It’s obvious the Cavaliers’ season didn’t end the way it should have.
Cleveland’s most glaring weaknesses were all but exposed by a more physical New York Knicks team in the NBA playoffs, taking a season full of extremely high peaks and low valleys and shutting it down with a bitter end.
Despite the 5-game loss to the Knicks, Cavs President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman backed his youthful roster when he addressed the media on Friday.
“I’m incredibly proud of our players, our coaching staff, the whole franchise of where we are and where we’ve come from,” Altman said, via Cleveland.com. “This is going to be part of a largely successful journey that we’re just getting started with. The playoffs is completely different basketball than the regular season.
“I think we didn’t play our best. I think the players have told you that they don’t think that they played up to their standards.”
This Cavaliers roster wasn’t built to win a championship right away.
Altman said as much during the team’s media day, highlighting Cleveland’s continuity while adding essential pieces for a future run back in September.
“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.”
Even so, it’s obvious this team can accomplish so much more than they showed in the postseason.
What will be some of the top storylines as Cleveland looks at its roster and finds ways to improve it? And will it be enough to push the Cavs to another hopeful postseason spot and the team’s first Larry O’Brien trophy since 2016?
If not sweeping changes, then what changes will take place?
The Cavs President of Basketball Operations emphasized that there wouldn’t be any sweeping changes or overreactions to the Cavs’ first-round loss to the Knicks on Friday.
“Obviously, we’re going to look at what we can do to adjust, but there’s no sweeping changes,” said Altman, via Cleveland.com. “No one’s going to panic off this first-round loss. Just like there’s stuff to be gained from this playoff experience, the 51 wins in a hypercompetitive NBA, there’s a lot to learn from that as well in terms of what we can be successful at.
“We know we can be better. We have to learn from that. We have to grow from that. But we will be better for going through what we went through the past 10 days.”
If the Cavs won’t make any sweeping changes to their roster, what changes will they make?
Will they add any players through free agency to counter some of the team’s most glaring weaknesses? Will they change their offseason routines to ensure they can come back stronger and more prepared?
Should they not re-sign with their respective franchises, Cleveland will have its fair share of free-agent options during the 2023 offseason.
The combined contract values of the Cavs signees in the 2023-24 season, including the estimated $33.5 million for guard Darius Garland’s contract and the non-guaranteed contracts of three players, adds up to just under $127 million, according to Spotrac. Cleveland can work with its non-taxpayer mid-level exception of $12.22 million and its bi-annual exception of $4.45 million when searching for suitable free agents.
And, though he was able to keep the team under the luxury tax during the 2022-23 season, Altman said Cleveland wasn’t afraid to enter the luxury tax threshold on Friday.
“We’re not scared to go into the tax,” said Altman, via ESPN Cavs reporter Danny Cunningham.
Whether they pool all of their available space into one player or choose to spread it evenly among many, Cleveland will have to use those options to address what would ultimately prove to be a glaring question during the team’s playoff series vs. New York.
Will the Cavs be able to improve upon their rebounding?
It’s time for the Cavs to address the elephant in the room.
Or, in Cleveland’s case, the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
“We all know the elephant in the room – the Tyrannosaurus rex in the room – is the damn offensive rebounds,” Allen said, via The Athletic Staff Writer Kelsey Russo. “It’s just something that we felt like we could have done better.
“We could have gave a little more effort in, and we just have to learn it that way.”
It’s clear the Cavs need help on the boards.
From just two current Cavs players averaging more than 4.3 rebounds per game, to their 25th-place ranking in the league in rebounds per game during the regular season, Cleveland’s deficiencies on the boards were made all the more apparent when the lights shone brighter during the NBA playoffs. Cleveland’s only other listed center, former Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks contributor Robin Lopez, played in Games 2 and 3 against New York for six minutes.
The Knicks outrebounded the Cavs by a difference of 227-186 throughout the 5-game series, according to Russo, while taking down just 60.6% of New York’s missed shots in the series as a whole.
Cleveland’s trouble on the boards can be a challenging but fixable issue. The Houston Rockets went from being one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, falling to dead last in the 2021-22 season with 42 rebounds per game, to the fourth-highest in the regular season with 46.3. They had eight players average one offensive rebound or more, compared to Cleveland’s three.
Cleveland can sign the complimentary help to return to competitive form during the offseason.
But it will be upon the Cavs’ younger players to light a spark amongst themselves and prove they can fulfill their sky-high potential.
Will Cleveland’s young corp be able to come back stronger?
What didn’t kill the Cavs can ultimately make them stronger.
Cleveland’s young starters made a significant jump as a group with the addition of Donovan Mitchell, making the NBA playoffs with a top-4 seed in the Eastern Conference off of a group that showed it at least had the resilience to fight back from deficits in the regular season.
At its best, Bickerstaff said earlier this month, the Cavs could be a tough out for anyone. Should the Cavs, new options and old, be willing to buy in, commit themselves to the team and pull off the miracle victories they had towards the beginning of the season, they more than can be a formidable opponent once October rolls around.
“We were not a repeat project,” Bickerstaff said a few days before. “This was a new group, different dynamics and there were individuals who decided to just continue to sacrifice, buy in to what we do on both sides of the ball and care more about the team than themselves.
“To get to 50 wins with a group like that those guys are deserving of a round of applause in our respect and appreciation.”
This offseason will be crucial in determining the direction of a hopeful contender and whether the Cavs are truly capable of taking the next step for the first time since the Big 3 era. Whether Mobley can live up to his Hall-of-Fame comparisons and Garland can become a young leader on one of the Central Division’s most exciting starting fives.
Only time will tell, Cavs Nation.
All we can do now is wait.