In 5-10 years, May 13 and May 14 will be pivotal days in Cavs history. They will be two days that shaped what was to come for the franchise.
May 13 was the day the Cavs hired John Beilein as their head coach and as the man to lead the team forward. It was something of a surprising hire. Beilein’s candidacy wasn’t publicly known until the Woj bomb hit Cleveland. At 66 years old and as a former college coach, he’s also different than the assistants in their 30s and 40s the team had been interviewing.
May 14 was the draft lottery, a night that didn’t do any favors – Nick Gilbert wasn’t lucky that night. As ex-GM David Griffin won the Zion Williamson sweepstakes, the Cavs fell down to No. 5. It’s not a spot that means the Cavs won’t have a chance to pick someone good. Both Jarrett Culver and De’Andre Hunter seem interesting, for instance. But it’s not R.J. Barrett or Ja Morant, considered to be the next tier of prospects after Zion in this draft. It means the Cavs’ young core will consist of the No. 8 pick last year (Collin Sexton), a former second-round pick (Cedi Osman), the No. 5 pick this year and the No. 26 pick this year, barring trades. Ante Zizic, a former late first-round pick, might be in that group too.
What this all means is that the Cavs are going to have to build differently this time. It’s too simple to say winning the LeBron James lottery (and his return) are why the Cavs have been successful since 2003, although it’s a huge factor. It matters that Cleveland hasn’t made in the playoffs in over two decades without LeBron.
For the Cavs, the success they’ve had since 2003 is because elite talent has got them there. First, it was LeBron and then the trio of LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. It took luck and ping bong balls bouncing the right way to not only get those players, but to make it all come together and end in a title.
What the Cavs are now is not going to be that. Love is still good – when he’s healthy, at least. Maybe he’ll be an All-Star this year. Sexton was excellent as a scorer in the second half of the season. Osman and Larry Nance Jr. have showed flashes. But there’s not a sure thing on the roster at the moment. There’s not one player who is guaranteed to be one of the best 15-20 players in the league next season.
Beilein isn’t a sure thing either. His offense is considered a fit for the NBA. Nik Stauskas recently said he’s an offensive genius and Beilein is considered to be adaptable. The idea of an offense based on ball screens and three-pointers sounds great on paper, too, particularly on a team where it would maximize Love.
But it’s an unknown until it actually works. And remember the last time the Cavs hired a coach? It was that coach’s offensive system that drew rave reviews – until he was fired in the middle of his second season after his offense wasn’t ever run. (Remember how everyone talked up the offense on the preseason Brazil trip?) One difference in Beilein, though, is that he seems to be approaching his NBA transition with less ego, and more of a willingness to learn, than David Blatt did. He also seems to be someone who builds a culture that empowers people, something the Cavs have only had off and on.
Then there’s the pick. It’s too early to know exactly who the Cavs are going to take aside from that it won’t be one of Williamson, Barrett or Morant. What feels true is that Cleveland is going to pick players and actually develop them. It’s going to be on Beilein and the entire organization to empower Culver, Reddish, Hunter or whomever they take in a way that allows that player to develop. That’s at least partly how a No. 5 pick becomes Love or De’Aaron Fox and not Mario Hezonja or Kris Dunn. Traits matter too — if picking Sexton last year is any indication, Cleveland is going to pick players willing to work at their craft.
This is a process that is going to take time too. It’s something Koby Altman has said he’s committed to, which is the only mindset they can have. There’s no LeBron return that’s going to make the Cavs instant contenders again. And this year at least, there’s no lottery luck that will get them this era’s Kyrie Irving.
If the Cavs are able to build something successful this way, it will be something different. This is a franchise that has, when LeBron has not been around, operated in chaos. Even when they had a Kyrie, they took a Dion Waiters and signed an Earl Clark to try and make the No. 8 seed. There was no significant player development, no cohesive vision for the roster and no goals other than trying to be the No. 8 seed.
When the Cavs have been successful of late, it has been talent and luck and timing. They will need some of that this time too, but it can’t be everything. Another crack at a title will not come patchwork. From May 13 and 14 on, it’s the start of the Cavs needing to be something different to win.