One of the things that made the 2015 and 2016 Cavs and Warriors rivalry so intriguing was how fundamentally different they were built. Both teams built around their stars, but those stars required different players.
Stephen Curry is, for the lack of a better term, the ultimate specialist. His ability to shoot off the dribble from anywhere led to some of the craziest offensive seasons we’ve ever seen. However, Curry doesn’t have many elite skills outside of his shooting which meant he needed others who could cover up his weaknesses. The Warriors filled out their roster with versatile two-way players in Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, and to a lesser extent, Harrison Barnes.
Conversely, the Cavs had the ultimate jack of all trades in LeBron James. James’s ability to do absolutely everything on the floor turned their other star players into specialists. Kyrie Irving had shown the ability to initiate an offense as the lead guard before, but he was asked to be an isolation scorer and spot up shooter because James generally initiated the offense. Kevin Love was a low post threat who could generate offense in the post and on the elbow in Minnesota, but there’s no point of running your offense in that way when you LeBron. As a result, Love was used primarily as an elite floor spacer.
The Cavs then filled out their roster with players who had specific elite skills but were otherwise limited. Tristan Thompson is one of the best rebounders in the league. J.R. Smith and Channing Frye were among the best shooters at their position. Iman Shumpert was brought to Cleveland because of his perimeter defense. David Griffin traded for Timofey Mozgov because they needed a rim protector.
This philosophy of adding specialist type players around LeBron was successful, but things have changed. The Cavs have been operating in a post LeBron world for the past two seasons and there isn’t any more versatility on the roster now than there was when he left. Nearly every player on the roster has a limited skillset.
You don’t need to look much further than the last two drafts to see how versatility is still an issue. Collin Sexton was drafted as being a high-volume scorer who had a reputation for being a solid defender. Sexton has made tremendous strides in being an efficient scorer, but even his most ardent defenders would admit that he needs to improve as a defender and playmaker.
Koby Altman and company also knew what they were getting with Darius Garland. Garland has a high ceiling as a shooter and playmaker, but is limited in almost every other facet. Having an undersized point guard who is poor defensively means that the rest of the starting lineup would need to be constructed to compensate for his weaknesses even if he reaches his ceiling as a shooter.
The Dillon Windler pick also falls into this category. While Windler proved to be a good rebounder at Belmont, there’s reason to be skeptical about whether that skill will translate over to the NBA. The most likely outcome for Windler is him being a three-point specialist.
Kevin Porter Jr. has the most versatile skillset among the Cavs’ recent first round picks. He’s shown flashes of being a good defender and distributor along with the ability to score at all three levels. With that said it’s hard to predict what the Cavs have in Porter. At the minimum, he has the skillset and body to develop into a versatile player.
The veterans on the roster could also be classified as specialist type players as well. Andre Drummond is a good rebounder and traditional center, but he has had a tough time staying on the court when opponents decide to go small. Cedi Osman hasn’t developed into the defender many were hoping he would. Kevin Love is primarily a scoring floor spacer at this point in his career. Larry Nance Jr. is the only veteran that goes against this trend as he has taken steps in becoming a better shooter, but he’s still a question mark considering he is essentially a four defensively and a five offensively.
Good versatile players are hard to come by. The rationale behind the recent first round picks is likely the result of taking who they felt felt was the best available player. While there were players who fit the mold of a versatile player taken after Sexton and Garland, there really weren’t much better options in those slots who were willing to come to Cleveland. Because of that, it’s hard to fault them for their picks.
Roster building is often a fool’s errand until you have a foundation to build around. I don’t believe the Cavs have that foundation yet. However, if the Cavs believe that their recent first rounds picks are a core worth building around, they will need to find much more versatile players to plug into place around them. As it stands, there are many specialists on the roster with no one to build around.