LeBron James’s 2014 decision to come home flipped Cleveland’s script from player-development to veteran-acquisition mode. On the surface, trading Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love was a no-brainer for Cleveland. Love completed a Triforce with James and Kyrie Irving, and the results speak for themselves, with the Cavs ending a 52-year championship drought for the city in 2016. But now they’re over the cap and forced to add exiled, washed-up vets, and the team is sputtering. No matter what happens this postseason, the Cavs are about to enter the summer with a shallow team in need of tweaks. That sound you hear is the second-guessing of the Wiggins-for-Love trade that sent the team down this path almost three years ago.
“We’ve been given like a sacred trust in this guy,” Cavaliers general manager David Griffin said at last month’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference — this guy meaning LeBron James. Griffin added, “You don’t go from zero to 100 in our league in a way that makes sense. You have to do it in a way that you can capitalize on the window you have.” That was the logic behind dealing first-round picks for aging veterans like Timofey Mozgov, Channing Frye, and Kyle Korver, and re-signing LeBron’s favorites, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith. Cleveland has been to two straight Finals and could be on its way to a third.
But this season hasn’t gone exactly as planned. The Cavs have the 23rd-ranked defense (with a rating of 108.1). It’s a troublesome statistic, considering only one of the last 74 NBA Finals participants (the 2000–01 Lakers) had a relative defensive rating worse than the league average, per research by Numberfire. NBA executives and scouts I’ve talked to tell me Cleveland’s issues include natural fatigue after two Finals runs, uninterest in defense, poor coaching by Tyronn Lue, and no bench help for Thompson. As one scout put it, “Their depth is a shit show.”
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a lot like what happened in Miami. The Heat went to four Finals and won two, so, again, you can’t argue with the results. But because of their roster construction, with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron each signed for near-max deals, the team fizzled without the cap flexibility to make successful auxiliary moves. Only eight players appeared in the five 2014 NBA Finals games: Four of them were Rashard Lewis, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen, and Norris Cole. Lewis is retired and the others are nearly out of the league.
In three years, the same might be said about the back end of this year’s Cavaliers bench. This is the second-oldest roster in the NBA, with one player younger than 25 (point guard Kay Felder). Frye and Korver can shoot, but don’t defend or rebound well. Andrew Bogut was injured within a minute of taking the floor for the team and was replaced by Larry Sanders, who hasn’t played a full season in four years. Deron Williams facilitates, but struggles to defend. This is what (arguably) the greatest player of all time is surrounded with. It’s the anti-Spurs model, which typically used the bottom of the roster for player-development purposes. That’s where you find your Tiago Splitters, Jonathan Simmonses, and Danny Greens.
At Sloan, Griffin recalled that Cavaliers draft scout Chico Averbuck advised him prior to the Korver trade in January to “get rid of every pick we have … unload every asset you possibly can” because of the win-now focus. “For somebody whose job is scouting players for those picks, it wasn’t really a statement in his own self-interest,” Griffin quipped. “But it was interesting that he was so passionate about what he viewed as the window that we had.”
Griffin mentioned that the pick that Cleveland sent to Atlanta is top-10 protected in 2019 and 2020, so if the team’s core disintegrates and the Cavs become a bottom-feeder, they’ll have a safety net. But that would be cold comfort for fans. When the Cavaliers failed to surround LeBron with enough talent to win a title during his first stint with the team, LeBron left. When the Heat didn’t have the cap space to bolster the back of their roster, LeBron left. There were other circumstances at play in both exits. But when you give LeBron what he needs, he tends to deliver. The trick is figuring out how to do that in a sustainable way.
The Celtics, Wizards, and Raptors have strong rosters that can take Cleveland to the brink of a series, but the Cavs are still the prohibitive favorites. Their defense might be better once they trim their playoff rotation down to seven or eight players. But you could argue the three best Western Conference teams — the Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets — would all be favored in a Finals series. Similar to the Cavs, all three teams have lethal offenses, but they feature more depth and better defenses.
It would’ve been easier for the Cavaliers to improve those two latter areas if they hadn’t made Wiggins-for-Love deal. If LeBron’s return to Cleveland made the Cavs major players, the Love trade showed they had learned from previous mistakes. They did what they had to do construct an instant contender. Had they not traded for Love, maybe they wouldn’t have won the Finals last year. But maybe they would’ve gone back-to-back — after all, they didn’t need Love to get there in 2015. We can’t engineer an alternative past, but we can focus on the present and the future. I asked one scout, one executive, and one assistant coach if the Cavs would be better off with Wiggins over Love now, and all three said yes (though they reiterated it was the best move to make at the time). “Yes, long term, Wiggins extends your window,” said the coach. “Depends on what you equate [as] success. They were in win-now mode. Some sacrifices had to be made.”
Love was the guy in Minnesota, a post machine who could score and facilitate. Over the past three years, his primary role has been to space the floor, though he is occasionally force-fed post chances. He’s like a more talented Ryan Anderson — a better rebounder, interior scorer, and passer. Except, for the role Love plays and the money he gets paid (tied for 22nd most in the NBA), Cleveland could be getting more bang for its buck.
The Cavaliers could’ve used Love’s cap space on cost-effective veterans while holding onto Wiggins, who has developed into a ferocious wing scorer, one whose efficiency would likely rise if he were playing with LeBron and Kyrie. You could point to Wiggins’s inconsistent defense as an issue, but context matters: How much of Wiggins’s defensive issues are due to his significant 37.2-minute-per-game workload, or the fact he’s had three coaches with three different systems, one for each season of his career? Wiggins was an elite defender in college and a solid defender as a rookie, and he raises his play in premier matchups. The ability is still there.
Wiggins could’ve been the Kawhi Leonard to LeBron’s Tim Duncan. But that ship has sailed. The obvious allure of an instantly loaded roster meant mortgaging future flexibility. You can’t look at this photograph, and say Griffin was wrong.
There’s a lesson to be learned here for multiple franchises as we approach a summer in which multiple stars could be on the move.
Paul George and Jimmy Butler were involved in trade rumors at the deadline, and all indications are that those conversations will resume this offseason. One front-office source told me recently that Butler is “as good as gone,” while George sounds like a player who wants out. “There’s no urgency, no sense of urgency, no winning pride,” George told reporters after Tuesday’s loss. “This locker room is just not pissed off enough.”
On May 16, ping-pong balls will determine the destiny of each team with a lottery pick. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the team who wins the lottery is in pole position for a Butler or George trade, just as the Cavs were in 2014 for Love. What teams will need to weigh is the prospect of winning more in the short term versus the potential of winning a lot long-term.
Consider how stacked this year’s draft class is. “This is about my 15th draft now going back to ’03 with the Celtics and it might be the best once since ’03,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told me in January. “It kind of goes in cycles and goes in waves, and this draft in particular happens to be really strong.” The 2003 draft class featured LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony. James was the only no-duh star. There isn’t one this year, though. Point guard Markelle Fultz is The Ringer’s no. 1 prospect, but there are about 10 prospects in this class that could end up being the best draftee when we look back years from now.
“Some years at this time, you know who the no. 1 pick is,” McDonough said in January. “There’s one special guy that’s so far ahead of everybody, LeBron or a prodigy, and you can see it. And say, ‘Boy, if we could only get that guy.’ This year I’m not sure who the no. 1 pick is.”
Most of these guys are teenagers, and none of them are LeBron. McDonough’s sentiment was recently echoed by Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “Even Patrick Ewing, people weren’t saying he was transcendent when he was 19. By the time he was 22, in college, he was, and the same with Tim Duncan. It’s hard to identify those guys at 19,” Ainge said on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich.”
It will be an interesting draft night, and the team with the third or fourth selection might end up landing its top-ranked player.
Consider a hypothetical scenario in which the Timberwolves get the no. 1 pick and the top two prospects on their board happen to be Fultz and Kansas forward Josh Jackson. Teams are calling for the pick. The Bulls are offering Butler. Other teams want to trade up for Fultz. Based on Minnesota’s intel, Jackson will be available with the fourth pick. The team would have two obvious choices:
A. Use the no. 1 pick and keep Fultz or Jackson.
B. Package the no. 1 pick with Kris Dunn and a future first to get Jimmy Butler.
Butler would make the Wolves better in the short term, though Fultz or Jackson could conceivably become a superior player long term. The Wolves, as well as teams like the Magic and Suns, are more than one guy away from contention. The patient route (Choice A) may be the better one. A team like the Celtics has more in common with Cleveland than a lottery team (even though, thanks to the Nets, they are a lottery team). Adding Butler would limit their cap space and flexibility and lock them into their core, and they still wouldn’t be one of the top three teams. If a franchise feels confident that its top-rated prospect has a strong chance of becoming a top-10 player, it should keep him.
So what if there’s a third choice?
C. Use the no. 1 pick on Fultz, swap him for no. 4 (Jackson) and other valuable assets (picks or players).
Trade downs rarely happen with the top pick of the NBA draft. The most significant one came in 1980 when the Celtics traded the no. 1 pick (Joe Barry Carroll) and no. 13 pick (Rickey Brown) for the no. 3 pick (Kevin McHale) and Robert Parish. They still acquired their top prospect in McHale and a blossoming talent in Parish. In 1993, the Magic traded no. 1 overall pick Chris Webber to the Warriors for third pick Penny Hardaway and three future firsts, a deal that initially worked out for both teams. That formula can still be followed today. Maneuvering within the lottery could allow a team to maintain a sustainable roster while adding the player it perceives as a top prospect.
Cleveland’s decision to trade Wiggins for Love worked because the team had LeBron. But there is only one LeBron. It was the right decision for a short-term goal, but having a 22-year-old small forward who keeps improving might be more desirable than having a 28-year-old power forward with a lengthy injury history. Does that say anything about the climate this summer? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. We’re talking about different players and teams, but history often repeats itself.
As great as Butler is, he’s a low-efficiency scorer and has suffered a long list of nagging lower-body injuries. He will be a 29-year-old unrestricted free agent in 2019. George has shown flashes of superstardom, and has performed like one as of late. But he’s never made the leap from a low-20s-point-per-game scorer to the high-20s. He lacks the superstar quality of being able to attack the rim relentlessly and feast at the free throw line. He could be a 28-year-old unrestricted free agent in 2018.
The Cavaliers couldn’t have known Wiggins would be this good this quickly. The LeBron factor made their situation unique in that the move was a necessary step to bring him home. But each stage Wiggins reaches in his career, and each time the Cavaliers struggle to find reinforcements, it becomes clearer that it would’ve been more beneficial for the franchise to go down the path of sustainability over the path of immediate satisfaction. If only LeBron felt the same.