It isn’t clear yet what type of players Cavs GM Koby Altman, assistant GM Mike Gansey and the rest of the Cavs’ front office likes — the team is a few months away from a coaching hire and draft picks that will clarify their vision for the franchise. The hard choices haven’t had to be made yet. But what Altman and Co. have done since July — and at this year’s deadline — is set themselves to make those choices from a position of strength instead of a position of desperation. They took the Cavs from seriously lacking assets to having enough to invest in youth and live up to comments Altman made over the summer when, after taking Collin Sexton, he said the team was now in the “player-development business.”
”Winning championships is still our goal and will always be our goal,” Altman said on June 24 at Sexton’s introductory press conference.” But through that process we wanted to focus on long-term success, sustainability. Going through this year we were able to get younger and talented and athletic and have some real momentum going into the future. We knew this pick was going to be a big part of that plan. And now it’s not a pick any more, it is Collin Sexton.”
June 24, of course, was a week before LeBron James went to the Lakers. It was also before the team signed both Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr. to extensions. It was before Tyronn Lue was fired - a clear signal that things were going to change. And it was before Altman made trades that netted the team two future first-round picks and five future second-round picks. Perhaps Love’s injury was the catalyst that cemented Altman’s path this year — it’d certainly be an interesting question to ask him — but the moves he’s made since LeBron went West seem to reinforce a commitment to the stated player-development ethos.
The next steps will provide further clarity. When the season ends and Larry Drew moves on, Altman’s first job will be to hire a coach. It’s already been reported the Cavs are seeking a younger coach with a player-development background. Assuming that remains true, hiring someone like Nuggets assistant (and ex-Charge coach) Jordi Fernandez or Hawks assistant (and ex-Cavs assistant) Chris Jent would be following the player development path. It would not be hiring Drew — who the veterans like — or hiring a Mike Brown-type. Or Brown himself, like the Cavs did in 2013 in an effort to push for the No. 8 seed in the East.
Then comes the draft. Odds are, the Cavs won’t win the lottery and have Zion Williamson dropped in their lap. If they do, this process becomes easier and everything becomes about building around Williamson. But let’s say the Cavs fall to No. 3 with Williamson and R.J. Barrett (potentially a no-brainer pick at No. 2, depending on who you ask) off the board. Would Altman roll the dice on Murray State’s Ja Morant, regardless of how he might fit with Sexton? Does someone with a more well-rounded game like Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver appeal to them? Or do they take the other Duke prospect in Cam Reddish because of his scoring potential? And later on in the draft, with the first-round pick from the Rockets a near lock to convey, what will the franchise value in a draft that may be hard to evaluate after the lottery?
The Cavs were in a similar position after LeBron left the first time. The problem was it took his return return made the organization function like a real, live team. The 2011 draft netted Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, which is pretty good and helped the Cavs win a title! A year later, selecting Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller in the first round wasn’t so great. Anthony Bennett in 2014…. We can skip that one. It seems probable the Cavs are happier with Love on his current deal than the Wolves are with Andrew Wiggins on his.
Key acquisitions from that era — Jarrett Jack, Andrew Bynum, Earl Clark, Luol Deng, etc. —didn’t work either. All were ill-fitting, rushed decisions made by executives no longer with the team in an effort to be the No. 8 in the East. It says a lot about that era of Cavs basketball that Spencer Hawes — who isn’t in the league anymore — may have been the best acquisition because he could competently run a pick-and-roll with Irving. And once more for the folks in Loudville: it took LeBron to make those mistakes go away. That isn’t going to happen again. This time at least, Sexton, Osman and Zizic are around, as are Love, Nance, Thompson and maybe David Nwaba if the team values his defense enough to ignore his lack of a jump shot That’s a whole lot better than year one AL (after LeBron) in 2010-11.
After the draft, Altman will have more questions to answer, too. For one: Does Love factor in the team’s plans? What about Thompson, who is headed into the last year of his contract next year? And what does he think of how Sexton, Zizic and Osman developed this year? And, considering the odd roster construction, how does he plan on retooling it to function better heading into next season? Oh, and does he see keeping next year’s first-round pick — which is top-10 protected for the 2020 draft — as part of the Cavs’ plans, or can they be fine without it? Is this summer the right time to put the foot on the gas pedal even a little bit?
Altman doesn’t have a simple task ahead of him — none of the questions he, the rest of the front office and ownership will have to make are clear-cut. Each will have an effect on other choices that have to be made down the line. Such is life as an NBA GM. But, to his credit, Altman’s given himself a better shot at success because of how he’s handled the past few months. That’s a choice that makes sense.