The Cavs drubbed the Detroit Pistons 122-100 Wednesday night, dropping a franchise-record 26 assists in the first half. Any feelings of euphoria were short lived, though, as the Atlanta Hawks' win over the Boston Celtics officially ended the Cavs' chances for postseason contention.
"It’s an empty feeling you have now that your chances are done,” Kyrie Irving said, via Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. “You think about the things you could’ve done, should’ve done — it’s inevitable."
Now, the Cavaliers have a chance to right some of those wrongs, to find the correct answers to those "should've, would've" questions. Armed with yet another lottery pick and substantial cap space, they have the chance to bolster their ranks in pursuit of that elusive, James-less playoff berth.
But they're a long way removed from guaranteeing that this lottery trip will actually be their last. Those empty feelings of finality will now give way to what could be the most important offseason of the post-LeBron era.
Settling On a General Manager
The Cavs front office doesn't look how it did at the start of the season. Come October, this executive staff could have another facelift.
Chris Grant, the team's general manager since 2010, was fired in early February.
An inconsistent draft record (Irving was an obvious gem, rookie Anthony Bennett has been a disaster, the jury's still out on Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters) didn't help his case. Neither did the lack of returns on his offseason investments in Jarrett Jack, Andrew Bynum and head coach Mike Brown or his mid-season swap for Luol Deng.
But an embarrassing loss to an undermanned Los Angeles Lakers squad—L.A. entered the game with eight healthy players and lost two of them to injury—in early February sealed his fate. Less than 24 hours after that debacle, Grant was let go.
"This has been a very difficult period for the franchise," playoff-hopeful owner Dan Gilbert said, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "We have severely underperformed against expectations."
Acting general manager David Griffin has held the fort since. He hasn't had the opportunity to leave much of an imprint on the franchise yet—although he did swing the deadline deal for center Spencer Hawes—and it's still unclear if he'll get that chance.
Steve Kyler of BasketballInsiders.com reports that Griffin has impressed during his short time on the job but adds that the executive's fate hasn't quite been decided.
"That does not mean the Cavaliers won’t go shopping for an uber-experienced team president type," Kyler writes. "If they can’t find that proven star executive they are looking for that could woo free agents to Cleveland, staying with Griffin seems more likely than not."
That falls in line with what The Morning Journal's Bob Finnan has reported.
"There’s a good chance the Cavs will retain Griffin," Finnan wrote. "Gilbert will explore hiring other front-office executives, including possibly someone above Griffin in the pecking order, a la Phil Jackson in New York."
Unless, of course, the Zen Master gets his mitts on Griffin first. ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported that if Phil Jackson tabs Steve Kerr as his next coach, then Griffin could join the two in the the Big Apple. Griffin worked with Kerr in the Phoenix Suns front office and apparently left quite the impression on the former sharpshooter.
"Griff is responsible for the great job we've done with personnel in the last few years, in the draft and with trades and pro personnel," Kerr said in 2010, via Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic. "He heads the department, works his tail off and has a great feel for talent.
If the Cavaliers are even remotely as impressed with Griffin's work, it's hard to see them letting him go. If not, they'll need choose his replacement sooner than later.
Whoever is calling the shots for the Cavaliers this summer will have some major decisions to make.
Winning the Draft Lottery
No, I don't mean actually landing the draft's No. 1 pick (although, with Nick Gilbert in the building, anything is possible).
Maybe the Cavs will get lucky again, maybe they won't. Either way, they have to hit a home run with their draft choice.
As it stands, Cleveland holds the No. 9 selection, leaving them well shy of potential franchise cornerstones Joel Embiid (Kansas), Jabari Parker (Duke) and Andrew Wiggins (Kansas). Even some of the second-tier prizes—Kentucky's Julius Randle, Australia's Dante Exum and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart—are likely out of reach.
In the NBA draft, taking the "best player available" approach is almost always the right path to follow. Cleveland might be one of the exceptions.
With Irving potentially locked in as the point guard of the present and future (more on that later), the team can't afford to burn a likely top-10 pick on his backup. After investing top-four picks in both Thompson (No. 4 in 2011) and Bennett (No. 1 in 2013), power forward should also be out of the question.
The Cavs will likely need to address the center spot at some point, but unless their lottery winnings put them in Embiid range, this won't be the time to do it.
That should put all of Cleveland's attention toward addressing the wing, assuming that focus is not already there. Given the lackluster seasons of Jarrett Jack (9.3 points on 41.0 percent shooting), C.J. Miles (9.9 on 43.5) and Alonzo Gee (3.6 on 40.5), that step might have been previously taken.
Luckily, this draft class looks deep on the perimeter. Cleveland should have a shot at Michigan State's scoring guard Gary Harris, UCLA's do-it-all swingman Kyle Anderson or Michigan's sniper Nik Stauskas, among others.
Harris could be a name to watch for Cavaliers fans, according to Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman.
"He's become a more complete player this season, particularly off the dribble, where he's now a threat to put it on the floor and create," Wasserman wrote. "...He'd be an excellent fit in Cleveland with his ability to score within an offense, something that Dion Waiters has struggled to do since entering the league."
The Cavaliers were hoping to avoid another lottery trip this season, but this rookie-to-be-named-later is their only true take-home prize from another lost campaign.
They have to make sure it's a good one, because the free-agent market will bring a series of question marks.
Irving's Extension and Other Free Agency Ventures
If the Cavs' offseason was going to be graded on a single decision, Irving's potential contract extension would be it.
The 22-year-old has led the Cavaliers in scoring during each of his first three NBA seasons, already made two trips to the All-Star Game and took home MVP honors during the midseason classic in February.
Cleveland, apparently, has seen enough. "The Cavaliers are expected to offer Irving a five-year, $80 million maximum extension on July 1," Finnan reported.
Once that offer comes, Irving will have a decision to make. However, it might be a relatively easy call.
Even amid grumblings of his unhappiness in Cleveland and rumored rift with Waiters, it seems highly unlikely he'd leave that type of money on the table. If he chooses to leave the offer unsigned, he'd still be two years away from becoming an unrestricted free agent and handpicking his next destination.
All of that said, this is more than just a formality.
The Cavaliers can ill-afford to lose another superstar, but would they want to build their franchise around someone who doesn't want to be there? Irving has denied the reports of his misery, but this is plenty of smoke to not have some type of fire at its source.
Should he make it known to the franchise that he wants to bolt, perhaps the Cavaliers would be forced to take drastic measures.
"If they can't somehow work things out, Irving could find himself somewhere James never did in his seven seasons in Cleveland: the trade market," ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst wrote.
Again, though, the most likely scenario seems to have Irving in a Cavs jersey with a new contract extension for the start of next season. But how many of his current teammates will still be alongside him?
Deng, Hawes and Miles will all be unrestricted free agents at season's end. Gee's contract is non-guaranteed and Anderson Varejao's is only partially guaranteed.
The Cavs have the tools to be buyers should they choose.
Miles and Gee are both forgettable and replaceable. Varejao is a great energy big when healthy, something he hasn't been in quite some time. With a little more than $45 million on the books for next season, via ShamSports.com, the Cavs have bigger fish to fry.
Deng has been a major disappointment in Cleveland (14.3 points on 41.7 percent shooting), but he shouldn't be the Cavs' problem much longer. Sources told Stein back in February the forward had "little-to-no chance" of returning.
Hawes might be a different story. The stretch big has been productive in 24 games with the team (14.0 points, .464/.457/.784 shooting) and already sounds open to a possible return.
"I like it here, I think it's a good fit," Hawes said, via Jodie Valade of The Plain Dealer. "And when July comes you kind of see how the other side of the game, how that all fits together."
Cleveland's biggest splash may come from outside the organization, though. As long as it finds someone worthy of a substantial investment, at least.
According to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, the Cavaliers are one of several teams to have interest in Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol. Assuming Deng does in fact depart, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Cavaliers chase a second-tier wing like Indiana's Lance Stephenson or Trevor Ariza of the Washington Bullets.
Obviously, if the Cavs have any shot at a top-shelf free agent (Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh can all opt out of their deals), they can—and will—take it. Given the trouble they've had keeping their own elite talent, though, it's hard to see that happening.
As long as Irving signs on the dotted line, the rest will be window dressing. Cleveland's playoff drought aside, this team might not be as far from relevance as it seems.
Continue Making Strides
No, the Cavaliers didn't have the type of success they envisioned, but they did show signs of growth.
They've already won eight more games than they had in any of the last three seasons. Entering April with a playoff pulse is an achievement in itself.
"Our attention to detail has been a lot better,” Irving said, via Finnan. “We don’t have as many lulls where coach has to call time outs. We trust each other."
Trust can go a long way, particularly in a locker room that the media seems to try and divide at every opportunity. Results can go even further. This team showed signs of growth over the course of the season (20-33 before the All-Star break, 12-14 since).
Building a contender takes time, but the Cavs are slowly moving in the right direction. If Irving inks a long-term extension, Brown further implements his system and the front office expands the talent base, perhaps they could speed up the process.
Cleveland waited too long to make its move, but that sign of movement might be important on its own. If the Cavs use it as a stepping stool to keep going forward, they might see how close they are to realizing some of their dreams.