The Cleveland Cavaliers are in year two of a full-on rebuild and are fresh off of a lackluster 19-63 season. Last year was a trying one, with injuries and staff changes crippling an already handicapped organization still trying to restock the cupboard after LeBron left. This past summer has been a positive one in terms of following the rebuild blueprint, and there are some actual interesting things to watch for this year at the newly-renamed Rocket Mortage Fieldhouse.
For starters, the Cavaliers had a sneaky good summer. One positive aspect of this offseason was the addition of head coach John Beilein. After Tyronn Lue was unceremoniously fired just a few games into last season, leaving Larry Drew to do his best with a ragtag roster of whatever the Cavs could put together, Cleveland tabbed the collegiate coaching legend to lead this young squad. While this may have been surprising at first, upon further review the decision makes some sense. The Cavaliers are a young team, with some of that youth only having one year of college basketball under their belt. Beilein is known for his ability to connect with players and provide a structured environment, something the Cleveland Cavaliers have not had in recent years.
He also traditionally ran a two-guard system with the Wolverines, something he will be able to do at the NBA with the current roster construction. Beilein instills a lot of motion in his offensive scheme, which will be beneficial for the Cavs and their developing talent. Players like Cedi Osman and Kevin Love should thrive in this environment. So, while Beilein is a 66-year-old rookie NBA head coach, his resume and tendencies should translate well to the NBA.
Speaking of that two-guard system, the Cavaliers drafted for “best player available” in Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland. The sweet-shooting 19-year-old is a lethal offensive weapon with many tools in his arsenal. He can pull-up from anywhere on the floor and just as easily get to the hoop with a solid handle. He profiles as a stronger finisher than Sexton, who finished weakly too often. But Garland’s ability to space the floor will open up the offensive significantly. His defense and playmaking are question marks, as is his ability to play without the ball in his hands – the latter something he will have to learn at the professional level. Garland’s fit with Sexton will be the first or second-most talked about topic for the Cavs, as there are several barriers to the two working out. But Garland, as of now, seems like a superior prospect to Sexton.
Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr. were taken outside the lottery (26 and 30 overall, respectively) in the first round but will almost assuredly see plenty of minutes this season. Windler is an “older” prospect at 22-years-old but profiles to be a tremendous 3-point shooter and a smart player who can get to his spots easily. The wild card is Porter Jr., who was one of the most highly-regarded prospects before an uneven season at Southern California. He is oozing with athleticism and showed natural instincts as a scorer and passer throughout high school and a brief college stint. Porter Jr. has the potential to be a nightmare in isolation situations, leveraging his size to maximize his offensive capabilities. Defensively, he has some work to do particularly with positioning, but his size is encouraging for that development. He only appeared in 21 games for the Trojans last season and will have to play catch up after missing Summer League. Windler seems more likely to be a plug-and-play option, but Porter Jr. has the potential to be a diamond in the rough.
The key to this team potentially surprising people out East? The Cavs All-Star power forward in Kevin Love. After missing much of last season with a toe injury, one of the many issues the Cavs suffered, a full offseason for Love (which he has not had since his Timberwolves days) should put him in peak position to showcase himself. And for the Cavs’ sake, a positive stretch is just what they need. It should come as no surprise that the trade talks surrounding Love could finally lead to a move this season. A clean bill of health, a wide-open race for a championship in a league with no clear front runner, and a contract that is not as bad at second glance, makes Love an attractive player in the trade market. Cleveland does not really have a massive incentive to deal Love, especially if he is the mentor/floor-spacer for two young guards that he can be. His influence on the rookies is something that is not easily replaced, and the Cavs may value that more depending on what packages they are offered.
Cleveland has to game plan for the future, certainly, but having a role model like Love on and off the court is very hard to come by. On the court, his passing and spacing will give the young players plenty of opportunities to create offense and understand the NBA flow. Off the court, he is a well-respected champion of mental health and quality locker room presence. That is hard to give up on, but the crossroad is likely coming up this season.
Miami and Portland are two teams to watch for, but every playoff-caliber team should be inquiring on Kevin Love. Especially if he is healthy and having a good season.
On the flip side of the veteran Love, you have the very young backcourt duo of Sexton and Garland. This will be the most-criticized part of the team, especially considering how similar they are to each other. Undersized, score-first point guards who do not profile as playmakers seems like an odd pairing. But the Cavs seem convinced that its possible, especially with the tantalizing offensive capabilities. Sexton showed some impressive growth last year shooting the basketball and improved his field goal percentage by 7% after the All-Star Break. Garland can be the second beast of the two-headed monster. Or, the two can falter because each does not have the ball in their hands enough, which in turn magnifies their defensive short comings.
This is where Beilein will have to work his magic. Figuring out a way for one of the guards to be a passable defender would boost confidence that it might work out. Right now, Cleveland needs to have solid wing defenders to hide Sexton and Garland. Osman is serviceable at this, and will hopefully move back to a high-intensity point-forward role that was envisioned before last season. Defense is a big short coming for both Sexton and Garland.
Playmaking is the other question mark. Sexton finished last season averaging three assists per game and almost as many turnovers. Garland, in the small sample size of college, had more turnovers than assists (15 to 13). There is certainly concern there. Passing vision takes time to develop, especially when the surrounding talent is subpar. Perhaps Beilein’s offense creating more movement will open up passing lanes and inhibit more playmaking.
It is another rebuilding year in Cleveland, but there are reasons to be excited too. Garland looks like a real offensive weapon who can space the floor and make people look silly en-route to the basket. If Sexton can build on his impressive second half and Love can stay healthy, the Cavs will be a fun team to watch. John Beilein is a respected and detail-oriented basketball mastermind and should provide a positive foundation to build upon. There will be many losses (or lessons, as they were referred to last offseason), but there should be some highlights as well. Probably not be enough to sneak into the playoffs, but the Cleveland Cavaliers should be slightly better and much more fun to watch.