talent, the plan and the identity it will need to return to relevance. Even now, two years after the fact, the Cavaliers are still struggling to escape from the shadow of LeBron.
Each offseason takes them a step closer. With Tristan Thompson gone, Kevin Love and Matthew Dellavedova are the last remaining players from the 2016 championship team. The bulk of the roster is in its early 20s, and as bad as the record looked, Cleveland’s jumbo lineups featuring three big men bucked current trends to perform fairly well down the stretch.
In the famous words of Fran Fraschilla, the Cavs are two years away from being two years away. There isn’t a superstar or a north star guiding their basketball philosophy. But the seeds have been planted. There’s talent waiting to be grown here. It won’t manifest in winning yet, but it’ll give Cleveland fans more to get excited about than the last two years have. The Cavs can be more than LeBron’s ex this season.
Taking the temperature
Cavs skeptic: I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that Cavs optimists even existed?
Cavs optimist: You bet we do, and it’s all based on this comparison:
Can you tell me who those players are?
Cavs skeptic: I’m going to assume one is a current Cavalier and the other is an All-Star based on your tone.
Cavs optimist: Correct! Player A is Collin Sexton last season. Player B is Damian Lillard in his second season. I bet you thought of Damian Lillard as a future star after two seasons. Why isn’t Sexton granted that same courtesy? He’s averaged more points through two seasons than Stephen Curry did. His career scoring average is equal to Jamal Murray’s career-high in points per game. He made more 3-pointers as a sophomore than Chris Paul did in any of his first nine seasons. So enlighten me: why isn’t Collin Sexton a star?
Cavs skeptic: Umm… because there’s more to basketball than scoring? Nobody calls Zach LaVine a star. Sexton had the second-lowest assist rate among all players at or above his usage rate (27.2 percent). That isn’t just the point guards, that’s all players at that usage. Joel Embiid had a higher assist rate. Andrew Wiggins had a higher assist rate. Buddy Hield had a higher assist rate. Sure you can argue that Sexton isn’t Cleveland’s point guard… but somebody has to be. If you’re the size of a point guard and dribble like a point guard, odds are, you’re a point guard.
The Cavs had the NBA’s worst defense last season… and it was 11.1 points per 100 possessions worse when Sexton was in the game. He doesn’t draw enough fouls to justify his usage, he can be careless with the ball and he’s an unspectacular rebounder. Does he have value? Yes. Does he have upside? Yes. Has he earned the star treatment yet? Not even close. Let’s give it some time. For now, aside from the Knicks, the Cavs almost inarguably have the worst best player of any NBA team.
Cavs optimist: Who cares where he is now? He’s 21! My optimism is focused squarely on the future. All of those flaws you mentioned will matter in three years and not a moment sooner. For now? They’re the dents every meaningful young player has to bump out. Most sophomores aren’t winning players. But hey, if you want an exception, may I present No. 5 overall pick Isaac Okoro? He was drafted for his defense and is already hitting game-winners.
The early returns offensively have been stellar. The best version of him covers for Sexton defensively and splashes in some playmaking from the wing. Will it be enough? Probably not. But this group isn’t finished. There’s young talent all around the roster, and another year or two in the tank will give them another few bites at the apple. This is a start. That’s all.
And for what this is worth, something clearly clicked down the stretch last season. The Love-Nance-Thompson trio outscored opponents by 19 points in 40 minutes, and the version with Drummond in Thompson’s place was plus-25 across only 30 minutes! That’s a lot of length and rebounding to put on the floor without making too big a shooting sacrifice. There’s some bully ball potential here.
Cavs skeptic: You’re relying on a 70-minute sample? That’s barely even a blip. But I suppose that’s to be expected. It’s in your name. You’re an optimist. I suppose there’s a shred of hope here. Maybe those big lineups prove a nuisance in an increasingly homogenous league. Maybe Sexton rounds out his game or one of the other youngsters pop. But right now, none of those things appear all that likely. Optimism is nice. It’s also unrealistic, and in Cleveland’s case, it’s unearned. Talk to me after a few more drafts.
Cleveland picked Darius Garland No. 5 overall clearly expecting him to be Sexton’s long-term partner in the backcourt. Kevin Porter Jr., the No. 30 pick in that same draft, had other ideas. Porter outpaced Garland in both efficiency and virtually every value metric last season. He’s bigger and more athletic, a necessity next to the 6-1 Sexton. He’s ridiculously inconsistent at this stage, topping 15 points in six of his last 15 games (including a 30-point demolition of the Heat), but being held to five or fewer four times in that span.
Cleveland has no compelling reason to gift wrap a starting spot for Garland. If Porter is better, he is going to play. It’s weird to suggest that Cleveland has any sort of guard glut considering how much these young guys will actually struggle on the court, but if Okoro is playing minutes at guard and Dylan Windler is getting any minutes whatsoever, the rotation suddenly gets tight. Cleveland has drafted for talent since losing LeBron, and that’s the right approach, but it puts their developmental prospects in direct competition with one another. Porter vs. Garland is the main event.