CLEVELAND — When the Cleveland Cavaliers front office turned over nearly half of its roster this past February, the goal was not just to improve fit but also the locker room culture. Rumors of a heated team meeting and discord between established players and those just added to the mix were a part of what could only be fixed with a major overhaul.
With the eighth pick of the 2018 NBA draft at the Barclays Center on Thursday night, the Cavaliers continued down this path of rejuvenation with the selection of Alabama's Collin Sexton.
Introducing his newest player to the local media Friday afternoon, Cleveland general manager Koby Altman referred to Sexton as a "super dynamic" point guard with "unquestioned talent" but was quick to compliment the 19-year-old for what he will bring to the locker room.
"We talk about it all the time," Altman said. "With our culture here, we want to bring in guys with great attitude, great work ethic, and—most importantly—guys who really want to be here. Collin embodies all of that, and he's going to add to that culture right away."
When Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder were introduced to Cleveland last August, they spoke of having chips on their shoulders and how they were grateful to be a part of an organization that wanted them. The honeymoon phase quickly evaporated, however, as Thomas worked his way back from injury and Crowder was yanked in and out of the team's rotation as head coach Tyronn Lue attempted to piece together his new roster.
A once-cohesive unit that celebrated its 2016 championship with high-character glue players like Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye looked like a shell of its former self. The organization traded Jefferson to make room for Dwyane Wade prior to the start of the season, a move that appeared to be tolerable at the onset but was nothing more than a few snowballs slowly rolling toward avalanche status.
The house of cards was clearly teetering during the team's Christmas Day loss to the Golden State Warriors, but it toppled one game at a time during a midseason swoon that saw the Cavaliers lose (oftentimes handily) to lesser teams. The Sacramento Kings beat them by 14. The Minnesota Timberwolves beat them by 28. The Toronto Raptors beat them by 34—on national television.
"If guys have agendas, we've got to get rid of our agendas and play the right way," Lue said following the loss, signaling a bottoming out for a franchise that had been expected to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season.
After Cleveland hit the reset button in February, trading six players (including the cohesive Frye) while bringing in four, it was believed the updated team would come with less issues. All appeared well until early March, when veteran guard JR Smith was suspended for one game for throwing soup at assistant coach Damon Jones.
Things hit a dysfunctional crescendo during the postseason as off-court decision-making collided with on-court play. Shooting guard Rodney Hood refused to play in a blowout victory over the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, according to The Athletic's Jason Lloyd.
Weeks later, Smith corralled an offensive rebound late in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals and proceeded to nearly dribble out the clock rather than facilitating a scoring opportunity against the Golden State Warriors.
"In order to win, you've got to have talent, but you've got to be very cerebral, too," James, always the calculated speaker, said prior to Game 4 of the Finals. "Listen, we're all NBA players. Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?"
On the floor, Sexton compares himself to uber-athletic two-way point guards like John Wall and Eric Bledsoe. His 6'2", 190-pound frame is nearly identical to Patrick Beverley's. His first dunk was in the seventh grade, and he cleared 6'8" in the high jump four years later.
Off the floor at Alabama, he had a 4.0 GPA. If he were not a basketball player, Sexton says he'd angle toward either business or engineering. His goal is to follow in the footsteps of his two older siblings who have college degrees, saying, "I can't be left out."
The day after the Warriors swept the Cavaliers, Sexton was in Cleveland's Independence, Ohio, practice facility, working out for the front office and owner Dan Gilbert.
Immediately following his selection Thursday, reports began to swirl that Sexton—who shot just 33.6 percent from three-point range during his only year with the Crimson Tide—did not have the strongest showing, but the team was impressed with his intangibles.
The first player to wear No. 2 for Cleveland since the team traded Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics in August is fittingly the last piece of that deal and will attempt to fill a void the Cavaliers have attempted to fill since that swap.
According to Joe Kotoch, a former NBA agent and current proprietor of @ProBBallDraft, Sexton may be what the Cavaliers needed to right the ship—and not just pertaining to a kumbaya locker room.
"I thought he was the best point guard in the draft," Kotoch told Bleacher Report. "Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] was not a volume guy. Sexton is a two-way guy, which they need. A great wingspan [6'7 ¼"] and a great pick-and-roll guy as well. He'll look lightning-fast with the Cavs roster."
The question, of course, is: What will the roster look like? Four players, including James, could leave in free agency, and Altman has little money to spend, as the luxury-tax-paying Cavaliers have only a $5.3 million exception to use. Both Smith and George Hill have two seasons remaining on their contracts, but each has an attractive buyout option following the 2018-19 slate.
Cleveland brought in the 6'8" Hood as two-way guard who could create his own shot and help foot some of the scoring responsibilities, but after starting Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs, he fell out of the rotation before the aforementioned late-game discord.
"At times, when I may lose a little bit of confidence because of playing time or whatever, I look back to my Utah highlights a lot on YouTube just to remind myself that that was this [season] when I did those things," Hood told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated.
As for James, the four-time MVP made known his positive feelings on Sexton prior to the draft, according to Jordan Zirm of ESPN Cleveland. Needing an upgrade in competitiveness, two-way prowess and basketball IQ, Altman believes he checked all the boxes by adding a point guard who can also handle some of the workload that has fallen on James' shoulders during each of the last four postseasons.
"I think he has a very good basketball IQ, but I also think [what] could have helped [James] as well was just another playmaker, another guy to put pressure on the defense," Altman said Thursday night. "And Collin is explosive. He can get into the paint. He can make stuff happen. He's fast in transition.
"And I think ball-handling-wise he can take the load off LeBron a little bit, and again, aside from the basketball IQ, which I think he's very good in pick-and-roll, but I think that just having another play-creator is a big deal for our team."
Sexton, who says he watched a host of Cavs games this past season, made his pitch to James on draft night, saying, "Man, LeBron. Let's do it." However, league sources told Bleacher Report's Ken Berger that the addition of the Alabama guard in no way moves the needle for his future in Cleveland.
In the event James leaves, the Sexton era begins. No one player will completely change the culture of a team that was littered with off-court drama, but the selection of Sexton—a guy who nearly led his Crimson Tide to victory in an NCAA game with only three men—signals that the Cavs may have found the right guy to help lead them forward.