The Cleveland Cavaliers have the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft for the third time in four years. And this is the best year to have it because there is a litany of premiere talent available to select from. Cleveland, however, might be looking to trade the pick.
Three players—Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins of Kansas and Jabari Parker of Duke—are all potential franchise players. With that considered, some might wonder: Why would a team even contemplate trading away the top selection?
Let’s first establish the broad reason why they would be considering something: They need to win now.
Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert is “pushing new Cavs GM David Griffin to make the playoffs this season," per Chad Ford (Insider subscription required) of ESPN.com. Ultimately that’s why Ford concludes:
I think the Cavs' preferred route would be a trade that thins out their roster and adds a young veteran who can immediately lift the team's long-term chances. The Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Love has been the most mentioned pickup. But the Cavs also have their eye on other bigs, including the Chicago Bulls' Joakim Noah, the Portland Trail Blazers' LaMarcus Aldridge and the Atlanta Hawks' Al Horford.
Cleveland is in “win now” mode. It’s been four years since LeBron James left, and the grace/grieving period is over.
On top of that, young stars Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters will be restricted free agents soon. Irving's deal ends next summer and Waiters' the following year. While the Cavs can match any offers, their happiness will make a difference in how much they’re willing to sign for, and winning will impact their happiness.
Young studs are great for building around for the future, but not as much for making big strides in the present. Wiggins, Embiid and Parker may be superstars in the future, but they all are young and need development. Their help may not be as immediate as Gilbert would like it to be.
So the Cavs might make a trade if it gives them a better opportunity to get to the postseason this year. Let's look at three scenarios where that could happen.
They Can Trade Down and Get Their Player Anyway
Part of the reason this year’s draft class is so highly touted is that while there is elite talent at the top, there is also great depth. Quality players can be found deep into the first round.
Most mock drafts have Parker, Embiid and Wiggins going in the top three, but after that it’s a bit of a crapshoot. For example, Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated has Marcus Smart going fourth. Zach Harper and Matt Moore of CBS Sports have him going eighth. That sort of disparity, with a player's projected draft slot differing by five or even 10 picks from mock to mock, isn't rare in 2014.
Teams have different needs, so each team ranks players very differently. That could mean another team needs to move up to ensure getting the player they want. Or it could mean that Cleveland can feel that it can safely trade down and still get its preference.
That was the mistake the Cavs made last year. It's not just that they took Anthony Bennett. It's that they took him with No. 1 when they could have probably traded down a few spots and still gotten him—and gotten something else in return. Rule No. 1 of the draft: Don't reach with the first pick.
So let's say that the Cavs decide they want the safest big man, and that Embiid's back isn't trustworthy, so they determine that Julius Randle is their man. Randle is not worthy of the No. 1 pick, so finding a trade partner makes sense.
They (the Jazz) have a lot of assets and I think they could tempt Cleveland if they threw together several of them into a package that rounded out this team. For instance ... what about a sign-and-trade that delivered Gordan Hayward and Enes Kanter -- fixes holes at both the three and the five long-term for the Cavs. Both are ready to go now. The question will be ... Hayward is a restricted free agent. Free agency doesn't start until after the draft. So the Cavs would have to take Jabari at 1 and then hope they could get Hayward to play along. Derrick Favors could also tempt them I'm told. But the Cavs would need another piece -- perhaps the 5th pick.
If the Cavaliers could move down to No. 5 and still get Randle, while picking up Kanter and Hayward along the way, that would certainly be an improvement on taking Randle with the top pick.
A starting five of Irving, Waiters, Hayward, Randle and Kanter certainly seems like the kind of core you could build around for the present and the future. It wouldn't be a championship contender right away, but it sure would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
If they determine that they can still get the player they want by moving down and picking up additional pieces in the process, they should do so.
They Land a Franchise Player—Now
If the Cavaliers could land a franchise player, that would be ideal. Irving is already an All-Star. Waiters is a budding one. Even Bennett’s horrible first year can be overcome. They have plenty of young talent. What they need now is a young-ish veteran presence to lead that talent.
That’s where a player like Love, Aldridge, Noah or Horford comes in.
However, there’s a major problem with the first three of those scenarios.
With Love, as with all things related to love, it’s a two way street, and Love doesn't believe Cleveland rocks.
Jackie MacMullan reports for ESPN Boston, “Cleveland has the No.1 pick and has interest in Love, sources confirm, but the feeling isn't mutual.” Cleveland (rightly) isn’t going to give up the No. 1 pick without assurances that Love will stick around.
As for Aldridge and Noah, the Trail Blazers and Bulls aren't looking to go into rebuilding mode any more than the Cavaliers are. Portland just made it to the second round of the playoffs behind Aldridge and sophomore sensation Damian Lillard. And Chicago will be looking forward to the return of Derrick Rose and could add either Love or Carmelo Anthony this offseason. They too, have no incentive to go young.
The fourth player Ford mentioned—Horford—could be intriguing, though. The Hawks have been slowly rebuilding for the last few years and might be willing to consider jettisoning Horford for a new star to build around.
Adding Embiid alongside All-Star Paul Millsap could entice them, although the Cavs might have to throw in an additional piece like Tristan Thompson to make the deal work.
The bottom line is this: The "win now" Cavs would be better off adding someone who is a borderline franchise player already rather than gambling on a player who might be a bona fide franchise player a few years from now. Even if Embiid turns out better than Horford in three or four years, that won’t keep Irving in Cleveland next summer.
But winning now might.
They Get a Desperation Offer
The last scenario in which Cleveland might consider dealing away the No. 1 pick is if a team makes a desperation offer too good to refuse.
The nice thing about a pick is that it’s shinier than a player. A pick is pretty and glossy and flawless. You can’t criticize a pick when it's still just a pick. You just debate who you're going to take and dream of what will come after you take him.
It’s like looking at HDTVs in Best Buy and talking yourself into getting the 3D version for an extra $200 because, as you tell your wife, "It's just so awesome." Then, two years later, you realize you've never used the 3D feature—you completely wasted that extra money. But in the moment, it seemed like a great idea.
A pick carries endless possibilities, which lends itself to wild dreaming. It's just human nature.
The problem with a pick is that it becomes a player, and as soon as it does the value drops. The choice of Embiid, Parker or Wiggins is worth more than than the reality of any one of those three players. With its third No. 1 pick in four years, the Cavaliers can appreciate this—but more importantly, they can take advantage of it.
Some team enthralled by the idea of landing the No. 1 pick might overpay heavily for it. I don’t have a specific desperation offer to mention because there isn't one...yet. Hence the word desperation. But a team, caught up in dreams of the impending rings that one of the top three players will bring to its lovely city—and nightmares of losing their guy and all those banners to a rival—may call at the last moment and make a silly offer.
It’s not impossible that someone gives the Cavs a deal they can’t refuse moments before the big decision comes. It’s a slight chance, but it's a chance.
The Cavaliers want to win now. They need to keep their owner happy. They need to keep their players happy. They need to keep their fans happy.
Nothing would accomplish that like winning, and landing a veteran star who can play in the post would do the most for that. Failing that, adding key pieces along with an elite rookie would surely still help.
In the end, I wouldn't be surprised to see Cleveland use its pick, but only if it doesn't get an offer that it is satisfied with first. The team will be shopping it hard—albeit quietly—until the time comes to make the announcement.