Other than versatility, something the Cavs are sorely lacking on their roster is rim protection. In fact, the last time Cleveland had anything close to someone with back line defensive ability was when the team acquiring Timofey Mozgov in 2015. But, that was only for a brief moment as Mozgov underwent an unsuccessful knee procedure and then the Cavs rushed him back to the court. That forced the Cavs to turn to Tristan Thompson as their starting center and hasn’t really looked back.
Unfortunately, Thompson provides virtually no rim protection alongside Larry Nance Jr. and Kevin Love. Could there be internal improvements? Sure. There’s also players like James Wiseman in the 2020 Draft that could be the answer. But, we’re not here to focus on that. Click on the articles to read more about it. Instead, we’ll break down options in free agency this summer that the Cavs could pursue to help protect the paint.
As always, the Cavs will be strapped for cash this year and at the moment can only offer a $9.8 million mid-level exception and minimum contract deals in free agency. The reason the Cavs are so strapped for cash is Andre Drummond is planning on picking up his $28.7 million player option for the 2020-21 season. So, technically that’s a free agency move the Cavs made, except they decided on it back in February instead of this fall. With career averages of 13.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game and fitting in nicely with Cleveland’s timeline, it seems like Drummond should be the answer, right? Well, not exactly.
It would certainly help Drummond’s case if Cleveland had other good defenders to support him while protecting the rim. Drummond is a high-level athlete, but this athleticism also limits his impact as an anchor. If he goes for a highlight block and misses, it means he’s either fouling a shooter, creating an opening by being out of a position or both. But, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s preferred drop-heavy scheme fits Drummond, and would allow Drummond to shine. The thing is, it all hinges on whether or not Bickerstaff and the Cavs can get Drummond to buy in on defense. If Bickerstaff allowing Drummond to freelance offensively is any indicator, things don’t look promising. But, there is still hope that Drummond can be the answer for the Cavs as their rim protector and defensive anchor. It’ll just hopefully take time.
But, even if he buys in and the Cavs’ starting unit is defending the paint, everything goes to hell as soon as Drummond heads to the bench. That’s where the remaining available free agency options come into play for Cleveland. (This is of course assuming the Cavs do not go with Wiseman or another big man in the 2020 Draft). Sure, the Cavs could bring back Thompson on a mid-level deal but it seems likely that his final game as a Cavalier came in a win over the San Antonio Spurs. Instead, a smart play for Cleveland to address their backup center issues with a mid-level deal would be Nerlens Noel.
Noel, an unrestricted free agent this summer, has been a solid defensive bench anchor for the Oklahoma City Thunder averaging 1.5 blocks in 18.5 minutes per game. This seems to be Noel’s niche in the NBA, after bouncing around a few teams, and may be looking to cash in after only making $2.02 million last season. The problem is, due to the ongoing pandemic, teams may be leery to give out long-term deals right now. That’s where Cleveland can swoop in and offer Noel $9.8 million for his services. This would work out beautifully for all parties involved. For the Cavs, they don’t have to worry about their defense falling apart when Drummond sits. For Noel, he can have an opportunity to showcase his abilities for the 2021 offseason, especially if forced to start if the Cavs trade Drummond, and get paid then. That, and it always helps to further strengthen the connection between the Cavs and Klutch Sports.
If the Cavs don’t want to throw their mid-level exception and use it on an upgrade elsewhere, there are options using minimum contracts as well. While said options aren’t as sexy as Noel, the best possible outcome for Cleveland would Thon Maker. Maker, who is a restricted free agent this summer, likely isn’t long for the Detroit Pistons as the former first round pick can barely crack their rotation. Which is a shame since Maker is averaging 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes this season. Maker would finally get an opportunity to play in Cleveland and while he probably won’t be as impactful as Noel, would provide a nice option in relief of Drummond.
While rim protection probably isn’t the highest priority for Cleveland this offseason, it should still be something on the front office’s mind while constructing the roster. But, if the defense doesn’t improve, especially at the rim, things will only continue to be horrendous for the Cavs on that side of the floor. Drummond will be the key option going forward for Cleveland, but it shouldn’t be the only one, especially after losing Thompson and Ante Zizic in free agency.