Out with the old, in with the new.
Should the Cleveland Cavaliers go through with the recent buyout request from forward Kevin Love, every player from the team’s 2016 championship run will have gone their separate ways.
It’s been seven years since Love locked down Curry on the perimeter and solidified his Cavs legacy with “the Stop.” Six years since star guard Kyrie Irving officially requested a trade to be “the man” on his own team. And five since LeBron James took his talents to Venice beach after a second-straight Finals loss.
The influence from the championship Cavs roster goes far beyond making Finals history seven years ago.
While several Cavs players made their way onto different rosters, some of the more seasoned veterans took up other roles once their NBA careers came to an end.
The players of the old Finals rosters may be long gone. But so are the hopes of getting lucky in the draft lottery while the team cycles its way through multiple head coaches.
And, in the old champion team’s stead, a new Cavs core may be primed to bring back the team’s playoff aspirations.
A short boost from a recent winning streak pushed Cleveland to fourth in the Eastern Conference and the fifth-highest winning percentage in the NBA at the All-Star break. Only the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers have higher winning percentages than the Cavaliers.
Guard Donovan Mitchell will represent Cleveland in the Utah All-Star game on Sunday, going back to the stadium of the franchise he first suited up for after he earned the first All-Star selection of his fully-bloomed career.
And Cleveland will have two 20 point per game scorers for the first time since the 2016-17 season as they hunt for a playoff spot.
But how did the Cavs get to this point? And where will they go from here?
To say the Cavs have had a turbulent past would be an understatement.
Three first-overall picks were given to the Cavaliers in the stretch between when James first took his talents to South Beach and when he returned to the Land. Cleveland picked up Irving, the former No. 2 prospect in the nation and who SB Nation called a “no-brainer” pick in 2011, filling in a spot once held by Baron Davis with a bright young prospect out of Duke University. The other two, regardless of whether they actually earned time on the court with the Cavs, still made a significant contribution to Cleveland’s championship hopes.
Both forwards Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett were shipped off to the Minnesota Timberwolves, along with then-Sixers forward Thaddeus Young and a $6.3 million trade exception, in the three-team trade that sent Love to the Cavaliers. Philadelphia got a 2015 first-round draft pick, guard Alexey Shved and forward Luc Mbah a Moute from Minnesota, according to ESPN.
“Kevin joining the Cavaliers represents a very special and unique opportunity for our team,” then-Cavs general manager David Griffin said in a 2014 release. “At only 25, Kevin has already firmly established himself as one of the NBA’s elite players and his talent, versatility and fit are major parts of our team’s vision for success.”
The Cavaliers would make four-straight Finals appearances following the Love trade. After trying to throw together rosters in an attempt to push past the dominant Golden State Warriors, Cleveland entered another rebuild that lasted through three losing seasons, four head coaches and a flurry of players ranging from now-Bulls center Andre Drummond to a former Bucks backup in center John Henson.
The Cavs haven’t made the playoffs without James since the 1997-98 season, according to Right Down Euclid Editor-in-Chief Evan Dammarell, when they fell in four games to an Indiana Pacers team with a 32-year-old Reggie Miller and and guard Mark Jackson. The team featured a 22-year-old Zydrunas Ilgauskas and former Seattle Supersonics forward Shawn Kemp in his first season in Cleveland.
With a more solidified core and one of the league’s more talented young starting lineups, will this year be the one?
All it took was one trade.
In one fell swoop, the Cavs acquired a disgruntled star guard and went from a young, up-and-coming franchise to a playoff competitor in the Eastern Conference.
Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s wishes for a player who could “create their own” were all but answered with the Mitchell trade, a point he made sure to hit upon on Cleveland’s media day. Though guard Collin Sexton came close with 24.3 points per game in the 2020-21 season, Mitchell is earning the highest point average since James himself at 27.3 per game.
Even with their struggles when defending the perimeter, Cleveland’s defense still barely ranks ahead of the Bucks for the first spot in the league with a 109.3 defensive rating and third in points allowed in the paint, according to the NBA.
Love represented both the past and the present eras for the Cavs, taking part in the team that hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy and as an important part of preserving the culture Cavs President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman wanted to keep intact. He continued to hype up and support his teammates even as his role continued to diminish in the current Cavs lineup.
The present era may have bright young players, an emphasis on selfless basketball and a sense of comradery that led to fun postgame interviews with some of the team’s younger members.
But one can never be too certain about what the future holds.
You don’t need me to tell you not to keep your present expectations too high, Cavs Nation.
This Cavs team was not built to win a championship this year. It wasn’t built to dominate the East and take the No. 1 seed as it had in year’s past. Altman said as much during media day, highlighting the team’s continuity while still adding important parts for a future run.
“I said this at (Mitchell)’s press conference: This year is not ‘contention or bust’ at all,” Altman said. “We’re still a very young group, and we’re gaining experience.
“I think we played 84 games last year. We most certainly want to play more than 84 this year. This is a runway that we have here. We have multiple guys under contract for the foreseeable future. We want to grow, add more playoff experience and build towards something.”
Cleveland can always try to find ways to build upon its depth. It will need to if it wants to make a serious run for a championship, as the team’s bench ranks 27th in points per game and 28th in offensive rating, according to the NBA.
But the future still holds more potential than most would think.
With 21-year-old forward Isaac Okoro back in the starting five, Mitchell stands as the oldest player in the team’s starting lineup at 26 years old.
Nine players, including all five of the team’s starters, are featured on the Cavs’ contract grid for next season. Should the Cavaliers accept Mobley’s team option, six could stay in the Land until 2025, while four have the possibility of being locked down until 2026.
The future may be fun in Cleveland, Cavs Nation. Let’s hope the Cavs can make the right moves from the All-Star break and beyond.
Mobley will play for team Joakim during the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday. The Challenge games will begin at 9 p.m. EST in Vivint Arena. The event will be broadcasted on TNT.