Gone are the days of long playoff runs and Finals appearances. The realities of life as a small market NBA team are back. Instead of dissecting match-ups against the Celtics and Warriors, Cavaliers fans are left to argue over the merits of trading Kevin Love and the ceiling of Collin Sexton. The greatest era in the franchise’s history is over.
As the Cavaliers introduce a 193 million dollar refurbishment to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, formerly known as Quicken Loans Arena, the parallels between the re-polished arena and the on-floor product are obvious. The front office and ownership are hoping to take a tested, if aging, structure, add a bit of paint and shine, and rebuild with as little downtime as possible.
Two goals stand out for the team as the 2019-2020 season begins.
1. Can Darius Garland and Collin Sexton play together?
2. Will Kevin Love’s play and health allow the team to trade him for assets that will enhance the rebuild?
The Garland/Sexton pairing will dominate all discussions of this team throughout the season. Can two players this young, who both need the ball in their hands, learn to play off each other? While other teams in the league are experimenting with this question (see Houston), the stakes for the Cavs are lower.
Some draftniks questioned the Cavs’ selection of Garland, seeing the fit with Sexton as troublesome. The franchise isn’t chasing a championship or even a playoff berth. Garland was, without question, the best player on the board when the Cavs selected him with the 5th pick in the draft. They can’t select players based on need. The roster needs a large talent infusion. The pieces will sort themselves later.
Sexton and Garland will be a nightmare defensively. Both small guards at 6’2”, defending opposing point guards in the NBA is challenging with optimal size. Sexton rated 510th, out of 530 players last year in Defensive Win Shares, according to NBA.com. Rookies struggle defensively. He should improve, yet lacks the size to be more than an average defender. He has fight, however, and plays with fire, which can lead to passable defense in the league. It will be something to monitor throughout the year.
Garland will rank low in defensive ratings in his rookie year. Guards in the NBA are too good for rookies to handle on a night to night basis. The schemes are complicated. The Cavs are not a good defensive team, therefore providing no way to mask Garland’s deficiencies. When the Cavs are camped at the bottom of the standings, their defense will be the reason.
Offensively, Garland and Sexton can thrive together if they can play off one another. Both are outstanding shooters, allowing each to be a threat when the other has the ball. The most important trait in the NBA is the ability to shoot the three ball. Sexton shot 40% from range last year, and Garland was drafted for his abilities from deep. Having two guards who can shoot threes will keep defenders attached to them, unable to help. With a lineup of Sexton/Garland/Love/Osman/Nance on the floor, the spacing provided should allow either guard to attack the rim and kick to open shooters. Sexton proved adept at getting to the basket a year ago, though he needs to improve his finishing rate at the rim. Via hoopdata.com, the average NBA player shoots 64.6% at the rim. Sexton managed 57% shooting within three feet of the basket, according to basketball-reference.com.
The questions surrounding the young guards on offense centers on their passing abilities. For them to thrive as a duo, at least one has to develop into an above average playmaker. Sexton struggled in his rookie year, only averaging 2.9 assists per game. While a dynamic scorer, he failed as a conductor of the offense, too often freelancing on his own and not relying on teammates. He must improve in this area.
The same concerns exist for Garland. While he only played five games on a talent bereft Vanderbilt team, he managed just 2.6 assists. While his college coaches rave over his passing abilities, he will have to prove he can be a playmaker in the NBA.
Will the Cavs be able, or even willing, to trade Kevin Love? The lone player on the roster with any value the team would consider parting with, his shooting and rebounding talents would be an asset for any contender. For a trade to materialize, however, Love must stay healthy. Injuries have plagued him throughout his Cavalier career, peaking last season when he missed 60 games. If he is on the floor, Love will flirt with being an All Star, and will put up numbers in the 20 point, 10 rebound range. Portland is an obvious candidate, considering their standing as a contender in a talented Western Conference with a guard and center heavy roster. Love’s abilities and championship resume would seem to be a fit. Would the Blazers be willing to part with the pieces needed to get him, however?
In any trade for Love, the Cavs should ask for at least 1 first-round pick and a young player with upside. For the Blazers, that would be rookie Nassir Little and second-year guard Anfernee Simons. Simons rarely played during his rookie year but exploded for 37 points in the last game of the regular season while the vets sat. Expect him to be Damian Lillard’s backup this year and lead the second unit.
A draft pick in the 20s, Portland’s likely draft position, is an unappealing asset. One of the young players packaged with it, along with Hassan Whiteside for salary matching purposes, however, should pique the Cavs’ interest. Would Portland be willing to give that up for Love? It depends on where they sit at the trade deadline and how well Love is playing. The Blazers reached the Western Conference Finals last year and, despite outside perceptions they may slip, have no intention of doing so.
Anything less than a package of that size for Love and the Cavs should keep him. His salary, while large, is not unmanageable. His knowledge and championship experience is invaluable to the young players the Cavaliers are trying to develop. A winning culture takes work. Love’s presence, if he wants to be in Cleveland, will be invaluable.
Beyond Sexton and Garland, developing the other two first rounders drafted in June will be the focus for the Cavaliers on the court. Dylan Windler, picked 26th, and Kevin Porter Jr., drafted at 30, need time on the floor. Can they eventually contribute to a playoff team? Windler seems to be a Beilein guy. 6’8” with three point range, he shot 43% from 3 at Belmont last year and rebounded well, 10.8 per game. Those two skill sets appeal to the head coach, and he should provide spacing on the court with the two guards. He’s injured at the moment, however. A lower leg injury will keep him out all of training camp.
Some scouts had Porter Jr. rated as a top ten talent in the draft. With great size, quickness, and elite athleticism, he can light up scoreboards whether slashing to the rim or shooting the three. Porter’s problems are with maturity. Wildness on and off the court plagued his freshman year at USC, undisciplined on defense and in his personal life. He was suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team in January, returning for the Trojans’ final three games of the year. Will his maturity issues continue to follow him?
Porter is the type of risk teams like the Cavaliers must take. Talent like his doesn’t last until the 30th pick in the draft without baggage. The championship infrastructure the front office seems proud of will be tested here. A hit on Porter would speed up the rebuild.
He is also an example of the value of second round picks. The Cavs stockpiled them last year when trading veterans like George Hill and Kyle Korver. Thought as throw-ins, the Cavs packaged four of them to the Pistons for Porter. Everything has value in the NBA if used correctly. Good move by Koby Altman.
Other than Kevin Love, the tradeable assets owned by the Cavs are expiring contracts. Brandon Knight, Tristan Thompson, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson, Matthew Dellavedova, and Cedi Osman all are on the last year of their deals, totaling over 69 million in salary. Will the Cavs attempt to re-sign any of these veterans? Assume Osman is in the team’s plans. The rest are question marks. While Thompson and Clarkson could be back on smaller deals, are they interested in taking pay cuts? Or will they be forced into one by the market?
They could use all in trades in the hunt for draft picks. Other than superstars, the most valuable commodity in the NBA is cap space. The Cavs have a lot moving forward and it will not be used to sign free agents. Trading these expiring deals for longer bad contracts teams want to get off of to clean up their books, netting draft picks for their trouble, is the best way for the Cavs to use their cap space. It’s the strategy used in the Brandon Knight deal last year, gaining the 26th pick in the draft which became Dylan Windler. Koby Altman will hunt first round picks offered by desperate teams throughout the year.
How about the new coach?
The consensus around the league is that John Beilein is an excellent coach, one of the best in the country, regardless of level.
Will his style work in the NBA?
Will he have the patience needed to withstand the losing?
What about his age?
These are questions that face Beilein, coming into the NBA for the first time at 66 years old. He has only been a head coach and has succeeded from high school to small college to the Big Ten. He is old school, focusing on the fundamentals of the game. This should benefit the young roster of the Cavs, allowing them to grow into his style and vice versa. Beilein’s developmental approach melds with the team’s objectives at this point in the rebuild.
It remains to be seen whether his lessons will resonate. While Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan have had success in recent years making the jump from college, the record is spotty. Beilein’s temperament seems to match with Stevens and Donovan, as opposed to failures like Rick Pitino and John Calipari. The 82 game season is a grind, and he will most likely rack up more losses this year than his last five years at Michigan combined. Will he have the patience the rebuild will require? Will frustration lead him back to the college ranks?
Beilein is an impressive man. He’ll do the work and has the expertise to develop the young players. The key, as with any organization, is finding the talent to implement into his system.