Rebuild, Interrupted

Two years into their second post-LeBron reconstruction, the Cavaliers were just starting to find out what they could be before their season came to a sudden end, leaving their future in limbo.
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterJuly 6, 2020

When Andre Drummond was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers before the February deadline this year, he knew he wouldn't have long to decide his future. The longtime Detroit Pistons center had a $28.75 million player option for the 2020-21 season, and although he had planned to opt out in Detroit, he found himself on a new team. Still, he figured he would have until May to get a feel for playing on the Cavaliers.

On the court, Drummond immediately posted the kind of numbers that had made him a star in Detroit, totaling 33 points and 29 rebounds in his first two games. But before his third game, Cavaliers coach John Beilein resigned, with the team at 14-40. Yet under interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the Cavs found a new energy. They beat bubble-bound teams in the Wizards, Heat, 76ers, Nuggets and Spurs during a respectable 5-6 run. Then the season was suspended.

"I love the game, and despite the record we had in Cleveland, I enjoyed playing with those guys," Drummond told me at the end of April. "Just getting there and having to come to an abrupt stop was kind of shitty for me on my end because I did enjoy playing with them and building that chemistry." 

In the end, Drummond's decision was easy. He might have been able to secure more money overall on a multiyear deal, but that single-season salary, he told ESPN's STUpodity podcast last week, would be "pretty hard to give up." He said he will pick up his option, but building that chemistry remains a concern. The Cavaliers were in the Eastern Conference's cellar when the season was put on hold, and so they were not invited to the NBA's bubble in Orlando, Florida. As a result, they've been one of the loudest clubs lobbying the league to allow the "Delete Eight" teams to play meaningful games over the summer.

"Our front office and leadership has reached out [to the league]," Bickerstaff told reporters in early June. "We've had discussions with the other [seven] teams as coaches try to figure out a way to put something in place so that we can negate that disadvantage as best we possibly can."

For now, the league and the players association stand in the way of any such plans. The potential to be shut out of any meaningful basketball activity for eight-plus months could be costly for a young team like the Cavs. Of all the teams on the outside of the bubble, they may need that extra competition the most.

30 teams, 30 days: The biggest story from each NBA team ahead of the league's return.

Atl | Bos | Bkn | Cha | Chi | Cle
Dal | Den | Det | GS | Hou | Ind
LAC | LAL | Mem | Mia | Mil | Min
NO | NY | OKC | Orl | Phi | Pho
Por | Sac | SA | Tor | Uta | Was

Two years ago, they began their second post-LeBron rebuild, but they did so seemingly without a blueprint. In the past two seasons, they've had three head coaches and cycled 20 players on and off their roster. The front office seems content with Bickerstaff as its coach of the future, signing him to a four-year extension in March. But with Drummond surely exercising his option, Bickerstaff and the front office won't have much room to maneuver in free agency. (The Cavs are already over the cap for 2020-21, and it's expected to shrink.) Instead, they'll have to rely on the draft—and on developing their young talent.

"This offseason is a big offseason for us; there are some critical decisions that have to be made," Bickerstaff said. "We know what Kevin Love is, and we know how he can contribute. Larry Nance, Andre Drummond … we know who they are. The difference in who we are is going to be our young guys, so there's a huge emphasis and a focus on pushing them."

Love has been the subject of persistent trade rumors for the past two seasons. But if he stays in Cleveland for another season, he could be part of a formidable veteran frontcourt with Drummond and Nance. (Tristan Thompson, who has been a face of the franchise for a decade, is likely to leave in free agency.)

On the other hand, the Cavs backcourt is a collection of puzzle pieces that may not have come from the same box. In 2018 and 2019, the team drafted two point guards in the lottery: Collin Sexton (eighth overall) and Darius Garland (fifth overall). They may have hoped the pair could form the kind of lead-guard combo lineup that has thrived in Portland and Toronto, but that's not how it played out this season. The time may soon come to decide to pair one of them with the team's other young prospect, swingman Kevin Porter Jr., who offers good length and a promising scoring touch.

The Cavs' plus-minus in Garland and Sexton's 1,255 minutes together was minus-259, per Tony Pesta of Hoops Habit.

The primary problem is neither is an adequate defender. Each is undersized at 6'1", and when they're on the floor together, they seem to worsen each other's weaknesses. According to Basketball Reference, Sexton improved his defensive win shares total from minus-2.5 a season ago to 0.3, but he seemed to struggle the most when he shared the floor with Garland and was forced to defend shooting guards. Garland, for his part, earned 0.0 defensive win shares. As a team, the Cavs were second-to-last in defensive efficiency.

Though hampered by an injury in his rookie season, Darius Garland struggled as a defender and as a consistent distributor in the Cavs offense.
Though hampered by an injury in his rookie season, Darius Garland struggled as a defender and as a consistent distributor in the Cavs offense.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Offensively, they weren't much better, and Cleveland's young backcourt tended to overlap as ball-dominant, score-first guards. Neither boasted an assist-to-turnover ratio above 1.5. Garland's assist numbers did rise toward the end of the season (before he missed time with a groin injury), but that was primarily a result of playing increased minutes. "What we've been working with Darius on is obviously the pick-and-roll game," Bickerstaff said. "Darius has the ability to make all the passes."

Sexton has also struggled as a distributor, but he has at least made up for it by becoming a dynamic scorer from all levels. His offensive prowess was enough to earn him a spot in the Rising Stars Game in February. And in 11 games under Bickerstaff, Sexton surged, averaging 25.5 points on 52.8 percent shooting. "The growth was phenomenal," Bickerstaff said. "And it was something that everybody noticed and appreciated and respected. You could see his teammates buying into it more and more and more as he continued to do it."

For his part, Sexton has a big personal goal in mind next season. "I want to push towards that All-Star Game," he told reporters Friday. "I know what [that stage] feels like, and it just makes me hungry and makes me want to work that much harder. That's what's next for me."

What's next for the Cavaliers is not clear. It would be helpful for them to have the summer to see what a healthy Garland and Sexton could do together under Bickerstaff's coaching. If they don't, it wouldn't be hard to imagine them drafting a point guard in the lottery for the third season in a row. The good news is there's nowhere to go but up. The bad news is they're trying to make big decisions on a small sample size. And unlike Drummond's decision, the Cavs' upcoming choices won't be easy—and they may not pay off for a long time.


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