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Taking stock of the Cavs roster at the end of the 2018-19 season

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With the first season post-LeBron finished, it’s now time for the Cavs’ plan for the future to take shape.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The Cavs 2018-19 season is over, finally. It’s been a long year full of losing for the Cavs and a year in which the roster the team started out with ended up being completely blown up and patched together with dried-out glue and mismatched wood in LeBron’s wake. Remember Sam Dekker on the Cavs? What about Cam Payne? Patrick McCaw. All in all, the Cavs used 32 different starting lineups in 2018-19 with 27 different players playing for the team. That’s a lot of both, too many for a team to thrive for an entire season.

This summer, Koby Altman and the rest of the front office staff have the task of building a more stable roster. This isn’t to say Cleveland’s group will be built with proper materials by summer’s end — there will surely be a nails poking you and Dan Gilbert’s checkbook through the floor — but it’d be ideal to head into next year with a roster less in flux as this year’s. To do that, the Cavs will have to take stock of who they have now and what needs they have to fill. The foundation isn’t built yet.

The building blocks

In this group: Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr.

As the Cavs go into the summer, they should at least feel confident about Collin Sexton’s progress. As a scorer, he’s gone from passing up wide-open corner threes in favor of mid-range shots to making just over 40% of his three-pointers. Even if that number dips to around 36%, that’s fine. He’s also getting better at finishing inside with a development of a floater and finishing through contact. If nothing else, he can get buckets and might be efficient-ish, which (breaking news) helps.

That said, there are warts on his game. These are not flaws that will keep him from being a good NBA player necessarily, but they are things he’ll have to figure out in some way. The big question about Sexton’s ceiling is his passing. Right now, he doesn’t have the vision to pass open teammates and often times misses open teammates in favor of shooting – just watch Kevin Love when he was on the floor with Sexton toward the end of the year and you’ll find a few instances of this a game. Sexton doesn’t have to be a Trae Young-like passer, but he has to become more functional when he’s going to have one of the highest usage rates on the team. (Weird stat: Young’s assist per game average of 8.0 was higher than Sexton’s single game career-high for assists of seven until Sexton racked up 10 assist in the Cavs’ final game of the season.) As a rookie, he profiled more like the inverse of rookie Iman Shumpert or Marcus Smart — two guards with low AST%s.

He also has to become a better defender, perhaps looking to gamble less and instead figure out when is the right time to be aggressive. Sexton will never be a versatile defender who can switch based on his size alone, but he’s going to have to start defending point guards at least a little bit better. Right now, teams can attack Sexton as an easy way to penetrate the Cavs’ defense –all opposing guards are all Ser Bronn of the Blackwater.

The good news for the Cavs is that Sexton works hard. Talk to anyone around the team about him and they will rave about his work ethic. It’s a big reason why the Cavs drafted him and, frankly, a big reason why he improved over the course of the season and should be on one of the first two All-Rookie teams. This should not alleviate every concern about him as a player, but they certainly should lessen them. What Altman does in June will also say a lot about what the Cavs think Sexton is in the NBA. Getting better at finishing inside will help Sexton too.

Cedi Osman at one point, for a brief moment in time, looked like a better prospect then Sexton, partially because Sexton was so bad. That isn’t true now, but there’s an outline of what he is as a player, and it’s promising. He does a little bit of everything well, fits nicely with Sexton as a secondary creator and looks like a player who, with some improvement, can be a two-way player on a good team.

A key for him this summer will be to get stronger. Osman’s currently too small if he’s going to defend bigger wings moving forward. He also took a beating this year when screened by larger centers – go back and watch Cavs-Celtics from late March if only to see how Aron Baynes’ screens took something out of Osman.

He will likely spend time at home in Turkey, and it’s unclear if he’ll play in Summer League this year. But Osman, 24, would definitely benefit from like three weeks lifting with the Browns or at Ohio State. Maybe LeBron James can connect him with OBJ and get him into Berea. This is a key summer for his career trajectory, regardless of where he spends it.

What Osman is as a defender is one part of his game that’s still unclear. The eye test says he’s smart, tries and should be better once he puts on some more muscle. Too often this year, because of how the Cavs’ roster was structured, he was defending players way bigger than him. At one point, Larry Drew called it unfair and he’s probably right. But the numbers say that Osman was one of the worst defensive players in the league in 2018-19. Sometimes, when he got frustrated or the Cavs were out of games, the effort and focus waned. My guess is that Osman will get better defensively, but only more minutes will tell.

By virtue of his contract extension, Larry Nance Jr. looks to be part of the Cavs’ plans too. At 26, he’s not too much older than Sexton, Osman and whomever the Cavs draft in June. He also is a popular player who genuinely loves playing in Cleveland and that counts for something.

The key for Nance going forward is how much his improvements this season holds true. As a three-point shooter, Nance made 33.7% in 67 games and looked more comfortable taking them by seasons end; 1.5 attempts per game is a notable leap from 0.3 attempts per game in 2017-18. But defensives rarely tried to defend him out that far — will they next year or can he force them to? As a passer, Nance also thrived and showed off some passing ability that could maybe help lessen the need for Sexton to be an elite creator for the guard spot.

Nance’s passing ability also makes his pairing with Kevin Love fascinating. In theory, the Cavs could lean into having two passing bigs to keep the offense moving, especially if they don’t think Sexton is a lead distributor. Under Drew, Love — who has a much longer track record of carrying an offense — actually was the one spacing the floor for Nance and the rest of the team with Nance setting up at the elbow. Will that hold true in 2019-20? And might the Cavs be best staggering Nance and Love — who we’ll get to in a minute – to keep the ball moving in different lineups?

Of note: Due to injuries and such, Love and Nance haven’t played together that much in one-and-a-half seasons. Figuring out if that duo works should be on the Cavs’ to-do list.

Either a pillar or flipped for potential pillars

In this category: Kevin Love

Kevin Love could easily be listed under the building blocks section and likely at the top. He’s the closest thing the Cavs have to a top-20 player. When Love returned from a long injury absence, he clearly made the team better. With Love on the court in 2018-19, the Cavs posted the equivalent of a top-10 offensive rating. Space opened up, pace increased and the offense looked like a real NBA offense instead of a living, breathing tank. For the year, the Sexton-Osman-Love trio was not as much as a net negative as you might have thought. Towards the end of the season, Love talked as if he’ll be on the team for next year and referred to “next season” for Cleveland on a few occasions. The Cavs will cite the extension he signed last summer as proof that he’s part of their plans. And at some point, Love trade speculation has to just be done with. Just let the man wear his Banana Republic fits, put up 20-and-15 and live his best life in peace. If he’s healthy next year, an All-Star-caliber season doesn’t seem out of the question.

Maybe this summer will mark the end of it. In a summer where Love could have been a free agent, he’s under contract for the next four years on a deal that deescalates as it goes. The $120 million guaranteed he’s owed is a lot, to be sure, especially considering his injury history. But Love is an All-Star and maybe some team this summer comes calling and offers the Cavs assets — picks, probably — they deem as too valuable to turn down. The type of suitor that makes sense would seem to be a team that misses out in free agency and feels the need to do something — maybe the Lakers, weirdly enough? Maybe the Blazers feel a need to reset and go after Love, who is from Oregon. Thinking that Love can’t help a good team win is looking through some Warriors-colored glasses, even if that’s how he’ll be talked about by some and how winning is ultimately viewed.

What the Cavs may have to decide is how much they’d need to be offered for Love to take a deal. Late first-round picks probably aren’t enough. Teams might consider late lottery picks too steep of a price. And much as Love has had his name throw around in trade rumors, his value has never really been set.

It’s unclear exactly what the middle ground would be and it’s hard to speculate about fits for Love until free agency is over. That’s when the market for Love would most likely heat up.

It’s also totally possible that Love will be back next year, play at All-Star level and pair up with Sexton, Osman, Nance and whomever the Cavs draft in June to start taking the Cavs to the next level. Unless the Cavs are blown away by an offer, it’s also the path forward that makes the most sense for an organization that is not interested in totally bottoming out, or at least indicated as much last summer after LeBron left, Love got hurt and the season became a disaster until Love came back.

Useful players on expiring contacts

In this group: Matthew Dellavedova, Brandon Knight, John Henson, Tristan Thompson, Jordan Clarkson

Two things in 2018-19 were guaranteed to elicit cheers at Quicken Loans Arena: 1) when the Cavs crossed 100 points and gave the crowd free chicken nuggets and 2) when Matthew Dellavedova checked into the game. He’s beloved in Cleveland. Dellavedova is also a good fit on a team that has a number of ball dominant players and needs someone — anyone — to move the ball and take spot-up threes. It helps that Dellavedova tries on defense too.

But Delly is also heading into the last year of his deal and will make $9.6 million next season. Maybe a team who wants a veteran guard and/or to clear cap space for 2020 comes calling and the Cavs flip Delly for an asset. It wouldn’t be a popular move, but a pragmatic one from Altman.

Brandon Knight is similar to Dellavedova in that he’s heading into the last year of his deal (he’s making $15.6 million next year) and could be traded. He’s different than Delly in that he’s better on offense and worse on defense — the two are almost opposites aside from the fact that they take spot-up threes. Knight also finished the 2018-19 season strong and probably has something to prove after a losing a season to an ACL year. If he sticks around, there’s a role for him. But do the Cavs need both?

Clarkson is coming off a season in which he was one of the highest scoring players off the bench league-wide and sometimes was the only Cav on the floor who could create his own shot. Much like when they acquired him from the Lakers, the best case for the Cavs is to find a team in the summer or at the trade deadline who feels it needs shot creation and gives up something of value for Clarkson. And although Clarkson can be maddening, he also was solid cutting off ball (particularly with Dellavedova, as the two developed some chemistry) and shot 36.6% on catch-and-shoot threes in 2018-19. He’s a horrid defender, and takes too many pull-up threes, but there is a path there for him to help a playoff team.

Something has to give with Henson. He was traded to the Cavs in the same deal that brought them Dellavedova, but was injured and played in a whopping 0 games for Cleveland in 2018-19. It’s not even clear what jersey number he was assigned. (If you have a Henson Cavs jersey, get at me.) He’s one of five front court signed and one of four making $10-million plus next season. One of two things seem likely: 1) he gets traded in the summer, maybe on draft night or 2) he stays on the team after other moves are made.

Thompson is the toughest case here. He’s been with the team his whole career and was on the 2016 title team. From when Love went out to his first injury absence in December, Thompson was the best player on the Cavs and was the leader in the locker room when Love was out, trades were being made and Sexton was stilling finding his way. Things got bad in Cleveland, but may have gotten worse with him not around.

But Thompson also missed 39 games in 2018-19. He has a ton of minutes under his belt already at age 28 and has dealt with injuries multiples season in a row after starting his career as one of the most durable player in the league. Heading into the last year of his deal, Thompson might be best suited to play on a contender who can play him 17-20-ish minutes a night instead of the 26-30 the Cavs have played him. It would keep him fresher for the playoffs, and for the Cavs, flipping him would clear more playing time for Nance Jr. and/or Zizic. Dealing Thompson also likely means taking back a bad contract, but the Cavs shouldn’t be done yet with asset chasing. Another year of collecting picks — and maybe keeping that top-10 protected pick next year — isn’t the worst idea.

But saying goodbye to Thompson would really mark the end of an era. He’s also not that far away from really cementing himself on several of the Cavs’ all-time leaders list. There would be something satisfying about him remaining a Cav for life. This summer may decide if that’s going to happen.

Potential pieces with unclear future

In this group: David Nwaba, Ante Zizic

Nwaba stood out on the Cavs for one reason: he could defend. Go back to November and watch how Nawaba defended James Harden — it’s one of the better jobs any one player did in this season. And all season, the Cavs asked him to defend everyone from Harden to LeBron James to Giannis. Per basketball-reference, the Cavs were 3.6 points better per 100 possessions on defense with Nwaba on the floor this year. Per nba.com/stats, Nwaba had the best net rating among players who played a reasonable amount of minutes for the Cavs this year.

But for the same reason Nwaba was a bargain-bin find last summer, Cleveland probably won’t commit too much to him. He’s a crafty driver and is able to get to the line at a high rate, even if he doesn’t make enough free throws to maximize that skill. But he is not a reliable three-point shooter, finishing 2018-19 with 33.8% shooting on catch-and-shoot attempts and 34% on corner threes, per Cleaning The Glass. Teams do not respect him when he spots up and it cramps spacing in the wrong lineup constructions.

Nwaba is 27 years old, so he’s probably heading into his athletic prime. He’s a restricted free agent this year, so Cleveland has leverage in negotiations if it decides to tender him. (It would be odd if it didn’t, frankly.) A shorter-term deal for Nwaba in a summer where they perhaps draft his replacement (or at least someone like him) is maybe the safest way to proceed.

Zizic, meanwhile, is an interesting case. In the later part of the season, he was part of a starting lineup that was, by the Cavs’ standards, not half-bad. But when Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson were both back, he was relegated to the bench with Marquese Chriss slotted in ahead of him. Does that signal something about what the Cavs think of him? Or was it more circumstantial? Were there some undisclosed injuries that he just needed to rest? Time will tell.

It’s also hard to parse the stats and the film and get a clear picture of Zizic. He finished the year with a positive defensive RPM despite only being able to drop back on pick-and-roll coverage and not being much of a shot blocker. Offensively, he has a nice arsenal of moves, but sometimes has a hard time getting off clean looks inside. He also doesn’t have any real range outside the paint and some teams used that as an excuse to sag off of him and bottle up the paint. To be fair: if the Cavs had better shooting, this would be less of a concern.

This summer is maybe when the Cavs make some kind of decision on Zizic. He’s under contract through next season and a team option the year after that. He’s 21-years-old, so he’s not a finished product either. But the Cavs have five players — Zizic, Love, Thompson, Henson and Nance Jr. — under contract next season to play up front. If Cleveland is comfortable giving Zizic a more consistent rotation role next year, he could be one of the players left when moves inevitably happen.

Perhaps worth a flier for next year

In this group: Nik Stauskas, Marquese Chriss

Stauskas struggled in his first few games with the Cavs. He looked like he was pressing, perhaps feeling the pressure of trying to make a mark on a new team while trying to stick in the league. But toward the end of the year, he settled down, started making three-pointers and played hard on defense.

As an unrestricted free agent this summer, there is nothing tying Stauskas to the Cavs. He’s also not a player worth breaking the bank for – he only has a few months in his career where he’s played like a legit rotation piece. But if could be brought back cheap, Cleveland could do worse than to bring him back on a shorter deal for, at the very least, wing depth.

Chriss, meanwhile, has gotten a chance to play. He had moments and many cool dunks, but has largely been what he is: a raw, unrefined player who makes a lot of mistakes. Considering the Cavs aren’t lacking for frontcourt depth, re-signing Chriss probably should not be a priority. But what about bringing him back on a two-way deal? He’s still 21 years old and might just need a place where he can play, learn and make mistakes if he’s ever going to be better than he is right now.

One other note on Chriss: He wore No. 3 this past season, following in the footsteps of Sasha Pavlovic, Dion Waiters, Kendrick Perkins, George Hill, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Derrick Williams, Isaiah Thomas, Kobi Simmons and Cameron Payne in modern Cavs history. FOUR different Cavs wore the No. 3 jersey this season.

Certainly gone

In this group: Channing Frye, J.R. Smith

Frye is retired, off to do whatever he’s going to do in retirement while occasionally wrecking dudes in pick-up at LA Fitness after a yoga class. His final two games were among the best five moments of the Cavs season because it was clear how much he has come to mean to Cleveland and to his teammates. It’d be great if the Cavs could get another adult in a room to fill this role for next year, though. Frye would also be a great addition to the Fox Sports broadcast booth.

As for Smith, he’s definitely not going to be on the team this year. He’s basically not on the team now. The question is really just how his exodus happens. Will be he be traded on draft night? Will the Cavs just cut him and eat the small guarantee on his contract for next season? It’s a small move, but his contract could get the Cavs some asset from a team looking to shed some salary. Maybe a second-round pick or a player who is useful, but doesn’t fit on a team who wants to spend this summer or get away from the luxury tax?

Here’s hoping Smith and the Cavs are on better terms when it comes time to celebrate the 2016 title with a reunion of some kind.

Two-way considerations

In this group: Deng Adel, Jaron Blossomgame

Both Deng Adel and Jaron Blossomgame were minutes fillers for the Cavs. Neither seems like a future NBA rotation piece, although Blossomgame, who joined Chris Mihm and Antwan Jamison in wearing jersey No. 4, was solid and has the frame to provide wing depth for an NBA team. If the Cavs continue to use their two-way deals to provide depth, bringing both back would not be the worst idea. If the team decides it wants to use one or both two-way slots for a developmental prospect (a la Billy Preston) then Adel (wearing Larry Hughes’ old number) and/or Blossomgame will likely be out of the picture next season.

Where this leaves the Cavs

Before Altman and the rest of the front office get to figuring out the roster, they have to hire a coach. Whomever they hire, and what style he or she runs, will obviously shape the roster in some way. The outcome of the draft lottery and the draft itself also will have an impact on the roster. If hiring a player-development focused coach is a priority, then forming a younger-skewing roster would seem to be the broad plan for Altman and the rest of the Cavs’ front office.

But the Cavs inevitably have some decisions to make and paths to choose. Eleven players (10 after Smith is inevitably gone) are under contract for next season, but that group has overlapping skill sets. If the Cavs tried to make that 10-player group the meat of the roster next year, it would be a mismatched disaster. Change is coming. Two rookies, barring trades that net or lose the Cavs picks, will help bring about that change, regardless of if the Cavs plan to bottom out again or, like they claimed this year, attempt to make the playoffs in 2019-20.

If there is one specific area of need for Cleveland, it’s on the wing. The team was lacking wings this year and particularly needs some bigger wings to get Osman away from playing the four spot and to lessen the team feeling small on the wing in most of its lineups. Nwaba can play that spot, but played a large chunk of his minutes as a power forward.

Depending on where the Cavs’ own pick lands, the Cavs could have their pick of RJ Barrett, Jarrett Culver and De’Andre Hunter. The Cavs, particularly if they envision Sexton’s future as a scorer more than a passer, need someone to help keep the offense flowing. Dellavedova and Knight played that role in the latter half of 2018-19, and can/will as long as they aren’t traded. But a long-term option may be needed — perhaps North Carolina’s Coby White could make sense. The Rockets pick offers another chance at talent too. Free agency could yield some lower-cost options at both spots that could make sense, but the Cavs won’t have much money to spend, nor will they be an attractive market if history is any indication.

Another thing to consider: the Cavs probably need a leader of their next generation. Love can be that — at least for now — but if they can find the young guy who can truly take on that mantle in the next few years, then this summer could be huge for the Cavs. Getting Zion is the easy answer to this, but there’s a small chance the Cavs get the No. 1 overall pick and celebrate at the lottery like it’s 2011 all over again. If they don’t get Zion, do the Cavs think Barrett or Ja Morant have the potential to be the guy and coexist with Sexton and Osman, assuming they are in a position to draft either player? Or do they pick whomever they think is the best prospect regardless of how they might fit with the players already on the roster? This is primary a concern about Morant and how he and Sexton would co-exist.

Regardless of what they do, this summer is the next step in the Cavs rebuild. What is done to the roster this summer will shape the next year and impact future seasons for the team. Last season was the necessary palette cleaner in which Altman acquired assets and the team marched toward a high draft pick. Now, firmly in the post-LeBron world, this is where the Cavs’ plan will start to take shape.