Come Thursday night, the Cavs will not acquire a player who is likely to transform the franchise. Picking fifth, there is no chance at landing Zion Williamson. And the likes of Jarrett Culver, De’Andre Hunter and Brandon Clarke might end up being solid NBA players — maybe even make an All-Star team or two — but probably not stars. Teams need stars to win.
So what’s at stake for the Cavs on Thursday, really? If there’s no star to be had, what does the draft matter? In three words: It’s still everything.
For one, this is the Cavs’ first real draft post-LeBron James. (They likely expected he was leaving last year, but they took Collin Sexton before it was officially.) Koby Altman, in picking a roster for new coach John Beilein, is laying the foundation of what the future of the Cavs will look like. If the Cavs don’t make any trades and pick two players at No. 5 and No. 26, that’s two players that the team wants to help shape the team’s future in some way. What skills those players have — or could have, if developed properly by Beilein and his staff— will set the template of what Cleveland’s roster is going to look like.
What types of players the Cavs draft will be telling, too. Say the smoke around them being interested in Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland is real and they end up taking him on Thursday. In going that route, one of two things broadly has to be true. The first is that they like how he can play with Collin Sexton and think a backcourt of two 6’2” guards is a pairing to build on. The second is that they aren’t so much worried about fit right now and are just taking the best player available.
Let’s say they take Culver or Hunter instead. In picking either player, the Cavs are taking prospects who would seem to fit the modern game (and fill a clear team need), albeit in different ways. On one hand, Culver would appear to have the higher upside on offense, and the Cavs would likely believe he could thrive as a playmaker in Beilein’s system. If Hunter is the pick, it’s a sign they feel taking one of the draft’s best defensive prospects is paramount to the team improving and working toward no longer being one of the worst defenses in the league.
Altman and his staff also could continue into asset accumulation mode — something they’ve done ever since Kevin Love went down early last season. J.R. Smith’s contract looms as the best trade chip — provided ownership is willing to eat more bad money and be firmly in the luxury tax — but there are other avenues, too. Right now, the Cavs have six players on expiring contracts, making anywhere from $9.6 million to $18.5 million in 2019-20. If it means landing another pick in this year’s draft — or even a future selection— flipping a Tristan Thompson or Matthew Dellavedova could make sense as early as Thursday night. And if the Cavs do punt on this draft in some way, it would send some kind of signal that they aren’t going to rush what Beilein called a renaissance.
The big picture for the Cavs, more than anything, is a chance to do something they haven’t ever really done. In 2003, landing LeBron took the franchise to somewhere new. In 2004, the one year the franchise had a lottery pick in the first LeBron era, they took Luke Jackson. Injuries plagued Jackson, and he appeared in a total of 46 games for the Cavs, and averaging under three points per game. Fast forward to 2011 — aka the Kyrie Irving draft — and here’s how the Cavs picked in the first round. Note that Joe Harris was picked at No. 33 overall in 2014, but injuries and the Cavs’ reliance on vets likely ended his time with Cleveland a bit too soon:
- 2011: Kyrie Irving (No. 1 overall)
- 2011: Tristan Thompson (No. 4 overall)
- 2012: Dion Waiters (No. 4 overall)
- 2012: Jared Cunningham (No. 24 overall), traded in a deal for Tyler Zeller
- 2013: Anthony Bennett (No. 1 overall)
- 2013: Sergey Karasev (No. 19 overall)
- 2014: Andrew Wiggins (No. 1 overall), traded for Kevin Love
There are key pieces of the 2016 title team on that list. Cunningham actually came back and had a cameo with the Cavs. Bennett and Wiggins — neither of whom are good NBA players — were mistakes made up for by getting Love. But LeBron was what made this group work; Love never becomes a Cav without LeBron’s return and Thompson is the only player from this group still on the team. This collection of players has talent, but no real cohesion or vision to it. Would this group have worked out had LeBron not come back? Without LeBron then — and without a clear way to get someone like LeBron now — a cohesive plan is the best hope to be good, and relevant, again.