They did it again, damn it. The Cleveland Cavaliers have somehow avoided the hellish purgatory typically levied against small-market teams in between superstar stints. The first time LeBron James left, after an initial seven-year stretch with Cleveland, it only took four seasons and four top-four Lottery picks in a row, two of them No. 1, to get back to a place where LeBron wanted to rejoin.
After LeBron won a championship for the city and bolted in 2018, it has only taken three seasons and three top-five Lottery picks in a row to get the team back to the playoffs in the East. How the hell did this happen again? Most teams suffer for a decade before climbing back into competitive play. How is a team thought to be equal parts lucky and inept back into the playoffs after losing LeBron for the second time? Let’s discuss the ways.
First, they retained two pieces from the contending team LeBron left behind after bolting for Los Angeles in Kevin Love and Cedi Osman. Osman didn’t play much on that last Finals run in 2018, but he was surrounded by a winning culture and learned what it takes to compete early.
On the other hand, Love was one of the three-pronged offensive juggernauts who fueled the 2016 championship title and stuck around in Cleveland, not by seer-like strategy by the front office, but because for a few years, his 4-yr/ $120MM contract was deemed the worst in the NBA. Love mostly put up empty stats when he was healthy and bitched and complained enough for his tirades making ESPN highlight reels. Combined with his albatross contract, he became one of the most unmoveable players in the league.
As they did in 2010 post-LeBron, the Cavs began to suck. They dropped from a .610 win percentage in 2017 – 2018 to a .232 win percentage the following year. That was followed by .292 and .306 the next two years. Here’s where luck played a role. The tank was enough to allow them to draft Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, and Isaac Okoro, three of their main core members on the perimeter.
These picks suffered injuries and had chemistry issues, which resulted in another losing record last season. That earned Cleveland a top-five pick in last year’s stacked draft class, where they selected Evan Mobley, the gem and future Rookie of the Year. While other teams with larger markets and a more profound losing history have taken decades to return to glory, the Cavs once again, under a different front office, managed to select the perfect combination of players, year after year.
Through the draft, the Cavaliers solidified four out of five starting positions for the future. This summer, Sexton, a free agent, could be traded away for another piece to the puzzle or retained next to Garland, giving the Cavs two deadly, offensive-minded guards capable of averaging 20 ppg. Garland was named a first-time All-Star this season while averaging 21 ppg and 8 apg. Mobley, meanwhile, has a superstar potential as a legit second coming of Kevin Garnett. Mobley has run away with the ROY odds by the middle of the season, in what was considered the best class since Lebron’s 2003 draft.
After the championship Cavs were broken up with LeBron’s exit, championship-winning head coach Ty Lue was inexplicably dismissed six games into the 2018-19 season after Cleveland started with a winless record. A boneheaded move like that almost signaled impending doom for the organization’s rebuild. Lue is one of the best coaches in the NBA, and the Clippers are lucky to have seen his potential by naming him Doc Rivers replacement for a title run. Yet, the Cavs endured. They hired JB Bickerstaff, who was young but respected across the league. He had filled in as head coach on an interim basis in Houston and Memphis, but produced very little success in the win column. However, Bickerstaff proved to have the right ear and patience to grow and nurture the Cavs core, managing egos and finding ways to balance minutes in the backcourt between his star Lottery guards — the awkwardly nicknamed “SexLand” duo.
Three general managers have been responsible for the accelerated Cavaliers rebuilding over the last decade. The first rebuild was accelerated thanks to shrewd drafting by then-GM Chris Grant and a couple of trade fleeces by successor David Griffen. Griffen’s successor, Koby Altman, did a better job than those two combined by selecting every current Cavs lottery pick on the roster and making some of the best trades, if not the best trades, in Cavs franchise history.
The most significant transaction was including themselves in the James Harden Brooklyn deal to net themselves young center Jarrett Allen, who the Houston Rockets decided against acquiring for some reason. Allen would be a free agent the following summer, and the Cavs were in desperate need of a starting center to pair with their talented perimeter players. All the Cavs had to give up in the deal was Danté Exum, a 2022 unprotected first-round draft pick via Milwaukee to Houston, and the lesser of Utah and Cleveland’s 2024 second-round draft picks to Brooklyn. A fleece indeed. Allen has evolved into an All-Star this season and is one of the best rebounders in the league.
Also involved in that three-team deal, a young wing, Caris LeVert, went to Houston before quickly being rerouted to Indiana. The Cavs made a shrewd, under-the-radar move before this season’s deadline to add LeVert to their depth in exchange for the seriously injured Ricky Rubio, their 2022 unprotected first-round pick, and two future second-rounders. Another fleece was in place.
The Cavs front office has shown an ability to see treasure in other teams’ trash. Early in the season, in a move the Bulls have to regret, they nabbed sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen in a three-team trade while giving up Larry Nance Jr. These trades and the retention of Osman and Love helped bolster the Cavs depth for a grueling full season. Once Rubio went down early this season, they quickly traded for veteran Rajon Rondo to bolster their backcourt and locker room pride.
Most young cores rarely shoot out of the gate to make the playoffs this quickly. Even fewer watch two of their young core make All-Star teams and their rookie win ROY. They have a big decision with Sexton this summer. They will have the flexibility to be in a good position no matter what they choose to do. Trading him could give them additional depth or free up cap space while retaining him would solidify their potent backcourt for years to come. They have a bonafide cornerstone in Mobley, which the offense will eventually center around, making their supporting cast even more valuable as complementary pieces in the starting lineup. Mobley can shoot, pass, rebound, block, and play defense at an elite level. His ceiling is sky high, and the team will be his in a year or two, pairing him with two All-Stars while owning every draft pick from 2024 on.
The Cavs have mastered small market maneuvering to accelerate their rebuild and build a roster able to contend in a year or two. Once Love’s contract comes off the books in the 2022-2023 season, they will be in a position to go after another star, perhaps leading to a third LeBron reunion. No matter what happens, Altman deserves consideration for Executive of the Year for the job he has done through trades and the draft while showing every team how to build the right way, fast, efficient, and sustainably. Just like the product he has put on the court.