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This isn’t the same as the last time LeBron James left the Cavs

There are some weird similarities, but it’s not the exact same situation.

Indiana Pacers v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cavs have been here before. Life after LeBron James 2.0, just as life after LeBron 1.0, has resulted in a team that went from contender to bottom-feeder in a moment:

2009-10 with LeBron James: +6.8 net rating (second in the league), 61 wins, made Eastern Conference semifinals

  • 2010-11 without LeBron James: -9.5 net rating (30th in the league), 19 wins, missed playoffs
  • 2017-18 with LeBron James: 1.0 net rating (14th in the league), 50 wins, made NBA Finals
  • 2018-19 without LeBron James, aka Collin Sexton’s rookie year: -10.0 net rating (30th in league), 19 wins, missed playoffs.

The drop-off continued into the second-year post LeBron:

  • 2011-12 without LeBron James, aka Kyrie Irving’s rookie season: -7.6 net rating (29th in the league, only better than the expansion Charlotte Bobcats), 21 wins, missed playoffs
  • 2019-20 without LeBron James, aka this past season: -7.9 net rating (29th in the league), 10 wins, missed playoffs/Orlando bubble

There is a case to be made that the Cavs the second time around are actually worse off than the first time. (If you want that argument, Tom Ziller made it in a recent edition of his newsletter.) The crux of it is that in version 2.0, the Cavs don’t have a player as good as Irving to build around. Another LeBron return is also out of the question, at least in a way that matters. In that sense, Cleveland has much more work to do this time around.

The Cavs, though, have better talent overall this time. Kevin Love might not be around forever — and is nearing the end of his prime — but he’s better than anyone the Cavs had at the beginning last time. He’s not Antwan Jamison, a washed veteran holdover from a failed attempt to support LeBron. Love’s contract hasn’t aged well, but at least he can still contribute. In a world where he didn’t miss most of the 2018-19 season, the transition might have gone a little bit smoother than it did.

For all his warts, Andre Drummond is a good player to have for at least a little bit longer if he buys into his role. (Whether that happens is an entirely other question. His freelancing before the season stopped made him more harmful than helpful.) Cleveland also acquired him for nothing, so it’s hard to fault them for acquiring him and trying to make it work. Larry Nance Jr. is at least replacement level and has shown growth as a shooter and a passer. The first time around, the older talent was not nearly as good.

The young core is still a question mark. Sexton isn’t Irving, but he’s improved each year in the NBA. He’s a real player even if his role isn’t defined yet. The organization is enamored with Kevin Porter Jr., who showed real two-way flashes as a very raw 19-year-old rookie in a weird season. Christian Eyenga, another athletic wing picked No 30 overall, Porter is not.

As for Darius Garland, he showed some flashes and was better than expected as a passer and probably needs a real summer after he only played five games in college. In his own words, he was not himself this year. Cedi Osman is probably overstretched in his current role, but he can be a rotation piece on a good team. Dylan Windler is well thought of in the organization and should get minutes in his delayed rookie year. On top of that, the Cavs will be adding another high pick (maybe LaMelo Ball?) in the 2020 draft to that group. None are LeBron. But that’s beyond what the Cavs had last time, when all they had two years in last time with Irving and Tristan Thompson with the Dion Waiters-Tyler Zeller draft on deck.

There’s also the question of coaching. The John Beilein hiring was a disaster in every way, but J.B. Bickerstaff is solid and respected by the team in a way Beilein wasn’t. He only coached eight games before the season stopped, but the effort level was better under him. Bickerstaff can build something with what’s there, although it’s unclear what that is exactly. He and the organization are both talking playoffs next season, which would be a massive leap from this year. But if things break right, being better than the 2012-13 Cavs (who won 24 games and were 27th in net rating) doesn’t feel out of the question.

What comes beyond that is the real question. The 2013-14 Cavs won 33 games (and re-hired Mike Brown!) but missed the team’s stated goal of making the playoffs. That was also the year the signed Earl Clark, Andrew Bynum and Jarrett Jack in an effort to support the roster. Matched with spotty drafting post-Kyrie (Waiters and Anthony Bennett most notably) the team was heading nowhere. The approach this time is different based on the young players alone, but the outcome could still be the same. It could also be different. At the very least, Koby Altman built a team with upward momentum, or at least the potential for it, in a way Chris Grant never did.

All that said, the two versions of the post-LeBron Cavs are weirdly similar. Due to one player leaving — who is arguably the best player off all-time — the Cavs went from contenders to bottom feeders. In both instances, they shuffled through coaches and suffered long stretches of incompetency. In both cases, two years into life after LeBron left no clear indication about where the team was headed. Worth noting: the Cavs have not made the playoffs without LeBron on their roster in over two decades.

This time, though, the Cavs aren’t entirely floundering. There’s something of a plan in place and some interesting talent to work with. That’s more than last time around. That’s something.