As of Thursday afternoon, the NBA is exactly three weeks away from its Feb. 6 trade deadline. The Cleveland Cavaliers have seen a nice uptick in play from the exact guys you’d want to see have a nice uptick in play: Darius Garland is showing signs of real vision, Collin Sexton has made some threes, and Cedi Osman is removing doubt about the wisdom of his contract extension — who knows what the ceiling ends up being for him, but it’s not enough money to panic about when he can sustain stretches of decent play.
So that’s the good news. There is more good news. If the season ended today the Cavs would have the fourth highest chance of winning the draft lottery and selecting first overall. The lowest they could fall at the moment would be eighth. They only keep their pick if it stays in the top 10, so they’re on track to hold onto it. In order to have higher than a 30% chance of losing their pick, eight different NBA teams would have to finish with a worse record than them. To put it simply, it’s extremely unlikely that the Cavs are good enough to lose their draft pick.
Could they get better at the trade deadline? It’s possible, but unlikely. In fact, it’s much more likely that they will get worse. Let’s take a look at where the team might go with a roster that is bad, but intriguing, and what it might start to mean for next season.
- The elephant in the room is obviously Kevin Love. He’s not an easy person to trade, even if it’s quite clear he’s ready to go. Potential trades involving players like Hassan Whiteside and Gordon Hayward are more difficult to imagine now than they were this summer, mainly because those players have been pretty good — even if they’re still overpaid, those teams aren’t necessarily in a rush to move on, or to potentially downgrade in talent. That being said, the league has the Los Angeles teams and the Milwaukee Bucks, but is relatively open to those who might want to try and win it all now. A team could potentially talk themselves into Love.
- If they do, I am hopeful that the Cavs bring back someone who can play power forward that shoots the ball. Darius Garland needs a pick and pop partner, and Larry Nance, Jr.’s improvement from distance notwithstanding, it isn’t on the current roster if Love is not. If the Miami Heat are at the table, perhaps bringing Kelly Olynyk back in a Kevin Love deal is possible. You aren’t looking to maintain Kevin Love’s level of play, but you want someone that won’t impede Garland or even Collin Sexton’s growth with a lack of spacing or competence.
- Deals to move Love might require giving up a first round pick of some sort. It’s a bummer, but it’s possible. Take a Hayward for Love swap — Hayward has just one more year on his deal and has been arguably better than Love this season. Wings are more valued around the league. Would you give up a protected first and Love for Hayward? You probably wouldn’t feel good about it. These dynamics could lead to the Cavs waiting until the summer to unload the power forward, but again, you’re half-hoping a team will think Love pushes them over the top right now.
- What about the rest of the Cavs roster? At various points in time it’s been reported that just about everyone is available via trade. Does Tristan Thompson want an extension? He may be the Cavalier with the most trade value. Simply on a dollar basis, it’s easier to make contracts match when it’s $18 million for Thompson vs. Love’s $30 million. He’s a proven playoff performer who has had a spring in his step all year. If nothing else, people need to stop bringing him up as a buyout candidate. He has positive trade value, and even if he doesn’t, the Cavs are not in the luxury tax and thus have no incentive to save money or give up flexibility or assets for the heck of it.
- On a very basic level, of course, the Cavs are trying to add draft picks and young players and should be willing to take on salary for at least next season to achieve that. One piece of this that we can’t really know about: what the team - Koby Altman, Dan Gilbert, whoever - really thinks about Collin Sexton. He’s been the subject of angst from his teammates on a few occasions now, but has played better of late. Chris Fedor, covering the team for cleveland.com, has been fairly consistent in defending the young guard, and it’s fair to wonder how much of that pushback to criticism has come from the team’s front office. Not a bad sign for them to stand up for their 21-year-old guard, by the way! But I’m taking it as a hint that they still like Sexton, and that makes me think he’ll at least last the season in Cleveland. There were times earlier in the year where I thought he was a stealth trade candidate. Instead, Jordan Clarkson is gone (remember the talk of him getting an extension before the season?) and it’s a lot easier to stagger Garland and Sexton minutes.
- This leaves Brandon Knight, John Henson, Matthew Dellavedova and Ante Zizic as the other expiring deals. The biggest issue with finding a bad contract to take off another team’s hands is that most long term deals last just four years now, meaning there just aren’t as many debilitating deals around the league. An expiring for a deal lasting multiple years doesn’t necessarily get a team out of the luxury tax in the short term, and those teams could just wait until the summer if the goal was to create cap space. All of which is to say, I’m not expecting much, even though Henson and Knight could potentially help a couple teams.
Some predictions, then: Kevin Love to the Miami Heat. Collin Sexton stays. Tristan Thompson stays. Brandon Knight is dealt.