30 Teams in 30 Days: Cleveland Cavaliers move on to new era
Cavaliers seek smooth rebuild following departure of LeBron James
That’s a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8, NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.
With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
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Today’s Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
Who’s new: Collin Sexton (Draft), Sam Dekker (free agency); Channing Frye (free agency)
Who’s gone: LeBron James, Jeff Green, Jose Calderon
The lowdown: Despite losing Kyrie Irving to a forced trade the previous summer, the dominance of the East continued for LeBron and the Cavaliers, who yielded home court advantage and survived a few scares to reach The Finals and a fourth meeting with the Warriors.
LeBron showed an amazing if not unprecedented combination of durability and punch at age 33; he never missed a game and finished runner-up to James Harden for Kia MVP (though he remained the game’s best player via unscientific common-sense poll). LeBron ripped through the postseason and bailed out Cleveland with last-second heroics in the first round against the Pacers and then again against the Raptors. Kevin Love served as a reliable shotgun rider despite missing 23 games. There were weird moments: Coach Ty Lue took a leave of absence during the season and Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose had brief and unfulfilled stints before moving on. In the end, LeBron was enough for Cleveland to reach The Finals, yet not enough to overcome the Warriors; Cleveland was simply overmatched in the series sweep.
There was no jersey-burning in the Flats and owner Dan Gilbert didn’t react impulsively once again with a stern letter to the fans. And it didn’t exactly catch the franchise by surprise. Still, LeBron leaving Cleveland for the second time in his career was a deflating civic moment that obviously will have serious repercussions for the franchise moving forward.
The brisk business by scalpers, national TV appearances, celebrity sightings and automatic trips to the championship round are certain to vaporize overnight. That’s what happens when a legend leaves and takes the circus with him.
This was a more digestible departure than the last one, though. Having fulfilled his pledge to bring a championship to Cleveland, few if any held a grudge against arguably the greatest player in NBA history for seeking new adventures. It didn’t feel like a snub; rather a lifestyle change here in his sunset years and Cleveland made peace with being turned downed in favor of the glamour offered by Los Angeles.
Problem is, LeBron didn’t leave behind much. In order to placate the star and his management group, the Cavs gave rich extensions to JR Smith and Tristan Thompson, a pair of clients and declining role players, and therefore are stuck with them for the near future at least. Those players, especially Smith, hoarded a spot that could’ve been used on a youngster in their player development program.
You could argue that it doesn’t matter; the Cavs made four straight Finals and won a title with those players, and that would be true. It’s just that the bill for those deep trips into June is finally due, and the Cavs are capped out at least through this season.
They also made a curious move by extending Love for four years and $120 million. That’s incredibly rich even for a five-time All-Star, only because Love may not revert back to the level and numbers he posted in Minnesota at this stage of his career. It showed that Cleveland wants Love to stick around and keep the club competitive here in the post-LeBron rebuilding era. It also was wise at least from this standpoint: Cleveland isn’t a destination place for free agents, so why not hold onto a good player as long as possible?
The downside: Trading him at that salary will be like moving mountains if the Cavs sour on Love in the future. Signing that deal was a no-brainer for Love, given the market these days. Where else would he get $30 million a season while in his 30s?
With LeBron gone, the touches will increase and so will the responsibility for Love, who prospered in that role with the Timberwolves, but that was four years ago. And the Wolves went nowhere.
Another issue for Cleveland is the lack of a nurtured up-and-comer. All of those trips to The Finals meant low draft picks. Ordinarily, Andrew Wiggins would be poised to take over but he was sacrificed to get Love. That’s why it was wise of Cleveland to demand and get a prized Brooklyn No. 1 pick in the Irving deal two summers ago. It was the Cavs’ trump card in case LeBron did the expected.
When they finally flipped that card, Sexton was on the other side. Depending on whose scouting reports you believe, Sexton was the most attractive point guard in the draft and a player whose mature game screams “NBA ready.” Basically, the Cavs surrendered an unhappy Irving for a 19-year-old potential Irving, who starred at Alabama and outplayed Trae Young, taken five spots earlier, in their only meeting last season.
What’s especially pleasing for the Cavs is that Sexton genuinely wants to be in Cleveland, even without LeBron. The kid is thrilled and eager to embrace the challenge of being part of the solution. In that sense, he’s exactly what the Cavs need, just when the waters are getting choppy.
The Cavs also signed Dekker, who can bring athleticism to the forward spot, especially since the Cavs lost Green to free agency.
The offseason was seismic for Cleveland but inevitable as well. The rebuilding of the club begins now, and this time, with no hard feelings.
Coming Next: Philadelphia 76ers
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