The strategy employed by Chris Grant in building the post-LeBron James era Cleveland Cavaliers is quite simple — be really, really bad and accumulate as many draft picks as possible. Well, the Cavs, though in the midst of a far from terrible 9-11 stretch that includes wins over Boston and Oklahoma City, are not very good; the team’s 15-34, last in the Central Division and well out of the playoff race. The Cavs have acquired 4 additional first-round picks, in addition to the team’s own, from now until 2020, and if the Lakers earn a postseason bid, have the ability to swap a likely late first-round selection this June, via Miami in the LeBron trade, with L.A.’s, via the Ramon Sessions trade.
Believe it or not, Cleveland’s in a really good place right now. In the last 2 years, Grant’s acquired 4 promising young players through the NBA Draft. Kyrie Irving, in only his sophomore year at age 20, is an All Star reserve and arguably the league’s best point guard, with 23.9 points per game far and away tops at the position (all due respect to Chris Paul). Tristan Thompson, last year’s No. 4 overall selection, is really coming along in 2012-13, showing a wider variety of post moves, improved body control and an ability to play under control. As for rookies Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller, it’s still too early to tell. Both have shown flashes — Waiters as a capable slasher at the 2, with an ability to attack the cup and a streaky outside jumper that demands respect, and Zeller as a stronger-than-expected 4 not afraid to fool around inside but also with an ability to step outside and stretch the defense.
But depth has been an issue. Kyrie’s missed 11 games, Dion 8 and Anderson Varejao, whose 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds per game had him on an All Star pace, 24 and counting. Varejao was first sidelined indefinitely with a right knee injury, then news of a blood clot ended his season early for the 3rd consecutive year. And Cleveland’s 27.9 bench points per game, helped immensely by the acquisition of Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington a few weeks ago, still only ranks 24th in the NBA. (In 6 games with the Cavs, Speights has averaged 14.7 points, second best on the team, and 7.3 rebounds in less than 25 minutes per, accumulating a 22.2 PER.)
Cleveland could use a healthy Varejao in February, if at the very least to entertain any and all trade offers. Financially speaking, Cleveland’s in very good shape, with their largest salary — Baron Davis’s amnestied, and thus off the books, $14.85 million — expiring this summer. Speights, with a $4.5 million player option for next year he’s likely to opt out of, is the only question mark. Luke Walton’s $6.1 million expires, as does Daniel Gibson’s $4.8 million, and both are unlikely to return. Wayne Ellington, a restricted free agent, has a $3.1 million qualifying offer the Cavs should extend for his outside shooting. Omri Casspi, who’s struggled immensely in his 1.5 years here and fallen to the end of Byron Scott’s bench, is a restricted free agent the Cavs are likely to let walk.
Cleveland only has $32.5 million committed next year, and $0 on the books for 2014-15, with team options held on Varejao, Irving, Thompson, Waiters, Gee and Zeller, all of which are affordable and very likely to be extended. The point: Cleveland’s in the running for at least one max free agent in the summer when all 3 of Miami’s stars can opt out, including LeBron James, who’s been speculated to be weighing a potential return to his native northeast Ohio.
Pipe dreams aside, at the very least, the young core is in place for years to come. Irving and Thompson are all but locked in through 2015-16, and Zeller and Waiters through 2016-17. Should Speights return on a reasonable contract, say in the $6-8 million per year range, Scott would have four very solid frontcourt guys, assuming full health, in Andy, Zeller, Thompson and Marreese, three of whom (Zeller excluded) are capable of giving you 10-15 any given night. Since LeBron’s departure, SF has been a glaring weakness, as Alonzo Gee, who averages 10.3 points per game (ironically, the same as his 281st-ranked PER) on 40% shooting and 29.5% from 3, struggling to ascend.
The Cavs aren’t terrible on offense, averaging 96.5 points per in a division with some really good defensive teams in Indiana and Chicago, but defensively, the team oftentimes lacks energy, starting with Irving, and surrenders 101.1 points per. A far cry from Mike Brown’s elite units — granted those teams had LeBron — Cleveland allows opponents to shoot a league-worst 47.5% from the field and 26th-ranked 37.6% from 3.
For Clevelanders, the key word is patience, a concept not exactly new to Ohio sports fans. Cleveland’s definitely not postseason-bound this year and likely not again next year, though there’s enough talent on the roster to make a fringe run, again assuming full health. But if Scott can continue to develop the young guys and receive more of a defensive commitment from a franchise guy (and leader) like Irving, if Grant can continue to acquire young talent with his first-round picks and if owner Dan Gilbert can persuade a stud free agent, like a LeBron James, to ink a long-term contract in 2014, the sky’s the limit for this team in a few years.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.