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Koby Altman Reflects On Outstanding Recent Season, Looks to the Future
A renowned columnist who’s covered the league for decades once stated that there are two things that an NBA team can sell (and its fans will buy): Winning and Hope.
Right now, the Wine & Gold are in the enviable position of having both. And on Tuesday afternoon in Independence, the team’s architect – Cavs President of Basketball Operations, Koby Altman – reflected on Cleveland’s outstanding campaign after the smoke had cleared following last week’s season-ending loss to Atlanta.
This year’s season was unlike any other in franchise history – doubling their win total from one season ago and surprising the NBA universe for much of the 2021-22 season. Cleveland put two All-Stars in the midseason classic hosted on their home floor, won 40 games without LeBron James for the first time since the late-90s and nearly reached the Playoffs after wildly exceeding expectations all year long.
More than anything, they put the Association on notice: these young Cavaliers are gonna be a major problem for years to come.
”(This team) captivated the city, they captivated the fanbase – and it was done the right way,” said Altman, who originally joined the Cavaliers back in 2012. “They were playing the right way: unselfish, great character players that really bought in. I give J.B. Bickerstaff a lot of credit for creating an identity, creating a culture, a buy-in about ‘team.’
”This was a team that was unique for Cleveland, and I think you saw the fanbase really embrace this team. It was uniquely theirs – and that’s what I’m most proud of.
As the team gears up for another critical summer, it’s worth recalling that the picture wasn’t quite so rosy heading into this season. The team had combined for 60 wins over the previous three years and had barely played a meaningful game after the All-Star Break over that span. Over the offseason, they’d also dealt one of the team’s most popular players in Larry Nance Jr.
But the front office’s offseason moves – the acquisition of Lauri Markkanen for Nance, the culture-shifting trade of Taurean Prince for Ricky Rubio and, maybe most importantly, the selection of Even Mobley out of USC after earning the No. 3 pick in the Lottery.
Markkanen allowed J.B. Bickerstaff to play with a jumbo lineup that immediately made Cleveland a matchup nightmare. Rubio’s leadership, skill and savvy altered the entire trajectory of the team and Mobley, nightly, exhibited his otherworldly talents on both ends of the floor.
Mobley is one of Altman’s prized picks on a team that’s been built through the Draft. He struck gold with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland in successive seasons and he’s looking for big things from Isaac Okoro, who went No. 5 overall in 2020, and is still trying to find his identity on the offensive side of the floor.
”We want to ‘unlock’ (Isaac) more on the offensive end,” said Altman. “There’s so much more he can do. Last year, towards the end of the season, we saw his offensive evolution. We put the ball in his hands more. So, it’s on us to unlock his offensive ability. But you saw tremendous growth out of him. The shooting piece obviously evolved, and obviously we know what he brings to the table from a defensive standpoint.”
Altman pointed out that the rugged sophomore from Auburn shot 44 percent from deep – (.442, .514 from the floor overall) – after the All-Star Break.
”(Okoro)’s attitude, his tenacity, his toughness – we’re going to need that, especially when we get to the Playoffs. So, we just need to figure out how to unlock him on the offensive end. And that’s on us.”
Altman also discussed the one silver lining to not reaching the Playoffs, and that’s the caveat in the Caris LeVert trade that allows the Wine & Gold to retain their first rounder in this June’s Draft. (The Cavs also have the 39th and 56th overall picks this year.)
"We haven’t accomplished anything yet. So how do we keep that hunger, that humbleness and attack this offseason so we’re really ready to hit the ground running come September?"
”Taking a step back now, and looking at the Draft, I like this Draft – I really do,” smiled Altman. “Where our pick lands, there’s nothing wrong with having another young player you can develop. Our scouting department – led by GM Mike Gansey and assistant GM Brandon Weems – they do an incredible job, and so they were disappointed, but they were also like: ‘Ok, Koby, these are the guys that we’re all excited about that we’re going to be right in the mix for.’
”So I don’t want to say let’s trade it again and get somebody else. I think there’s a nice niche here for a young prospect to really grow without a ton of expectation and can grow and become a rotational player.”
The Cavaliers were crushed with injuries over the entire season, and they truly took their toll after the All-Star Break. J.B. Bickerstaff started 29 different lineups and Cleveland’s roster lost a combined 291 games over the course of the campaign. Kevin Love led the Cavaliers with 74 appearances this year after playing in a combined 103 in the previous three seasons combined – missing only games due to COVID.
Altman knows the Cavaliers will have to continue to get better, and deeper.
”There’s a few positions that we’re always targeting,” said Altman. “Shooting is certainly something that’s always interesting for us, and we definitely know how J.B. wants to play, with size and length. So, we’ll look for that. But I also want this team to appreciate the success that they’ve had and grow even more. There’s no ceiling right now. Darius Garland is 22 years old. Evan is 20. Jarrett is still 23 years old. Lauri Markkanen is 24 and Isaac Okoro is 21. So, let’s see what the next step is for these guys.”
Most of the Cavaliers went on their way for the summer. Collin Sexton, of course, was at CCC working out. But for the most part, the squad has left to recharge the batteries for what promises to be an even bigger year in 2022-23 – one that’ll also come with the weight of expectations.
In that respect, Altman knows that, before long, J.B.’s junkyard dogs will begin trickling back into the gym.
”What we don’t want to lose grasp of is what got us here: Which is the hard work in the summer. The hard work in the summer. The player development in the summer. The individualized plans in the summer,” said the Cavs top man. “How do we get together as a group so we can improve our chemistry? That really helped us going into this season and so we don’t want to lose sight of that.
”We haven’t accomplished anything yet. So how do we keep that hunger, that humbleness and attack this offseason so we’re really ready to hit the ground running come September.”
So while the young guns that took Cleveland (and much of the NBA) by storm this past year licks their recent wounds on the beach in Cabo or Cancun, Koby and Co. will gear up for the franchise to take the next step.
”We have three Draft picks coming up and we have a really important free agency coming up,” concluded Altman. “We have an incredible Chairman in Dan Gilbert, who’s constantly pushing us to get better, not just on the basketball floor but off the floor. Resources. Facilities. How we imagine the future of this franchise.
”There’s a lot of work to be done from my standpoint in terms of how we think about where this franchise is going to be two years from now, three years from now, five years from now. And we’re putting those plans in place for that now.”