It’s Super Bowl week! The big game is always an exciting event, but it’s also a little bittersweet. As the eyes of the world watch our country crown our national champions in the national sport, the game also represents the end of another season of football. Sure, we have the draft and free agency to look for, but we are about to be without football until August, which stinks.
We’re still a couple months away from the start of baseball season, and who knows how that’s going to go for the Indians. What this really means is, we’re about to be stuck with just the Cleveland Cavaliers, and….yikes.
I recently discussed the Cavaliers season briefly on the WFNY Podcast with Craig Lyndall, and I talked about how the Cavaliers were worse than just bad. They have fallen into the deepest hole of irrelevancy, and there’s no clear path out of it. This irrelevancy was brought into focus in the wake of the Anthony Davis trade request this week.
I was listening to the Lowe Post podcast this week and Zach Lowe had Brian Windhorst and Howard Beck on to discuss the AD trade request. They were discussing different trade scenarios. Now, clearly, the Cavaliers aren’t in those discussions. Not only would AD never stay in Cleveland, but Cleveland doesn’t have the assets to acquire him anyway. Even if the Cavaliers got the top pick in the lottery and the rights to Zion Williamson, that alone isn’t enough to get a player like AD. So I didn’t expect the Cavaliers to be in the conversation on the podcast.
What struck me, though, is that when they mentioned teams who were irrelevant to the AD trade talks, the Cavaliers weren’t mentioned. The Cavaliers don’t even measure on the irrelevancy scale. The Cavaliers have gone from playing in the NBA Finals to less than an afterthought. We knew when LeBron left things were going to get bad again, but I’m not sure anyone expected it to get this bad this fast.
The injuries to Kevin Love, Larry Nance, and Tristan Thompson surely don’t help, but it’s been deeper than that. No matter how much fans might want to like Collin Sexton and how much we can say his scoring shows potential to be an asset in the right role, the fact is he’s been a disappointment. And that might be the nicest way to say it. Cedi Osman has been ok in moments but largely has been every bit as frustrating and inefficient as Sexton. Rodney Hood hasn’t taken the step that many wanted to see from him. Jordan Clarkson has largely been exactly what you expect from him. An overall inefficient player, but a guy who can definitely score. That’s great when he’s just your sixth man giving you burst scoring in spots, less so when he’s your leading scorer and a guy heavily involved in the offense.
The Cavaliers are 23rd in offensive efficiency, which isn’t great. But the real issue is on defense, where the Cavaliers are dead last, giving up 118 points per 100 possessions. The Cavaliers are so far in dead last that the gap between them and the 29th most inefficient defense is the same as the gap between 17th and 29th. They have been nothing short of a disaster on that end of the court.
Here’s the real kicker, though. Despite how atrocious this season has been, the Cavaliers aren’t even guaranteed to have the worst record. Heck, they are in real danger of not even finishing in the bottom three (the new lottery rules give the bottom three teams equal odds at the top pick). At 10-41, the Cavaliers are only percentage points worse than the 10-39 New York Knicks. The Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns are sitting right at 11 wins. If the Cavaliers get Love, Thompson, and Nance all healthy and playing, it’s not unreasonable to think they could play themselves out of the bottom three.
There’s a bigger issue at hand, of course, too. Let’s say the Cavaliers do finish in the bottom three. Let’s say they win the lottery. Then what? They draft Zion Williamson. Ok, cool. I think we would all be super excited about that. But how do the Cavaliers build a team around Love, Thompson, and Zion? If the Anthony Davis situation tells us anything, it’s that this is not a league where stars will stay in small markets that aren’t competing. And how much trust do you have in the Cavaliers to build and sustain a winning team? Remember, the Cavaliers are the team Kyrie Irving asked to be traded away from while they were in the middle of competing for Championships. LeBron James walked away from his home town team twice.
It’s not impossible. The Oklahoma City Thunder have sustained relevance after losing Kevin Durant. Heck, Kevin Love signed a deal to stay in Cleveland. Small market teams have had opportunities. But it’s definitely not the norm. The Milwaukee Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo and the best record in the NBA. Do you think Anthony Davis wants to be traded there? Do you hear of stars trying to get to Milwaukee? The Indiana Pacers have the 5th best record in the NBA. And yet just two years ago Paul George forced his way out of Indiana. Life is incredibly hard for small markets in the NBA.
The structure of the league makes it so that players, who are severely capped in their max earnings anyway, are choosing to either get to a glamorous market or else to play with other superstars. If they can’t maximize their money, they might as well go where they can raise their profile. For a small market team to find sustained success, they need stable leadership from top to bottom, a winning pedigree, a coach that can get the most of the locker room, and an ability to navigate the draft and trades with precision and skill. Which of those things do the Cavaliers have?
I know, nobody likes to hear doom and gloom. People get mad when we talk about the Cavaliers this way. They’d prefer we focus on the positives of Sexton and Cedi and to say “if the Cavaliers hit on their draft pick and have a healthy Love next season, this team will be back in the playoffs!”. Wouldnt that be nice? I hope that happens. I hope I eat these words and look back and say, “man, I sure was swept up in the negativity of a bad season and lost sight of the bigger picture”. I would gladly do so. But I see larger systemic problems with both the NBA as a whole and with the Cavaliers as an organization. Titles? Contention? Playoffs? Those things seem so far away. For the Cavaliers, relevancy would be a fine place to start.