A few weeks ago, I wrote about what a mess the Cleveland Cavaliers are.
Naturally, the Cavaliers have gone 7-7 since I wrote that. Suddenly, it seems like there some light at the end of this rebuilding tunnel. The NBA season is long. It’s easy to get swept up in the tiny moments and feel like they carry more significance than they actually do. Was I just swept up in the negativity of a rough season at that point? Or are we just swept up in the positive emotions of a good stretch of play? Basketball is funny like that.
I can admit that today I feel better about Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman’s development than I did in January. Seeing them play more games next to an All-Star player in Kevin Love, we’ve been able to see how they can work as complimentary pieces to the puzzle. I can see roles for both as role players on a good team. So that’s positive.
I don’t feel much different overall about the direction of the franchise, however. I still have a lot of concerns about the leadership and overarching plan for this season and the future. And for as great as it has been to see Love back playing with this team, the truth is the team might be too good with him to properly rebuild through the draft. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Cavaliers traded him this offseason, triggering another atrocious season and guys like Sexton and Cedi back to being relied on as primary options in the offense.
Indeed, the Cavaliers have been playing really solid basketball with Love on the court. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Having great players matters more in the NBA than in any other sport. A dynamic offensive player like Love shifts the entire gravity of the opposing defense. It creates opportunities and gives teammates better options and looks. Winning and losing are also contagious. As the team finds success, it tends to breed more success. The Cavaliers aren’t going to suddenly challenge for the playoffs or anything like that, but respective to where things were just a month or two ago, the team is absolutely rolling right now.
The Cavaliers are currently owners of the league’s third-worst record. As we all know, the bottom three teams share the same odds for the first pick in the lottery. That has led some to say that you just need to be in the bottom three, as though being third-worst is the same as being the worst. It’s not. Your odds might be the same for the first pick, but the third-worst team has significantly better odds of picking outside the top five (33 percent) than the worst team does (0 percent). The Cavaliers currently have a 14 percent chance of the top pick, same as the other two teams in the coveted “bottom three”. That means there’s an 86 percent chance they won’t have the top pick. There’s a 26 percent chance they get the sixth pick and a seven percent chance they end up at the seventh pick.
There’s a couple of different points here. First of all, under the new lottery rules, playing the lottery game is tough. You can tank all you want, but the odds say you’re not really giving yourself all that significant of an advantage. But the only way to absolutely guarantee yourself a top-five pick is to finish with the worst record. So what I’m getting at is, if you’re not going to finish with the worst record, you might as well not worry all that much about your slotting. Even the 10th worst team has almost a ten percent chance of getting a top-three pick.
So, really, the Cavaliers have a decision to make. Do they want to chase the worst overall pick another year? Or are they ready to start riding the ladder upward while letting the proverbial ping pong balls fall wherever they may?
I mention all of this because there is a very real danger of the Cavaliers not even finishing in the bottom three. They are only two games behind (ahead of?) the Chicago Bulls for the fourth-worst record, and if Tristan Thompson returns soon, the Cavaliers could see their current surge continue. It makes one wonder what it is we’re supposed to be rooting for here.
The other issue is Kevin Love’s role with the team moving forward. There’s a sizeable portion of the fanbase that would prefer Love be traded so the team can continue to bottom out. If the Cavaliers can hit on top-three picks in several drafts, the logic says they can eventually become a team like the Philadelphia 76ers. Or the Oklahoma City Thunder of years past.
It’s possible this is the best path forward. But it’s not like this is a risk-free path, either. Plenty of teams have tried tanking, either intentionally or not, and been unable to find success with it. There’s seemingly almost just as much luck involved with the tank-hard approach as there is anything else. However, it’s also seemingly the only way for a small market team like Cleveland to acquire superstar-level talent (until they leave for a better market, of course).
On the other hand, with the new lottery rules especially, maybe the better approach is to just embrace growth and development while allowing guys like Love and Thompson to be strong leaders in the locker room. With the new rules, you can still get lucky and get good draft picks while your team builds. Which is the healthier approach for the franchise and for the fanbase?
Regardless of which approach you prefer, the larger issue is that everyone in the franchise needs to be on the same page. From the owner to the GM to the coach, everyone needs to understand what expectations are and where this team should be going. That didn’t happen this past offseason. It’s clear that different individuals wanted different things and that the goalposts moved (pardon the mixed metaphor) once the season got off to a slow start.
So while things currently have been feeling better for fans, the Cavaliers still have a lot of work to do as a franchise to get back to relevancy. This has been a long and crazy season, one that turned out quite differently than almost anyone expected. But seeing how the team has played since Love returned makes one wonder what would have happened had Love not been hurt? How different would that make things? Maybe the Cavaliers aren’t really as bad as they have seemed, right?
Well, maybe. Maybe not. I’m not going to pretend like I have the answers and know for sure what a season with Love would have looked like. I do know, however, that seeing how the team has responded to Love’s return makes me feel like the best thing for the Cavaliers to do as a franchise is to lean into Love’s leadership skills.
It seems crazy to say that based on where Love was when he first came to Cleveland, but in his time in Cleveland, we have watched Kevin mature into an incredibly insightful individual with a lot to offer to teammates on life in general in addition to issues on the court and in the locker room.
I’m sure some will moan about being stuck in mediocrity, and hey, that could happen. But maybe injuries will continue to impact Love. Maybe the surrounding talent isn’t good enough to lift the Cavaliers out of the lottery even with him. There are plenty of unknowns. But as a fan, I know it’s more fun watching the team when Love is there than it was without him.
The Cavaliers are going to almost certainly be presented with trade offers for Love this offseason. They have to listen to the offers and if an offer blows them away, they have to take it. Otherwise, it will all come down to a decision on how the franchise wants to proceed as well as how much they value what Love provides in terms of leadership and fan involvement. There’s no singular right way to build and develop a franchise. It mostly comes down to how the front office and ownership wants to handle the team. And that’s been my biggest question and concern with the franchise all along.