For the second consecutive time, the Cleveland Cavaliers have completely fallen apart in the wake of LeBron James’ exit to a warmer climate. The 2018-19 version had similar lofty aspirations to the 2010-11 team, though there was no promise of a quicker championship than James this time around, and have seen the team fall spectacularly short of those goals on the floor. Led by Kevin Love (who signed a four-year extension before the season began) and rookie point guard Collin Sexton, this edition of the Cavaliers had competitive internal expectations, most of which were not shared by the rest of the basketball world at large, but nobody saw them being quite this bad.
Love’s absence for essentially the entire season hasn’t helped matters, but it’s also difficult to see how he would have aided them in their quest to not be one of the worst defensive teams in NBA history. Head coach Tyronn Lue was summarily fired after the team jumped out to an 0-6 start, before it was clear just how awful the 2018-19 team was going to be. Larry Drew stepped up out of his assistant role to lead the team this year, but according to The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd and Joe Vardon, he’s not long for the job, as management has already begun their search for the club’s next head coach after Drew.
Should Lloyd and Vardon’s reporting come true in the form of a hire this summer, the Cavaliers will have completed an important step in their rebuild: hire a young former assistant coach to lead their team through the abyss that is a multi-year downturn. The same tactic was undertaken in Philadelphia with Brett Brown, who had previously spent many years in the San Antonio Spurs organization, but had never had the opportunity to be the leader of an NBA team. Brown has flourished in the role, developing deep relationships with his players as those piled-up losses have turned into wins over the last two years. There is no quick fix, especially from the coaching staff, for a rebuild like the one in front of the Cavaliers, so it’s best to hire a young coach who can grow with the roster and keep them motivated through what will be the most difficult period of their careers.
That process is already underway in Atlanta, who decided to go into the tank last year in much the same way as Cleveland this year, though they held on to their veteran coach until after the season ended. The 2017-18 Hawks were in a similar abyss to the current Cavaliers, with very little upon which to focus other than May’s draft lottery. Veterans were playing out the string on their time in Atlanta, knowing that greener pastures were imminent. The club had a few young prospects but was mostly laden with win-now players, as the team had been in the playoffs for a decade straight before bottoming out. This past offseason, Atlanta targeted a list that looks very similar to Cleveland’s: young assistant coaches around the league who could connect and grow with a rebuilding roster.
Atlanta’s management settled on Lloyd Pierce — an assistant of Brown’s in Philadelphia — who had been through the most famous rebuild in NBA history in Philadelphia and came out the other side a better coach and person for it. The Hawks added Pierce to their bench along with a trio of first-round picks to the roster and, all of a sudden, a downtrodden club has hope where there was very little last season. The Cavaliers will add a top-flight talent the 2019 draft and are looking to emulate the 76ers’ and Hawks’ recent success with young head coaching hires to propel the team forward, even if the results don’t immediately come in the form of wins and losses.
On this day a year ago, the Hawks sat at 14-33. This year, they’re 15-32. And yet, the organization as a whole couldn’t be more different than it was a year ago. There’s optimism for the future where there was very little last season. Now, when the team wins a game, or goes on a 9-9 run for 18 games, as the Hawks have over the last few weeks, there’s a bigger feeling of, “they’re really starting to get it!”, rather than the clamoring over how much each win hurts them in the race for ping-pong balls. All it takes is a few young guys and a head coach who’s interesting in player development above all else to change the entire tenor of the franchise, both of which Cleveland will have within the next six months, should they swing the bat around and hire one of the league’s preeminent young coaches, as Vardon indicates they will.
The optimism for the Cavaliers is right around the corner; the first year is always the most difficult in any rebuilding situation. It wasn’t made any easier by the playoff aspirations coming into the year, but now that the club has embraced what they are for this season, the pain should be short-lived. A top-tier draft pick in June’s draft and a young up-and-coming head coach will do wonders for the team, even if it doesn’t show up in the 2019-20 standings. The first step in a rebuild is the club’s management and ownership accepting that they are, in fact, rebuilding, and it seems that Altman and owner Dan Gilbert have come to that conclusion and will be doing what they can to properly build for the future, starting with the team’s leader on the bench.