After coming off of a championship run in the 2017-18 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers now find themselves at the bottom of the NBA standings with a league-worst 9-38 record. The steep decline in the team’s performance is due in large part to the departure of LeBron James, the franchise’s greatest player. After he fulfilled a promise to the city of Cleveland in particular and to the state of Ohio in general with the 2016 championship, James sought to continue his Hall of Fame career in the brighter lights of Los Angeles.
With a season that is going to be one of the worst in Cavs history, it’s hard to imagine how they can regain their status as one of the league’s elite in the near future. But it’s not impossible to see the Cavaliers get back on the title track if they have a solid plan in place for the next few years.
The Philadelphia 76ers are known for “The Process,” a multiple-year tanking project that led to their current success. Though they shouldn’t have to follow the Sixers’ blueprint completely, there are elements to “The Process” that are worth emulating.
Here’s a five-step plan to get the Cleveland Cavaliers back on track to chasing the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy once again:
1. Trade for draft picks
The trade deadline is fast approaching with playoff contenders jockeying for position in order to gain ahead in the standings. Teams with championship aspirations want to get better for that chance to end the Golden State Warriors dynastic reign at the top.
Cavs general manager Koby Altman should take advantage of the next few weeks by doing a fire sale of his veterans. Granted that Kevin Love re-signed with the team with the idea that this will not be a rebuilding season, his injury practically forced the team to rethink its plans. There’s no use trying to hold on to the veterans that they have on the roster simply out of loyalty. Of course, many of them have contracts that are hard to trade, but they could have value to contenders as players with invaluable championship experience both on the floor and in the locker room.
Tristan Thompson could be the missing piece to some teams looking to shore up on their rebounding and interior defense off the bench. J.R. Smith is a streak shooter who can provide instant offense to a team’s reserves. Love, despite his injury history, would be a very good stretch four for teams seeking more outside shooting from the power forward spot.
Others such as Jordan Clarkson, John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova have expiring contracts next year and could be dealt in the summer for teams that need cap space to sign that much-coveted free agent from the class of 2020.
Though most of the players on the Cavs roster aren’t worthy of a first-round pick, some of the ones they receive can be packaged together to acquire a single lottery pick.
The goal is to get quality players from the draft so just getting any draft pick isn’t going to be good enough.
2. Tank for the next three years
This is more like an outcome of the Cavs not having quality players on the roster after the aforementioned fire sale of its veterans. Allowing Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic play a majority of the time will hit two birds with one stone—the Cavs lose because of their inexperience and they develop these young players and see if they can be part of the team’s future.
As they learn how to win, more often than not, losing will be the result. The loss of veteran players will force the team’s young core to grow into maturity to keep them from getting embarrassed on a nightly basis.
There is a time to win and there is a time to lose so you can win later down the line. For the Cavs, the time is ripe for losing again and it won’t be until a few years down the line before they can start winning again. It will be painful, though, but this is a necessary and organic step to getting lottery picks for the next three years.
3. Better scouting for the upcoming drafts
The Cavs have been hit-and-miss in the lottery the past 20 years. Inasmuch as they translated three of those picks into LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, three players who were instrumental in their championship runs, they’ve also had some of the worst picks in the lottery. Anthony Bennett, who has since disappeared completely from the NBA in just a few years, Dion Waiters and Luke Jackson are some of the few names that make fans cringe at the wasted opportunities.
Can you imagine if the Cavs had selected Al Jefferson instead of Jackson in 2004, Kawhi Leonard instead of Thompson in 2011, Andre Drummond instead of Waiters in 2012 and Giannis Antetokounmpo instead of Bennett in 2013? We’d be looking at a Cavs team that may have won a couple of championships the past two decades instead of just one. As important as Thompson was to the Wine and Gold’s 2016 title, Leonard would have been a far superior player to place alongside Irving, James and Love.
The jury is still out on Collin Sexton but until he shows that he can hit the jump shot consistently and make plays for others, he’s a project at best.
The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science and despite advancements in scouting, the chances that a team makes the right decision will ultimately be determined a few years down the line. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the Cavaliers can’t get better at selecting the best players available. Now is the time for management to spend on scouting players at home and overseas. As costly as that may be, the losses can be recovered with a championship contending team later down the line.
4. Bring Back LeBron in 2022 only if…
James signed a four-year contract last summer with the Lakers which will take him into his 37th birthday. He won’t be the best player in the league by then but based on his performance this season, it’s likely that the decline in his game won’t be as steep as most players. In 2022, when his contract expires, the Cavs will have an opportunity to re-acquire the four-time MVP and he will command a huge salary. Though he is worth every penny that his value dictates, I’m not sure that it will be in the team’s best interest to bring him back to Cleveland.
It will cost them a huge chunk of their salary cap to sign James to another contract and that could prove detrimental to the work they will have done to become a contender. By then, if management has been fortunate enough to get players that can be part of their next championship core, they will need the cap space to re-sign these players long term.
But if James decides that he will take a pay cut to return to the team that drafted him, to play closer to home and to teach the young ones what it takes to win a ring, then it’s a no-brainer. Having James will not only put fans on the seats, but he could also be the missing piece that gives the Cavaliers their second championship.
5. Get a Championship Coach
If there is anything that has kept James from winning more titles, it’s that he hasn’t had the opportunity to play for a coach who’s smarter than he is and has had a championship pedigree from the start. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were fortunate to be coached by Phil Jackson. David Robinson and Tim Duncan were mentored by Gregg Popovich. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and Dwyane Wade were coached by Pat Riley. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant have had Steve Kerr, a four-time champion during his playing days, on the sidelines the past few years.
Whether James returns in 2022 or not, the Cavs need a coach who knows what it takes to win a ring and someone who knows how to get the team to play both sides of the court.
Championship teams are defined by their defense, something that the Cavs have been lacking in recent years. In a few years, once the pieces are in place, a good team can be great with a defensive philosophy that maximizes the team’s talents. However, the offensive side shouldn’t be neglected either. Former Cavs coach Mike Brown was excellent on defense during James’ first tenure with the Cavs but he was too predictable with his offense which cost them dearly in the playoffs. Needless to say, the coach that the Cavaliers hire is just as crucial to determining whether they win a championship or not as the players they acquire.
There should be a number of great coaches waiting in the wings by 2022. The key is in making sure that they don’t get stingy with their offer so that they don’t lose the right one.