Nearly five years have passed since the 2018 NBA Draft.
The Cavaliers have had multiple cycles of gaining spots in the lottery since then. Multiple cycles of selecting high-potential picks with their draft selections. And multiple cycles of hoping they would become a future cornerstone for the Cavaliers one day.
Cleveland has had nine selections in the first and second rounds between 2018-22, including four in 2022. They went as high as No. 3 in 2021 after they jumped from the fifth-highest odds to land the No. 1 pick.
The Cavs have undergone a monumental amount of change since they first started their rebuilding years in 2018.
Guard Darius Garland, forward Isaac Okoro and forward Evan Mobley, all players who earned at least a few starts for Cleveland in their playoff series against New York, were taken in three consecutive drafts from 2019-21. All three will be under contract for the Cavaliers in the 2023-24 season, according to Spotrac. Forwards Dylan Windler and Isaiah Mobley, who were taken at No. 26 in 2019 and No. 49 in 2022, will be restricted free agents in 2023.
Cleveland won’t have the options it has had in years past to build upon its next generation of star talent.
The 2023 NBA Draft will take place on June 22. The Cavaliers have the No. 49 pick and a chance to add a valuable contributor before they can start negotiating with free agents on June 30. Cleveland will bring in Eastern Michigan forward Emoni Bates for a workout, according to a Wednesday article from Cleveland.com Cavs reporter Chris Fedor.
“Eastern Michigan’s Emoni Bates, once a ballyhooed prep star who started his college career at Memphis before transferring, is also scheduled to work out for Cleveland ahead of the draft,” wrote Fedor.
After nearly half a decade years of watching the careers of the 2018 draft class unfold, what could the Cavs have done differently in the draft that began an era of three-straight losing seasons and one near-run to the NBA playoffs?
The Original Pick
After four-straight battles with the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, forward LeBron James again left Cleveland for another team.
Another streak of landing the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft didn’t follow.
The Cavaliers took home the No. 8 pick in the 2018 draft, taking spots behind the Chicago Bulls, the Orlando Magic and the Dallas Mavericks. The Brooklyn Nets pick Cleveland had acquired when they dealt guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics had the eighth-highest odds of taking the No. 1 spot.
Cleveland selected Alabama guard Collin Sexton with their pick, taking a chance on a guard who once held his own as the Crimson Tide played with just three players during the final 11 minutes of a 2017 matchup against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Alabama fell by just five points after its whole bench was ejected and two of its five remaining players were forced to depart with an injury and fouls, according to ESPN Staff Writer Myron Medcalf.
“That was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever been a part of,” then-Minnesota guard Jordan Murphy said, via Medcalf.
Former Cavs guard Kyle Korver, now the Assistant General Manager for the Atlanta Hawks, had positive things to say about the rookie from Mableton, Ga. as the 2018-19 season went on.
“He has a desire to be great,” Korver said, via FOX Sports Ohio. “He’s got a huge motor. You take those two things, those two ingredients, and you can become something.”
Sexton would finish his first season in the league with averages of 16.7 points, 2.9 rebounds and three assists. He took third place in points per game on a Cavaliers squad that finished with a 19-63 record and the second-highest odds to land the No. 1 pick in 2019.
It’s easy to look at the 2018 Class and see forward Mikal Bridges, guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and forward Michael Porter Jr. taken after Sexton in the lottery.
But hindsight will always be 20/20.
A talented 2018 class saw reliable players fall as far as the early second round. Villanova guard Jalen Brunson, who recently scored 24 points per game in Cleveland’s playoff series against New York, was taken with the 33rd pick by the Dallas Mavericks. New York center Mitchell Robinson, Los Angeles Lakers forward Jarred Vanderbilt, San Antonio Spurs guard Devonte’ Graham and Toronto Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr. were all taken in the second round in 2018.
The NBA’s final consensus mock draft for 2018 had the Cavaliers selecting Duke forward Wendell Carter Jr. at No. 8. Porter Jr. was slated to go to Chicago in the consensus mock draft. ESPN still had Gilgeous-Alexander going to the Cavaliers at No. 8 in its 2018 mock draft. Sexton fell to the Hornets’ pick at No. 11, while Chicago still took Carter at No. 7.
Gilgious-Alexander did not want to play for Cleveland, according to a 2018 tweet from ESPN NBA Draft Analyst Jonathan Givony.
“It’s not clear if this affected Cleveland’s decision making process, but for whatever reason Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did not want to end up with the Cavs, preferring Charlotte,” Givony wrote. “Interesting little tug of war there. Collin Sexton will obviously be thrilled to land with Cleveland.”
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst repeated the point in 2018.
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“I know Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is shooting up draft boards but from what I can tell, it doesn’t seem like he wants to play for the #Cavs,” Windhorst said, via ESPN Cleveland. “He patently refused to work out for them, in fact made a point to tell them he didn’t want to be there.”
Gilgeous-Alexander was taken three spots below the Cavaliers at No. 11 by the Charlotte Hornets in the 2018 draft. He was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 12 pick and two future second-round picks. The Hornets would use their newly-acquired pick to select Michigan State forward Miles Bridges before selecting forward Arnoldas Kulboka in the second round. Porter Jr. would fall to Denver at No. 14, giving them a scoring forward who has performed well in this year’s NBA playoffs.
After looking through a five-year window, Gilgeous-Alexander was a talented option to pass up on at No. 8. Porter Jr. would have been a roll of the dice for a Cavs team trying to find a direction after the Big Three era. He played in just three games at Missouri after he underwent a microdiscectomy in 2017.
With all that out of the way, it would have been best to select Sexton or Mikal Bridges with the No. 8 pick in the 2018 draft. Sexton played a key scoring role with the Cavaliers from 2018-22. Bridges took a few years to become the player he is today, but he became a reliable forward for Brooklyn and Phoenix after a successful career with Villanova.
It’s tough to know whether the trade for Mitchell still would have happened with the selection of Mikal Bridges, but either way, Cleveland still walks away with a talented player with the No. 8 pick.
If everything worked out the way it did in our timeline, the Cavs would still have the No. 5 and No. 26 picks in the 2019 NBA Draft. Garland would have still been a fantastic selection at No. 5 regardless of if Bridges or Sexton joined the team.
Guard Jordan Poole, forward Keldon Johnson and guard Kevin Porter Jr. were all taken just a few picks after Cleveland selected forward Dylan Windler at No. 26 in 2019. Porter Jr. would end up playing in a Cavaliers uniform after he was traded by the Detroit Pistons for four future second-round picks and cash considerations, according to NBA.com.
Assuming they all grew into the players they are today, any one of those selections gives the Cavaliers plenty of flexibility to work with either Sexton or Bridges as potential starters for the future.
Either way, the Cavs had options.
And, at least for now, they made a good one.