The Cleveland Cavaliers find themselves in a similar position as in 2011. They are a year removed from LeBron James leaving for the Lakers in free agency. Cleveland also had a 19-63 record just as they did the first time James left for Miami. Once again, Cleveland is hoping for some lottery luck to help kickstart a rebuild.
The Cavs need an infusion of talent through the draft, because they don’t project to have cap space at any point in the near future. Because Cleveland had loaded up the roster to chase titles when they had James, they are still digging out from under that. They compounded matters to some extent by handing out big extensions to Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr. Koby Altman extended with Love and Nance when the Cavs thought they had a chance to be competitive post-James. Love missed considerable time during the 18-19 season, the younger players didn’t develop as rapidly as hoped for, and the veterans saw their play fall off.
The Cavaliers astutely changed course in-season, selling off as many of the vets as they could, while taking on bad salary in exchange for additional assets. Cleveland owns Houston’s 2019 first rounder, has a future pick coming from Milwaukee, and a slew of additional second rounders coming down the line. This approach of piling up picks while eating bad salary has worked for other rebuilding teams in recent years.
But taking that approach means another rebuilding year is coming for the Cavaliers. First things first, Altman will look to trade J.R. Smith, the last player grandfathered in under the former CBA where his salary counts for the full amount in a trade versus just his guaranteed amount. This could return some more bad salary, but net Cleveland another draft pick.
Beyond Smith, the Cavaliers could try to trade Love, but that’s less likely to happen. He’ll need to prove he’s truly healthy before anyone will take on the remaining $120 million in salary owed through 22-23. The rest of the vets are all on expiring deals and could have some value as role players for contending teams. If it doesn’t happen over the summer, there’s a good chance a bunch of them could be moved by the trade deadline.
Before he can make roster moves, Altman has to figure out who will coach this group of veterans and youngsters. Cleveland fired Ty Lue midseason and moved on from interim coach Larry Drew after the season. As of this writing, they haven’t hired a new coach. It’s expected the next coach will have a heavy focus on player development as that’s the focus moving forward. That’s either developing younger players or rehabbing the value of veterans.
The Cavs have some intriguing young players on the roster. Like nearly every young point guard outside of Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving, Collin Sexton had some predictable struggles to start his rookie year. By the end of the year, Sexton had developed into a good scorer and better than expected shooter, as he knocked down 40.2% of his three-point attempts. His playmaking and defense need work, but the base skills are there for him to be at least an above-average starting lead guard.
The next best prospect is Cedi Osman, who turned in a nice sophomore season. He jumped up to 13 points per game with increased playing time and usage. Osman’s shooting percentages will likely rise when he plays with more talent around him and isn’t forced to take so many contested looks. His defense needs a lot work, but that’s basically the description of the entire Cavaliers roster.
While Sexton and Osman are nice pieces, neither projects as a surefire franchise player. That’s where Cleveland needs to nail the draft. They’re likely to pick somewhere in the top three, which means they could end up with either Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett or Ja Morant. That’s likely the preferred order for the Cavs as well.
Williamson would immediately be a fan favorite and the face of the franchise as they move out of James’ shadow.
Barrett would fill a need on the wing and projects as a player who can get his own offense, as well as make plays for others. He could pair with Sexton and Osman to form a perimeter trio the Cavaliers could build around. Ideally, you’d have a defensive-minded big in there somewhere, but that’s something to focus on down the line.
Morant doesn’t make quite as much sense after selecting Sexton last year. If the Cavs are convinced Morant projects to be a better player than Sexton, they should draft him without hesitation. They can then move Sexton for another younger player at a position of need. However, that is rarely how these things play out in the NBA. There is an outside chance Cleveland could see Morant and Sexton playing together, but that’s unlikely. Altman could also trade back if he can’t get either Williamson or Barrett, but he’ll probably just go best player available at that point.
Beyond the draft, it’s unlikely to be a very exciting summer for the Cavs. They’ll possibly make some trades, but nothing of the blockbuster variety. This offseason is about Altman continue to course-correct for the future. He showed adaptability to change gears last year. Now he needs to show courage to continue down that path. James probably isn’t coming back home again, so it’s up to Altman to get this thing turned around.
Guaranteed Contracts (10): Jordan Clarkson, Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, Brandon Knight, Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., Cedi Osman, Collin Sexton, Tristan Thompson, Ante Zizic
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (1): J.R. Smith
Potential Free Agents (6): Deng Adel (RFA – Two-Way), Jaron Blossomgame (RFA – Two-Way), Marquese Chriss (UFA), Channing Frye (UFA), David Nwaba (RFA), Nik Stauskas (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($0): None
First Round Draft Pick(s) (pre-Lottery): Pick #2, Pick #26
Maximum Cap Space: None. $15.2 million over
Projected Cap Space: None. $48.1 million ove