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Moving past a rebuild: A look back at the Cleveland Cavaliers journey to Donovan Mitchell

Nothing about this team can ever be normal.

2022 NBA All-Star - Taco Bell Skills Challenge Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

There are no certainties in the NBA. A rivalry or dynasty that is expected to last for years can come to an end with a single tweet.

The Cleveland Cavaliers championship window was slammed shut before the 2016 banner reached the rafters. Any hope of repeating or competing for championships over the next half decade was shot down on July 4, 2016 when Kevin Durant decided to sign with the Golden State Warriors.

The Cavs responded to the Durant signing in an unfathomable way the following off-season when Dan Gilbert decided not to renew the contract of championship winning general manager David Griffin much to the displeasure of LeBron James. Gilbert tried to pawn the GM duties off on Chauncey Billups before ultimately promoting Koby Altman.

Altman’s first days on the job were spent trying to get either Jimmy Butler or Paul George into a Cavalier uniform. The George trade was tentatively agreed upon before the Indiana Pacers backed out and sent him to the Oklahoma City Thunder in what turned out to be the correct decision for them. Adding George to a team with James and Kyrie Irving might’ve been enough to stay competitive with the Warriors.

Ultimately, Altman was left with disgruntled stars looking for the fastest way out of town 13 months after lifting the Larry O’Brien. Shifting from talent acquisition to future asset accumulation mode was the only sensible way forward.

The rebuild unofficially began when Altman completed a trade with then-Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. Altman decided to grant Irving’s trade demand by sending him to a conference rival for a package that centered around the 2018 unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick.

The 2018 season didn’t start out as planned with Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder not living up to expectations. Altman course corrected by sending out both along with others for younger players in Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood. These trades provided James with a younger, more-athletic supporting cast but also solidified Altman’s vision. These players weren’t brought in as rentals for one season, but as younger players who would jumpstart a rebuild with their play or what they could fetch on the trade market.

James carried the team to a conference title in the first year of the rebuild but the team had as good of a chance of winning a championship as the following four Cavalier teams did. Cleveland was swept decisively in four games as Durant delivered his second championship to the Bay Area. James bolted to the Los Angeles Lakers less than a month later while the Brooklyn Nets pick fell to eighth in a draft that featured superstars Luka Doncic and Trae Young.

The 2019 season proved to be more of a recession than a renascence. Any attempt to avoid the disastrous results of the post decision era failed as the 2019 Cavs matched the 2011 team right down to the 19-63 record.

In another attempt to repeat the past, the Cavs selected their future all-star point guard in Darius Garland fifth in the ensuing draft after now New Orleans Pelicans general manager David Griffin decided to pass on pairing him with Zion Williamson. Although, any comparisons to Irving only make sense in hindsight.

Finding a silver lining with the Garland pick was difficult as the rookie guard looked over matched on both ends of the floor as he finished his rookie season averaging 11.8 points on .401/.355/.875 shooting splits with 3.9 assists and 2.6 turnovers. The advanced stats were less generous as Garland finished his rookie season with a -8.7 net rating, -1.3 win shares and a -4.38 real plus-minus which ranked 506th out of 520 players. On top of that, his fit with Collin Sexton was less than ideal from a defensive perspective as lineups that featured the duo finished the 2019-20 season with a disastrous 117.3 defensive rating in 59 games and 1,255 minutes.

Year three of what appeared to be a directionless rebuild ended with Altman trading for Andre Drummond in an attempt to address Sexton and Garland’s defensive limitations. While the Drummond trade is correctly regarded as a swing and a miss, it provided a proof of concept that resonates today. Surround a small back court with multiple bigs who can cover for them defensively.

The Nance and Drummond front court showed that a smaller backcourt could survive if surrounded with defense in the paint. Lineups with Nance and Drummond outscored opponents by 1.7 points per 100 possessions in the eight games they played together prior to the Cavs season being canceled in 2020. Nance and Drummond continued their modest success ten months later at the start of the 2020-21 season. Lineups with the duo produced a 103.9 defensive rating in 277 minutes to start that season. This led to lineups with the smaller backcourt of Garland and Sexton getting by with a 102.8 defensive rating in that time period before the trade.

That small sample size was enough proof of concept for Altman to steal Jarrett Allen from the Nets and Houston Rockets in the James Harden trade. January 14, 2021 — the day this trade went through — is the inflection point of the Cavs entire rebuild.

Things were not immediately smooth sailing for the Cavs after the Allen trade. In fact, the opposite was the case as the Cavs dropped 16 of their last 18 games to ensure the fifth worst record in the league.

The ping-pong balls fell the Cavs way in the ensuing lottery for the 2021 draft as the Cavs jumped up in the lottery for the first time during this rebuild to grab Evan Mobley. The trio of Mobley, Allen, and Garland led the team to a 44-38 record despite terrible injury luck.

Similar to the Drummond and Nance experiment a few seasons before, seeing that a backcourt with ball-dominant guards in Garland and Ricky Rubio surrounded by Mobley and Allen could produce tantalizing results. Garland paired with a guard like Rubio who could create for others and himself led to the duo outscoring opponents by 16.1 points in the 512 minutes they shared the floor. Paired with Allen and Mobley, lineups with the quartet sharing the court outscored opponents by 24.5 points per 100 possessions in 106 minutes (small sample size) of action. The Cavs had a record of 15-6 in games all four played together.

Deciding to push the chips in for a younger, more dynamic scoring version of Rubio makes sense in hindsight after reviewing how the front office has handled this rebuild with constant trial and errors before finding a concept that works and going all in with it.

The Allen trade might be the inflection point, but trading for Donovan Mitchell — poetically bookended by trades with Ainge — is the conclusion of the journey that was ultimately set off with Durant signing in Golden State and ending the title window for the reigning champions.

The Cavs aren’t a finished product. This isn’t a team that (probably) is going to win the title this upcoming season. But they aren’t rebuilding anymore. That era is over.

There is no right way to rebuild in the NBA. A lot of it comes down to ping-pong balls falling your way in the right draft, trades that happen to fall into your lap or a variety of other things beyond any one person’s control. Altman and company started the rebuild with the goat on the roster, are on their third head coach in the rebuild, have traded away two lottery, and have lost control on five future first round picks all in an attempt to build this nucleus. They haven’t nailed every decision. But, they’ve made enough of the right ones to put the Cavs in a position to compete for the next handful of seasons.

The rebuild is over. The path they are on now pushes the Cavs fully past that phase.

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