Regardless of what you think of the Cavs’ current roster or individual players on it, an undeniable reality is that it’s still lacking in high-end talent. That’s in both top-20 players (or someone who seems likely go get there) or players that are locks to help the Cavs form their own version of the pre-Kyrie Nets, Raptors or Thunder.
Let’s start with the former. Having a top-20 player does not guarantee success on its own in the NBA. (See: Bradley Beal on the Wizards or Minnesota-era Kevin Love.) But it starts to give you something to build around and center your identity on. If done correctly, this model can get you somewhere. That is better than where Cleveland is at now.
Right now, the Cavs don’t have a player close to that level. Love is still good, but he’s not great like Wolves-era Love anymore. He plays a different brand of basketball, partly because the league has changed and partially because Cleveland doesn’t ask of him what Minnesota did. Drummond isn’t at that level either, although he’s probably closer.
Collin Sexton can get to a higher level, but a climb to the top-20 would be a massive leap from where he is now. Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. aren’t close to that level either. It’s also true that pegging what any of those three players is exactly is really hard to do and unfair considering the last two years. And yet, Sexton is somehow already a season away from being extension eligible.
Trying to find high-end talent is hard. It’s part of why the Cavs did the Drummond trade back in February. Drummond has clear warts as a player, but he’s a former All-Star and the Cavs gave up nothing that mattered for him. So issues aside, that kind of deal makes some sense for a franchise that isn’t likely to land an elite player via free agency.
The other model feels more likely for the Cavs to accomplish. The three teams mentioned above – the pre-Kyrie Nets, the current Thunder and the current Raptors – all built successful teams without getting one elite player. All three nailed player development aided by good coaching and smart, cost-effective signings. And in the Thunder’s case, it involved getting Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, Chris Paul and truck load for picks when it was made clear to them that the Paul George-Russell Westbrook era was done.
Cleveland is talking the talk about building in that fashion. When they signal they want to make the playoffs next year, it’s more about having goals and trying to establish a culture of accountability instead of operating aimlessly. And in Sexton, Garland, Porter Jr. and even Dylan Windler, the Cavs have players who they think can be good and should get better. Giving shots to Dean Wade and Jordan Bell plays into this too. (This logic applies to Cedi Osman too, as they kept him at the end of the last LeBron era instead of jettisoning him for a veteran.) -
The next steps are a) continuing roster development and b) having patience. This is going to take time to actually establish something that could last. So for at least next year, it involves understanding that it’s about wins and lessons, not wins and losses. It means not firing JB Bickerstaff just because he didn’t do everything perfectly or get the team to the playoffs next year.
The Cavs are going to keep adding to their young core too in the next few drafts too. The 2020 pick won’t be the franchise changing guy, but Isaac Okoro or Devin Vassell or someone else could help lay the foundation. Then, if lottery luck goes in the Cavs’ favor, Cade Cunningham or Jonathan Kuminga or someone else could be the last piece to add. And they might be the best young piece. A grouping of, say, Cunningham-Sexton-Porter Jr.-Garland-Okoro-Osman is more interesting than any collection young players the Cavs have had in a long time. On paper, that’s a deeper, better group than what the Cavs came away with between 2011 and 2014.
There are other moves to be made too. Maybe Love is flipped for something of future use or at least increase financial flexibility. Maybe Drummond is too, assuming he opts in and the Cavs don’t plan to extend him. (If you ask people around the league about what the Cavs should be, many will tell you that the Cavs’ best option is to go younger as soon as possible, sans a few adults in the room.) Even guys like Wade and Bell are worth giving a shot to because they have NBA talent, are still young and don’t cost anything. If they don’t work, they are let go and there’s no harm done.
In short: The Cavs don’t have a ton of guys who are long-term proven NBA players right now. Love, Drummond and Larry Nance Jr. (who feels like the likeliest to stick with the current young group as it ages) have been there, albeit not as focal points. Sexton, Garland and Porter Jr. haven’t played meaningful games yet. They each do things that are interesting and project to translate into those settings. But it’s hard to know how they’ll perform until they get the chance to do so.
On top of all that, an extended, unplanned offseason because of the ongoing pandemic doesn’t make this any easier. The Cavs not going to Orlando makes sense for purely health reasons. But if they go close to a year without a real game, there will be consequences we don’t understand yet.
Regardless of what those guys currently ae, the Cavs still need to add as many players that they think are high-end talents as possible. If they can draft or trade for a star, that’s great. But adding the other kind too – and getting to place where the roster has eight or so rock-solid pieces – is needed too. This is a team that still needs all the talent it can get its hands on. Cleveland cannot afford to be too picky.