Ever since the larger-than-life entity that is LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018 for the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cavs have been slowly but steadily rebuilding. After drafting a supposedly generational talent third overall in Evan Mobley at last month’s NBA Draft, the Cavs decided to re-sign Jarrett Allen and bring in former Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Signing Markkanen, who was considered an NBA up-and-comer as early as his second season in the league and then fell out of favour with the Bulls last season raised quite a few eyebrows. In fairness, finding playing time for all three while contending with an aging Kevin Love who is also vying for frontcourt minutes would have people wondering what the Cavs have gotten themselves into at this stage of their rebuild. The team limped to a 22-50 finish last season and are expected to miss the playoffs again but want to fast-track their rebuild. While that is perfectly understandable and every team stuck in a rebuild wants to be relevant again as soon as possible, this offseason may have set their franchise back at least a couple of years.
GARLAND OR SEXTON?
The questions surrounding Darius Garland and Collin Sexton also need to be answered as it does not seem like the pairing will help the Cavs win consistently. Garland took a massive step forward last season, putting up career-highs in points (17.4), rebounds (2.4), assists (6.1), steals (1.2) and field goal percentage (45.1%). He also shot a remarkable 39.8% from three-point range, one of the few bright spots on a team that ranked near the bottom of the league in that category. Garland excelled after moving to point guard full-time, while Sexton played shooting guard and put up nearly 25 points per game. However, despite his impressive numbers, Sexton is awfully undersized at shooting guard at just over six feet tall and the duo is reminiscent of the Stephen Curry-Monta Ellis pairing on the Golden State Warriors a decade ago. That tandem eventually parted ways to make way for a young Klay Thompson to slide in at shooting guard and created arguably the best backcourt of all time. The Warriors realized that pairing two similar guards and expecting them to take the next step was a little far-fetched considering Ellis’ shortcomings and eventually decided to ship him out, creating a dynasty. Of course, Garland is nowhere near as good as Curry and probably never will be, and with Sexton up for a contract extension, rumors are swirling about his future in Cleveland. The Alabama product put up nearly 25 points a game in just his third season and while that is highly impressive, the general sentiment around him is that he is more suited to be a sixth man than a lead guard, similar to Ellis. This October, Sexton is eligible for a five-year, $168 million contract, but whether or not the Cavs will bestow that upon him or trade him to open up the spot to last year’s lottery pick Isaac Okoro is yet to be seen. While Okoro was drafted for his defensive potential on and off the ball, his offense is still a work in progress. He showed improvement as a playmaker and a slasher late in his rookie year but shot only 29% from three-point range, severely limiting his offensive game. New acquisition Ricky Rubio could help all three guards improve after heading to Cleveland just hours before this year’s draft, according to a report by Wojnarowski. Rubio gives them a veteran point guard who can run the offense when Garland needs a breather and could also play alongside him in spurts. Mobley and Allen also benefit from the addition of Rubio, giving them an excellent pick-and-roll partner to create easy looks for them. The Cavs will have backcourt depth next year but floor spacing may be an issue without many reliable shooters on the roster at the moment.
” I think I fit in well—young core, exciting point guards.”new cavaliers forward lauri markkanen on his fit in cleveland
FIGURING OUT THE FIT
Shipping out Larry Nance Jr. in the deal for Markkanen also made little sense as the former had value as a versatile forward that would have allowed Mobley to develop behind Allen and not stunt his growth. Nance is capable of sliding to small forward when needed, as he played a vital role for Cleveland especially when it came to guarding bigger wings like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. As currently constructed, Mobley will probably play behind Markkanen at power forward and Allen will start at center with Dean Wade competing for minutes with a presumably healthy Kevin Love. “I think I fit in well—young core, exciting point guards”, said Markkanen in an interview with K.C. Johnson of NBC sports after his move to Cleveland. As the recipient of a four-year, $67 million dollar contract, Markkanen should get the starting nod over Mobley given his experience and as a sign of Cleveland’s commitment to him. The issue here is instead of developing Mobley right away by having him start from day one, he will likely come off the bench and play fewer minutes per game to accommodate their newest free agent signing. A supposedly generational prospect in the mold of Anthony Davis, Mobley figures to be more comfortable as a true power forward than a center given his guard-like skillset and slender frame. This makes the departure of Nance Jr. even stranger given his ability to slide to small forward to accommodate Mobley at the four, something Markkanen is unable to do.
In other news, reports of Kevin Love’s lack of interest in a buyout agreement with Cleveland are concerning. Love’s decline has been well-documented over the past couple of seasons and after the departure of King James back in 2018, the Cavs tied themselves to Love in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. It does not seem like the relationship between the two parties can be fixed at this time and a trade is hopefully on the horizon. When healthy, Love is a source of points, rebounds and consistent perimeter shooting on par with some of the best stretch big men in the league today. But unfortunately, after helping Cleveland lift their first NBA title in 2016, Love has battled injuries, inconsistency and appeared to quit on his teammates multiple times. Surely, Love would help a contender if he could get past his injury woes, but no team is willingly taking on the two years and $60 million left on his deal. Unless the Cavs are willing to attach a draft pick to get rid of his contract, it seems highly unlikely that any team will come calling for Love. As a rebuilding franchise, draft picks are of immense value and giving away a first-round pick could set them back even further.
Cleveland has languished since the departure of James and haven’t sniffed the playoffs for three years now. While the organization seemed to be building slowly and steadily without making too many big splashes, this offseason could define its trajectory over the next couple of years. Perhaps a core of Garland, Sexton(presumably), Allen, Mobley, Markkanen and Okoro will lead them to the playoffs this year but given the improvements made by their Eastern Conference counterparts, that seems unlikely. Cleveland is certainly a team on the rise with some intriguing talent and their quest to reach the playoffs without LeBron on their roster, a feat they have not accomplished since 1988, should be interesting.