The Cleveland Cavaliers are in the midst of a three-year rebuild that’s going nowhere, and now they’ve hit an impasse: the team has lost the Eastern Conference rebuilding race. Every year there has been something for the Cavs to be optimistic about, whether it be the growth of a particular player, new arrival, or some stretch of positive play (they won their first three games of the regular season).
Concurrently, those seasons and the one that has 11 games remaining for the Cavs have ended the same way: near the bottom of the East.
From a talent standpoint, Cleveland entered the 2020-21 NBA season with their best roster since 2018. They had a pair of lottery guards in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, rookie wing Isaac Okoro, second-year wing Kevin Porter Jr., Larry Nance Jr., Kevin Love, and Andre Drummond. One could’ve hoped that this team would be a playoff dark horse. In reality, they’re 21-40, which is good for 13th in the East, and have made minimal, if any progress.
Sexton and Garland make for a compelling young Cavs backcourt from a production standpoint but one that is yet to make any headway from an impact standpoint. Drummond was recently bought out, Porter was traded to the Houston Rockets after a supposed blowup with general manager Koby Altman, and Love has been banged up for the bulk of the regular season. Meanwhile, Okoro has struggled to serve as a secondary scorer and/or lift head coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s rotation.
A young team with speed is typically one that will score at a high clip. On the contrary, the Cavs sport one of the worst offenses in the league. They entered Wednesday 30th in the NBA in points per game (104.0), 29th in three-point shooting percentage (33.8 percent), and 23rd in field goal percentage (45.5 percent).
Collin Sexton is the lone pillar that the organization can pinpoint as progress and a player to build around. The third-year guard has been a prolific scorer this season, averaging 24.5 points per game while shooting 37.6 percent from beyond the arc.
Midseason acquisition Jarrett Allen, 23, is another player worth keeping around, as the big man has been an imposing inside threat on both ends of the floor.
The Cavs can wish upon a star that Sexton becomes for them what Trae Young has been for the Atlanta Hawks in eventually leading them to the playoffs alongside a young roster. At the end of the day, wishing upon a star is precisely as it seems: wishing upon a star. It’s a wish, not a guarantee.
As for the Hawks, they’re one of the many Eastern Conference teams who have been rolling out a young roster in recent memory and have taken an enormous step forward this season. Since Nate McMillan was named interim head coach in place of Lloyd Pierce, the Hawks have soared up to the fifth seed in the conference at 34-28.
The New York Knicks went from being 21-45 last season to 34-28 and in possession of the fourth seed in the conference this season. All the while, the Charlotte Hornets have been playing .500 basketball all season and are still playing well with Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball sidelined.
Sure, the Chicago Bulls are fighting for their playoff lives, but they acquired one of the NBA’s premier centers at the trade deadline, Nikola Vucevic. In all likelihood, the trade won’t yield optimum results for the Bulls until next season, anyway.
What do three of the aforementioned teams have in common? They’ve developed their young cores and established an identity. The Hawks have an exuberant offense, whereas the Knicks are an elite defensive team and the Hornets have few gaping holes in their play.
The Cavs don’t have a tangible identity. They’re a team with a handful of former lottery picks and productive veterans that’s trying to string a series of wins together to generate some internal and external optimism. Growth isn’t merely in the statistics: it’s in the win column and seen by putting up a fight against the best in the sport.
While teams whose rebuild is nearing completion make their move for the playoffs, the East also has the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Milwaukee Bucks contending for the NBA Finals. There are also teams like the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat who have deep-rooted cores with playoff experience. Even if the Cavs’ current unit shows signs of life, who are the one or two teams they’re knocking out of the playoffs next season?
Should the Cavs blow up their roster and start from scratch this offseason? Flip their soon-to-be top-10 pick for an impact player? Package future picks and previous selections for a young star? Does Kevin Love have any trade value? Fire Bickerstaff? Move on from Altman? Keep everybody and hope for better results?
There are no clear-cut answers.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have fallen behind, and there’s no evident path forward.