A few weeks ago I compared the Cavaliers' progress in the Kyrie Irving era to the Oklahoma City Thunder in their first two years with Kevin Durant. They haven't won a game since. I made a note in that article, without developing it, that the whole comparison wasn't fair; you simply can't expect Chris Grant to find the players of the caliber of Russell Westbrook, Durant, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden each year. Even if we take a glass half full look at Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, and assume that when the Cavaliers are good Kyrie Irving will play 70 games a year, it is hard to see that nucleus being enough to win an NBA title. Adding a guy like Nerlens Noel might pay off in three or four years, but that seems far away from a sure thing. And that seems to be the best case scenario of a draft that appears to have depth, but no star power.
So what is my point? Well, the title of the article should give you some indication of where I am going with this. The Cavaliers should be looking to use their collection of young talent and surplus of future first round picks to help other teams kick-start their rebuilding process while ending theirs. Some of this is complicated somewhat by Anderson Varejao's inability to stay on the court, as well as Dion Waiters up-and-down season, and now his knee issues that may be resolved via surgery. Because of these circumstances, Cavs fans put more value on these players than the market as a whole probably does.This is a good thing. You shouldn't sell when players are at their lowest value, in general, especially when they don't have debilitating contracts.
But the Cavaliers may have a deadline of when they need to be competitive by. If you subscribe to the theory that Cleveland should be major players in 2014 free agency, and that major stars will not be chomping at the bit to join a Cleveland team coming off their fourth straight losing season, immediate improvement is necessary. Does Nerlens Noel move the needle on that? Does a year of hoping Thompson makes another step forward, Irving and Varejao stay healthy, or Waiters finding more consistency lead to the 5th seed in the East next season? There is also the matter of fan support. Cleveland fans have been incredibly patient post-LeBron. What if the young Cavs struggle again next season? I don't think its likely, but the team will head into next season with as many question marks as answers if they head into the Fall with a similar roster, plus, say, Otto Porter.
The Cavaliers need to jump-start the process. Being patient is a virtue, but some of their assets are likely to deteriorate in value if they are not used at the correct time. For example, Dion Waiters was the fourth pick in the Draft last year. The Cavaliers are likely to have a pick around fourth this year. Which is more valuable to opposing teams? Unless they happen to be really high on Waiters, other teams are going to want the pick, even in a down year. So while Anderson Varejao's value could be higher, the value of the Cavs 2013 first rounder is at its zenith.
The last point to make before jumping into the specific trades is one taken for granted by most who follow the NBA: it is a league in which you need stars. The Houston Rockets hoarded assets for years looking to make a play for a star. They finally got one with James Harden, and are looking to do it again. The Detroit Pistons are essentially the only team in the history of the league to win a title without a bona fide star, and Chauncey Billups was about as close to a star without being one that you will find. Future assets are great, but the end goal should be adding stars to play along with Irving. In this respect, the Cavs have an advantage over Houston in that they have hit the jackpot on the lottery once, and it looks like Irving will be ready to take the league over sooner rather than later. But Cleveland shouldn't rest on their laurels. They should make a play at two players who are perfect fits, and be willing to overpay if necessary: Al Horford, and Marc Gasol.
Why are these guys perfect fits for the Cavaliers? Because they are much, much better players than Tyler Zeller, they can contribute much faster than Nerlens Noel could, if the Cavaliers could even select him, and Anderson Varejao is on the down-slope of his career, even when he does stay healthy. This last point is blasphemy for many Cavs fans, and I want to qualify it. Varejao was ridiculously good when he was healthy this season. Unbelievable. He played like an All-Star. But he isn't big enough to guard every center in the NBA, and he isn't quick enough to stay with a lot of stretch power forwards that populate the league. He isn't a top rim-protector either. After the way Tristan Thompson came on in his absence, there is also reason to believe Andy's all-everywhere-all-the-time style is impeding his development.
Enter Horford and Gasol. Top-notch passers from the center position to help facilitate the Princeton offense that Byron Scott employs. Cleveland would be able to backdoor cut teams to death, as well as get Kyrie Irving open looks from screens. Both can capably defend, though Gasol's size makes him more of a natural center. Horford has a Player Efficiency Rating just north of 20 for the season. He can hit from the mid-range consistently, so he wouldn't clog the paint with Tristan Thompson. At 17.5 ppg and 10.3 rpg, he has proven to be consistent. If he isn't a star, he is knocking on the door. He would be a massive improvement over Zeller, and his quickness and versatility defensively puts him on Varejao's level. He is also a smart defender, and switches well on the pick and roll. He isn't a solution to the Cavs inability to protect the rim, but perhaps Thompson can still grow into that role. He is 26 years old, and is on the books for three more years after this one at $12 million a year, which is a bargain.
Marc Gasol would be fantastic as well, though it is less likely that Memphis will be willing to part with him. Still, with their front office in flux, perhaps he could be had with an offer that the Grizzlies simply couldn't refuse. If they decide this summer that the team as constructed can't win a title, perhaps they start the rebuild. At least entering the Draft last summer, Hollinger was high on Waiters. Gasol is simply the best passing big man in basketball, and one of the smartest defenders as well. He is 28, and under contract for two more years around $15 million. He has a PER just south of 20, though I think it would be higher if he wasn't next to an elite rebounder like Zach Randolph; his rebounding numbers would go up. 14 points a game, 8 boards and 4 assists while anchoring one of the best defenses in basketball would be fantastic in Cleveland.
So there probably isn't (there shouldn't be) a single Cavs fan that doesn't want these guys in the Wine & Gold. But Hawks fans and Grizzlies fans like them just fine where they are. More importantly, Danny Ferry and John Hollinger feel the same. The Cavaliers should be willing to give up a lot. I would not want the Cavaliers to start negotiations at this point, but I am ultimately willing to give up:
The Cavaliers 2013 first round pick, unprotected.
Either Al Horford or Marc Gasol.
This is a lot to give up. But it does not deplete the Cavaliers roster any more than it is today. Take the Horford trade. The Cavaliers can move forward with a core of Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Al Horford. Add in CJ Miles, Alonzo Gee, and the Lakers pick and you are looking at a team that still has $30 million in cap space to spend this summer. They still have multiple future first round picks coming from Sacramento, Memphis, and Miami. They can bring back Shaun Livingston and Wayne Ellington, or a shooting guard like Tony Allen. Not a fan of how Cleveland has defended this year? How about a starting line-up featuring Horford, Thompson, and Allen. It wouldn't compromise the team's 2014 cap space. The thesis is quite simple: go get the stars, and fill in the gaps later on. If you add Horford, you stay young, you stay flexible, and you just might start winning.
Chris Grant, be bold. Be aggressive.