No strangers to the art of a rebuild, Cavaliers fans are understandably painting a rosy picture of the upcoming 2018-2019 season. Gone are the championship expectations, but what remains isn’t exactly a blank canvas. The last time we saw Kevin Love carrying his own team he put up 26 points and 12 rebounds per night. Collin Sexton carries the pedigree of a top ten pick and showed why in Summer League. Younger players like Cedi Osman, Larry Nance, and Rodney hood have shown they have a place in the league, while another, Ante Zizic, had a surprisingly productive summer. The optimism surrounding what the Cavs have on their roster is well founded.
The pessimism for the Cavaliers is in what they don’t have. The Cavaliers are losing eleven players that played for them last year, soaking up 48% of the total minutes played. While that includes players that were traded mid-season, it doesn’t change the fact that a significant number of minutes that went to veterans and established players have disappeared. You can see in the chart below just how many minutes the Cavs have lost (remaining players in dark red and former players in light red).
Even the Cavaliers that played heavy minutes last year and remain on the roster pose problems. Fans were justified in calling for J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson to be benched last season. Those two players made up an additional 17% of total minutes played by Cavaliers last year. Smith is another year older. There are questions on how Thompson’s game translates to a team that is going to struggle to create shots. It’s easy to say we’d be better with them on the bench, but as shown above, the bench is pretty empty.
There are other veterans that made up a lot of minutes on the team like Kyle Korver and George Hill. They remain with the team, but for how long? Those two players made up another 12% of total minutes. If they are flipped at the deadline it will most likely be for draft picks or unproven players. That will again push for lower quality players to fill their minute load.
Between the players that are gone (48%), the veterans that remain but are likely negative impact (17%), and the veterans that are likely to be moved (12%), that is more than three-fourths of last year’s minutes that are going to turn over.
The minutes aren’t the only problem. The Cavaliers have the young players that are ready to take on a larger load. Signing David Nwaba gives them an addition that can soak up minutes and the addition of Sam Dekker gives them a flier on another interesting-ish player. But those players will now also be thrust into lead roles when they are likely more adept at ancillary roles. The chart below shows the shots and points that will need to be soaked up by players that likely aren’t going to be major positives.
Kevin Love will take on a larger role, no doubt, but his 25% usage rate and 12 field goal attempts per game aren’t significantly lower than his career highs as a lead man in Minnesota (29% usage and 19 field goal attempts.) Others will have to fill that role, and the outlook for the most likely candidates isn’t rosy.
Jordan Clarkson had a larger role with the Los Angeles Lakers and hovered around a 53% true-shooting percentage. He came to Cleveland and that number jumped to 56.5%, but much of that game from the added wide open three point attempts created by LeBron James. Forced to create on his own, again, he is likely to regress to his former rate. J.R. Smith is another potential Cavalier that will see an increase in shots, and, again, the Smith that dribbles himself into long, fade-away two pointers is much different than the one that fires three point attempts created by the formerly star-studded roster.
And then there is Collin Sexton. Sexton brings the hype and excitement of any top ten pick, and he showed a more polished game than expected in summer league. He is likely to be entertaining and show flashes, but he is also likely to be very bad. Looking at rookie point guards from last year, De’Aaron Fox (fifth pick) and Dennis Smith Jr. (ninth pick), their impact on the court was mostly negative.
This is not to slam Sexton. There are plenty of reasons to be excited about his potential. This is just a reality of the NBA. Young players often take time to develop, and he will be no different. Fox and Smith Jr. were likely superior prospects (or at minimum very similar) and the above shows how much they struggled in their rookie campaigns.
So the Cavaliers are going to have to give heavy minutes to players who are likely of terrible quality, as well as get scoring from players unlikely able to do it at an efficient rate. But they also have the rest of the box score to fill. While the roster is full of role players that excel in many of these categories, they will be asked to continue to excel in their former role while sharing the load of the new larger roles.
And while I have gone to great lengths to not make this solely about the departure of LeBron James, it is worth noting that his singular load in all areas, not just scoring, has propped up and hidden lesser players. His incredible talent soaked up needed production across the board, and his departure will be felt in all areas of the court.
This isn’t meant to be a downer. This Cavaliers team will likely be very fun. As rebuilds go, starting with an All Star, a top ten pick, and players like Cedi, Nance, and Zizic is a good place to be. But the current idea that this team is going to push for wins and a playoff seed relies on a lot of unknowns. The picture will be clearer as the season wears on, but there is still a lot of empty space that needs to be filled.