Heading into the fourth year of their rebuild, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a roster full of oddly fitting young talent and one veteran who refuses to go away.
First let's rewind to this offseason's biggest developments: the Cavs selected USC big man Evan Mobley with the No. 3 overall pick, re-signed center Jarrett Allen to a five-year, $100 million deal and traded for veteran point guard Ricky Rubio. They also traded fan favorite Larry Nance Jr. to the Portland Trail Blazers in a three-team sign-and-trade for Lauri Markkanen, who signed a four-year, $67.5 million contract.
The 22-year-old was one of only 12 players last season to average at least 24 points and four assists while shooting 37 percent or better from three. Sexton was the youngest player to do so, but he and Karl-Anthony Towns were the only names on that list not to be named an All-Star in 2021.
Despite his promising improvement, the Cavs haven't offered Sexton the max extension that fellow 2018 draft class stars Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr. have already signed. Sexton isn't on the level of these players, but he is due for a significant raise.
"We want him here long term," Cavs general manager Koby Altman said at media day Monday. "And he wants to be here long term. And so we're certainly working with his representation to see that through."
The Cavs have until Oct. 18 to agree to an extension with Sexton. If the two sides fail to reach a deal, he'll become a restricted free agent next summer.
What's more, Sexton's backcourt running mate Darius Garland projects to have the higher ceiling.
Garland, 21, took a huge leap last year to averaging 17.4 points and 6.1 assists while shooting 39.5 percent from three. He's the best playmaker and three-point shooter on Cleveland's roster, and perhaps its best hope for an All-Star this season.
Sexton's been with the Cavs for longer and was their leading scorer in each of the past two seasons, but the Sexton-Garland long-term fit remains murky. If the Cavs keep only one of the two moving forward, they would almost certainly choose Garland due to his potential, outside shooting and pure point guard skills.
Ricky Rubio's Impact on Both
The Cavaliers traded forward Taurean Prince, a second-round pick and cash to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Rubio this offseason to bring in a veteran presence behind both Garland and Sexton.
Rubio and Love are the only players on the roster above the age of 30, so Cleveland will need his leadership perhaps even more than his on-court contributions. The 11-year pro made a huge impact on 2020 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards, who led all rookies in scoring last season.
"Rubio was fantastic for Ant," a Timberwolves coach told Bleacher Report. "Ant was asked about his defense one time and his answer was, 'Yeah, I know I've still got some work to do on my defense but Ricky's going to teach me. Ricky will teach me and then I'll be fine.'"
When asked what impact Rubio will have on Garland and Sexton now, the coach said: "Vet leadership. He will be vocal in games with young guys about good possessions, good and bad shots, time and score, when to push the ball, getting teammates involved. Coaches all preach this, but it's so valuable when young players get it from a peer as well."
For a Cavs team that rotated between Matthew Dellavedova, Dante Exum, Quinn Cook, Damyean Dotson, Brodric Thomas and others at backup point guard last season, Rubio should be a stabilizing presence off the bench.
Ben Simmons to the Rescue?
With Simmons and the Sixers seemingly headed for a split, the Cavs remain an interesting trade partner.
Garland and Simmons have spent time training together in recent summers, and they would be a strong fit given the former's willingness and ability to shoot. Meanwhile, Simmons could help cover for Garland's defensive weaknesses.
However, it would be tricky for Cleveland to put together a deal for the three-time All-Star.
Sexton is the closest thing to an All-Star after he averaged a career-high 24.3 points per game last season. Love would likely have to be included for salary-matching purposes, but the Sixers would demand far more (Isaac Okoro, first-round picks) in return.
If anything, a three-team deal seems like the best possible way to get Simmons to Cleveland, with Sexton going to a rebuilding team and an All-Star rerouted to Philly. But adding Simmons to a roster that finished last in three-point accuracy last season (33.6 percent) doesn't seem ideal.
"Obviously, he's a really good player, mostly defensively," an NBA scout said. "I'm not sure he's a leader, seems to be a quiet personality that does his own thing. I would hesitate to give up a lot."
"He'd make [the Cavs] better, but you'll still need scoring, shooting and leadership," the scout added. "Best case, he has a huge chip on his shoulder and comes in to prove a point and show improvement in all areas. Worst case, he's the same player in a smaller media market and can just collect paychecks without all the pressure to win."
Simmons would be the best player on the Cavaliers, but acquiring him would be risky if it meant giving up multiple young players and future first-round picks.
Kevin Love and a Suddenly Crowded Frontcourt
Love has become the elephant in the (locker) room. The five-time All-Star started for the best teams in Cavaliers franchise history, but he may now be demoted to third on the power forward depth chart.
Both sides want a divorce (and have for years), but the marriage is being held together by the two years and $60.2 million remaining on Love's contract. Love's agent, Jeff Schwartz, told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski this summer that he wasn't interested in a buyout.
"The buyout had never even come up," Love said Monday. "I think that's speculation. Sometimes s--t is thrown against the wall, and people are seeing who's going to read it and who's going to see it."
Love has played in only 103 of the Cavs' 219 games since signing his four-year, $120 million extension in 2018, and even the Cavs acknowledged on Monday that they aren't sure where he fits into the rotation. Love said he hadn't talked with anyone about his role or minutes yet, despite Altman noting that the two sides "are always in contact" during the summers.
"I don't know if [Love] has anything left or not," the scout said. "He hasn't played much in a long time. Ideally he's another vet leader, but I'm not sure that's his personality. He's valuable if he can still play and provide leadership and guidance to young guys. Not everyone is built that way, though. If he can't play and doesn't work hard or say much in the locker room, it's probably better not to have him around."
Mobley is now the future at power forward, whether he starts over Markkanen right away or not. He has the most potential and was the highest selection of any young Cav during this rebuild, and he should be a two-way force for the next decade-plus.
Mobley revealed that his point of emphasis is to add muscle to his 7'0", 215-pound frame, one that probably isn't ready to defend NBA centers on a full-time basis just yet. His slim frame could help him occasionally play on the wing in the meantime.
Bickerstaff has used three-big lineups the past two years with Nance at small forward, Love at power forward and one of Allen, Andre Drummond or Tristan Thompson at center. If Mobley can hit threes at a good clip and shows the footspeed needed to defend wings, a frontcourt of Mobley, Markkanen and Allen could cause major mismatches for stretches of a game.
With Sexton, Garland, Mobley, Okoro, Markkanen and Allen, the Cavs have assembled young talent at every position. Rubio is the perfect backcourt mentor. Cedi Osman and Dylan Windler could become reliable rotation players off the bench. Cleveland might be fighting for a play-in spot by season's end.
However, the Cavaliers have to resolve the Love situation before it inevitably gets uglier. It's still unclear as to whether the Garland-Sexton backcourt will work long term, or if a Mobley-Allen frontcourt will feature enough shooting. A surprise trade for Simmons could reset the franchise's plans, too.
The Cavs are slowly rebuilding their way back to relevance, but they still have a lot of work to do.