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The Cleveland Cavaliers are 1-8, have already fired their head coach, are without team leader Kevin Love following toe surgery and rank dead last in the league defensively.
Chemistry has been stunted by a locker room of veterans who thought they’d be traded post-LeBron and now suit up with a rookie in Collin Sexton who doesn’t “know how to play,” as The Athletic’s Joe Vardon reported.
And yet they’re still somehow just 2.5 games out of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Only five of the 15 teams in the East have a winning record, meaning no matter how bad a start the Cavaliers are off to, playoff hope isn’t lost yet.
The smart play is to still rebuild, ship off some veterans for whatever draft compensation you can fetch and play Sexton, Cedi Osman and Larry Nance Jr. big minutes. Losing means keeping your 2019 first-round pick if you’re Cleveland, given the team is headed for a bottom-10 record.
Of course, there is the Dan Gilbert factor to consider as owner.
Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman had the ability to strip this team down to the studs this summer and chose not to, instead opting to sign 35-year-old Channing Frye and extend Love’s contract another four years. All parties have refused to use the word “rebuild,” no matter how awful the team has looked thus far.
What if Gilbert decides to still make a run at the playoffs? What if his ego and pocketbook want this to remain a competitive team, despite such a disastrous start?
Options for the Cavaliers would be available if Gilbert is willing to take on some questionable contracts and sacrifice future financial flexibility.
No matter if the Cavs do the “right thing” and tank this season or if they go into quick-fix mode, a few glaring changes need to be made immediately. The first is freeing up No. 8 overall pick Sexton from his current role on the bench alongside Jordan Clarkson.
There’s already been a grumbling about Sexton’s play among the team’s veterans. Some of this is his fault, but a lot can be chalked up to who he has to play next to.
On the surface, Clarkson looks like one of the Cavs’ best players. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer at 15.8 points per game while shooting a career-high 49.6 percent from the floor. As a microwave scorer who has become one of the NBA‘s best bench-point producers, Clarkson has been solid in his role.
However, this role doesn’t include a whole lot of passing or making those around him better, something that’s stunting Sexton’s growth.
Sexton is averaging 21.2 points on 47.8 percent shooting and is a plus-2.5 per 36 minutes this season when not sharing the court with Clarkson. His offensive rating is 109.4 when guiding the second unit by himself.
When together, Sexton’s numbers drop to 15.3 points on 38.6 percent shooting, with a plus/minus rating of minus-16.9. The 19-year-old’s offensive rating drops all the way to 94.5 alongside Clarkson.
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Cleveland can address this problem in a few ways. The Cavs could elect to start Sexton ahead of veteran George Hill or next to him, bumping either Rodney Hood or Osman to the bench. They could also trade Clarkson to a team in need of bench scoring.
The other major issue is the team’s 30th-ranked defense. With a defensive rating of 118.5, the Cavs are nearly 20 points per 100 possessions worse than the No. 1-ranked Boston Celtics (98.9).
This isn’t a problem that has suddenly manifested itself, of course. The Cavaliers were 29th in total defense last season even with LeBron James on a 50-win team. The year before wasn’t much better, as Cleveland finished 21st overall.
One has to go back to when Ty Lue coached the defense as David Blatt’s assistant to find this Cavs team ranked in the top 10. Since Lue took over as head coach in 2016 and hired assistant Mike Longabardi to run the defense, Cleveland has ranked at or near the bottom of the league.
How Lue and assistant Damon Jones were let go but not Longabardi is baffling, given how terrible the Cavs have been defensively as both a finals participant and now with the league’s worst record. Longabardi should be added to the list of former Cavs coaches.
Cleveland needs an influx of talent even to sniff the East playoffs.
Gilbert may not be patient enough to wait for free agency, and he shouldn’t have to, either. That is, if he’s willing to pay. The 2019 free-agent class is going to be loaded. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker headline the list, while plenty of additional talent comes in just underneath.
First, let’s be clear: None of these players will sign with the Cavs.
Instead, Cleveland’s mission should be to identify teams that believe they’ll be contenders in the free-agent market that are looking to clear as much cap space as possible. The Cavaliers have three players (Hill, JR Smith and Kyle Korver) who all have low guaranteed deals for next season and can be bought out cheaply.
While a team may have little need to play Smith this season, it can save nearly $12 million simply by waiving him next June. Hill is owed just $1 million of his $18 million contract. Korver can be paid $3.4 million of his $7.5 million. For teams already with an eye on next summer that are just short of clearing a max-contract spot (or two), these become valuable players.
Possible trade targets would include Danilo Gallinari of the Los Angeles Clippers, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee of the New York Knicks, and Harrison Barnes of the Dallas Mavericks. All come from teams that should be attractive to stars this summer with the desire for extra cap space.
There’s also the list of teams that are pushing luxury-tax boundaries and looking to dump salary, even if it means moving a good player in the process.
This could be the Washington Wizards with Otto Porter Jr. (three years, $82 million), Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat (two years, $53 million) or Kent Bazemore of the Atlanta Hawks (two years, $37 million).
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Of course, there’s still one big trade target who has done everything in his power to be moved to no avail.
Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavs were pursuing a trade for Jimmy Butler before the start of the season, a deal that appeared to be orchestrated by Gilbert and Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. Cleveland could offer a package of Korver, Clarkson, Hood, Osman and/or draft considerations should Gilbert want to go all-in on Butler.
These are all shortsighted moves, of course, meaning they could be right up Gilbert’s alley.
If ownership wants to scrap a rebuilding project and still try to make the playoffs this season, the options are there.
Greg Swartz covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.