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The Cleveland Cavaliers should learn from their past to help their current rebuild

While pushing for the playoffs can be an exciting idea in theory it also can have the potential to set you back years if it all goes wrong.

Golden State Warriors v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Lauren Bacho/Getty Images

Rebuilds are tricky. Some teams take the shaky seasons and turn those tough times into formidable teams that make post-season runs as we saw with the Atlanta Hawks. There are also teams like the Sacramento Kings who just spent their 15th season in a row hoping that the ping-pong balls would fall just right for them to escape purgatory.

If building NBA teams back up from the abyss of non-relevance was easy, then general managers would not be as highly sought after as they are in today’s league. And when you are a small market team like the Cleveland Cavaliers, the margin for error gets smaller in these rebuilds. I don’t think we will ever get the announcement from a major star uttering the words “this summer I’m taking my talents to the 216” in a tweet or sit-down with Woj.

When teams like the Cavs rely so heavily on building teams from the ground up with no injections of star talent via free agency, every move has to be methodically thought out. That only leaves two ways to build: draft well and trade savvily.

Luckily the Cavaliers find themselves in a situation where they have four promising young pieces to build around. Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Issac Okoro (via the draft) and Jarrett Allen (via trade). Cleveland is now in a position where they feel the rebuild should take a step forward towards playoff aspirations. While this sounds nice, the situation seems like it could reek of desperation. There was a time in the Cavs’ recent history where the franchise decided enough was enough and they were ready to make a push and they got pretty lucky despite some misfires.

Let’s go back to 2013. The Cavaliers were entering their fourth season in the post-LeBron James era and things were beginning to look bright again. Kyrie Irving, the first overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft had built up the skills and popularity as one of the most promising young stars in the NBA. Irving was also accompanied by other young players in Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. Not to mention, they just (by whatever deal Dan Gilbert made with the devil) landed the first overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. With that first pick, they took Anthony Bennett, a score-first forward who many, including scouts and writers, thought had a high ceiling. Jonathan Tjarks, then at SB Nation, wrote things such as “if you put Bennett in a 1-on-1 tournament against the rest of this class, he would win pretty handily.”

Along with the promising young talent, they brought in some veterans to solidify the roster. That summer, they signed Jarrett Jack (four-years, $25 million) and Earl Clark (two-years, $9 million). Jack, in theory, provided the Cavs with reliable backup point guard play. As magical as Irving was on the court, the issue was having him stay on the court. Irving had missed 38 of his first 148 games in his career. Meanwhile, Clark was viewed as a viable option to compete for the starting job at small forward. Both Jack and Clark also joined established veterans on the roster such as Anderson Varajão and CJ Miles. The team looked to be building with a clear plan to be a competent team led by the return of beloved head coach Mike Brown.

They also added Andrew Bynum. Bynum was signed by the Cavs to an incentive-heavy two-year contract. Bynum, a former All-Star, essentially played his way out of Philadelphia after not playing one game for the 76ers all season. Bynum’s career was in a spiral and there didn’t look to be many teams willing to call his number. Luckily for Bynum, Cleveland was desperate to pair Kyrie Irving with what they perceived to be another star.

The Cavs today find themselves in a similar stage of the rebuild. They have suffered three losing seasons in a row but the situation isn’t as grim as it appeared to be the first time LeBron left. They have gone a combined 60-159 in three seasons. In the first rebuild, they went 64-166 in the same span of years. While the record doesn’t reflect it, the Cavs were more prepared for LeBron’s departure the second time around and started stacking the cupboard with assets. The moves that GM Koby Altman has made allowed the Cavs to have four high-ceiling young players with Garland, Sexton, Okoro, and Allen. However, like the past teams, the Cavs are now tired of losing and want to ramp up their rebuild with a massive shakeup to the roster by either signing on key veterans or trading future picks for a star to take this team to new heights.

The only caveat is that the Cavs don’t have the luxury of cap space to throw around to overpay free agents to come to Cleveland. They are against the wall with Jarrett Allen's contract extension situation. It’s going to end up that the mid-level exception will allow the Cavs to bring in a serviceable veteran with names like Doug McDermott, Alex Caruso, and T.J McConnell being thrown around. The issue is that like the Cavs’ teams of the past, the team now needs another primary ball-handler to take the reins on the second unit. This would allow Garland to rest and Sexton to continue to grow as a secondary playmaker and off-ball scorer.

With the incoming third overall pick, it echoes the same message that the Anthony Bennett draft pick had for the team in 2013. This was their chance to have a big talent come to Cleveland and take them to the next level. However, unlike the 2013 draft, this is a very deep draft with five or six prospects (depending on who you talk to) with the chance to be a star in this league. With names available like Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs, and Jonathan Kuminga the Cavs could make a serious upgrade to the talent level of their roster. Not to say that the Cavs are an untalented team, but if you were playing as the Cavs GM in 2K’s My League mode, the best pieces of the roster would have A- to B+ potential, and with the third pick we have a player with A to A+ potential. Even in the golden years, reports were coming out that LeBron was struggling to recruit free agents to come to the Cavs because they wanted to go to the bigger cities like Los Angeles and Miami. So take LeBron out of the picture and imagine Collin Sexton telling a player to come to Cleveland and try to guess how long it would take for that player to hang up the phone.

Let’s go back to the past again. It’s now Jan. 6, 2014, and the Cavs are struggling with an 11-23 record. The wheels are falling off fast for the young Cavs’ team as there are rumors of rifts between Irving and Waiters about ball-hogging (sounds familiar). The first overall pick Anthony Bennett is struggling to find his shot and is only playing a measly 10.1 minutes a game. Despite Bennett playing way fewer minutes than a first overall pick of his class should play, he was posting a depressingly low 1.1 PER. To put that into perspective, James Wisemen, a player in this year’s rookie class who many thought struggled on the Warriors, put up an 11.5 PER this past season.

The Bynum experiment also came to a bitter end due to poor play and his contract close to becoming fully guaranteed for 12.5 million dollars. Bynum was traded to the Chicago Bulls. Bynum and multiple protected first-rounders were sent to the Bulls for Luol Deng. Deng was viewed as the forward that would fill the hole LeBron left three years ago. Deng was also brought in to help keep Kyrie happy as Deng, like Irving, was a Duke alum. Deng also brought a veteran presence and two-way play that was certainly not being provided by Bennett or Earl Clark. The Cavs’ season at this point was not lost as they were only three games out of the playoff picture, so this was seen as them making a serious push.

That wouldn’t be the only move the Cavs would make. On Feb. 20, they acquired center Spencer Hawes from the 76ers for Clark, backup center Henry Sims, and two second-round picks. What stands out about both of these trades is that both Hawes and Deng were on expiring deals and the Cavs were not guaranteed that either would stick around after this season. The sense was that Deng, after only a month with the team, was not planning on returning to the Cavs after free agency. The team was shopping Deng during the trade deadline but ended up going all-in on the trade for Hawes instead. The Cavs were still three games out of the playoffs despite the move for Deng with a dismal record of 22-33. (Today, for what it’s worth, that would have placed Cleveland in the play-in hunt.)

The Cavs’ current rebuild is in a similar stage of surveying the trade market for immediate upgrades to their roster both in the sense of talent and NBA experience. Ideas of trading Kevin Love have always been a hot topic in Cleveland since LeBron left, but the Cavs don’t want to give up Love for anything they see as an uneven trade. However, after this recent Team USA flame out, I would guess trading Love is next to impossible. Whether it is injuries or temper issues, Love has shown a distaste for the rebuild and that doesn’t exactly tempt other teams in the league to dump assets for a banged-up and pissed-off Kevin Love. Trade ideas like Love for Mavs’ outcast Kristaps Porzingis or now traded Al Horford have floated around. Unfortunately, those types of moves remind me more of the Deng and Hawes situations where the Cavs seem to be closing their eyes and swinging for players who are providing a name more than substance.

Love isn’t the only name floating in trade talks. The first step in their post Lebron era, Collin Sexton is now also being shopped around. Sexton, who has been a great value for where the Cavs picked him (8th pick in 2018 Draft) is hoping to get a max extension to reward his efforts. On a monetary front, the Cavaliers do not seem to be in agreement as of the moment and appear to be calling around to see what Sexton could net them in return. Trading away Sexton would remove a young piece from the core and I believe that the Cavs would want a proven veteran in return for Sexton. However, the rumors seem to be centered around picks and young players like Obi Toppin and Tyler Herro.

The concept of trading young players because you do not want to pay them, only to receive young players in return, is foolish in my opinion. If your main reason to offload Sexton is that you don’t want to pay him, what is your endgame with the next young player you get? Let him walk? If the Cavaliers decide to trade Sexton and/or Love (maybe together?) they should look to get a proven veteran who can still lead the team both on and off the court.

So, what did all those “big” trades amount to for the 2013-2014 Cavaliers? The Cavs went 11-16 after the Hawes trade and missed the playoffs with an overall record of 33-49. They finished as the 10th seed in the East (now a play-in spot) and things certainly looked bleak with both Hawes and Deng looking to leave. The Cavs were lucky enough to have all their failed moves in the 2013-2014 season lead to landing the first overall pick in 2014 (1.7% chance). This was the final piece to allure the golden goose LeBron James to come home and make us all forget the mistakes the Cavs’ brass made. By the time the Cavs were done overhauling the roster under LeBron only Irving, Thompson, and Varejão were left.

For that previous iteration of the Cavs, their aspirations made them accelerate their rebuild to the point where pieces they acquired didn’t alter the path of the franchise.

The Cavs this offseason face the same obstacle of trying to make an aggressive push toward the playoffs and nationwide relevancy. It does suck to miss the playoffs year after year, however, what sucks, even more, is when the desperate moves made by the Cavs make their future bleaker by setting themselves back years. LeBron coming back a third time is not in the cards to save the Cavs from themselves and their terrible decision-making if this new version of the team flames out in a horrific fashion. LeBron’s homecoming was kind of a neuralyzer to the mind of Cavs fans to how bad the 2014-2015 season could have been. So before you start your Porzingis and McCollum mock trades, just think about if you will be happy with these types of moves when the Cavaliers’ roster next season looks more lost in direction than hopeful.