It took only six games into the Cavaliers’ first season without LeBron James for ownership to wipe their hands of the coach who co-piloted Cleveland to its last three NBA Finals berths. Following an 0-6 start to the 2018-19 season, head coach Ty Lue has been fired. The Cavs also fired Cavs assistant Damon Jones, a LeBron confidant, and promoted Larry Drew to interim head coach.
The 41-year-old Lue joined the Cavs as a highly priced assistant in 2014 and was elevated to the head position after the firing of David Blatt midway through the 2015-16 season. The Cavs went on to improbably beat the Warriors in the Finals that season under Lue’s watch, then lost to Golden State the following two Finals. In many ways, Lue represented LeBron’s power within the franchise—LeBron and Blatt never connected, but Lue was thought of as LeBron’s guy. His departure after a winless start to the season is an even bigger testament to LeBron’s impact on a team. With LeBron, the Cavs made the Finals even with a defense as bad as the Sacramento Kings. Without him, they are not even a playoff team.
In six games, the Cavs have looked abysmal. They have a bottom-10 offense and have the second-worst defense in the NBA. When I talked to Cavs’ players and coaches at summer league, it appeared they were motivated by wanting to play a faster style of basketball this season. But as the league zooms by, Cleveland is playing at the sixth-slowest pace.
The Cavs are a team split by generational regimes. Rookie Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, and Larry Nance Jr. are young pieces that point toward the future. Lue, however, was distinctly of the LeBron era. So are Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and J.R. Smith—the veterans that are supposed to help Cleveland compete in a weak Eastern Conference. So much for that.
The old-guard players do have value, though, and it feels like the natural step after showing Lue the door is for the Cavs to punt on this season and get as much value in return for their players that could help actual playoff teams. Maybe I’m underestimating Dan Gilbert, but firing Lue and making Drew interim head coach will almost certainly not spark the Cavs into turning it around. It’s time for the fire sale.
Love is averaging 19 points a game so far this season—tied for his highest since his final season in Minnesota—and 13.5 rebounds. On this team, those are the emptiest of stats. On a contender, he’d be a godsend. Plenty of teams could use Love, and you get the sense a change of scenery would do him well. His shooting has been subpar to start the season (32 percent from the field, 29 percent from 3) and he’s missed two games with left foot soreness. The latest reports are that the Cavs are considering a longer period of rest for his lingering foot injury, and if healthy, Love could still help a team in need of offense (ahem, OKC) as a stretch 4 or small-ball 5. This is still a five-time All-Star we’re talking about, and one who was even willing to change his entire game to fit around a star player. Love signed a four-year, $120 million extension this summer, which seemed like a sign the Cavs didn’t want to blow it up and rebuild. Now they should trade him as soon as they can to allow him to flourish on a contender. Love just turned 30; it’s about time we get his renaissance going elsewhere.
Love is the best player left on this team, but the rest of the roster is also full of players that may not pop off the page, but that teams love taking a chance on. The Jeff Greens of the world, if you will. There will be a team that talks itself into trading for J.R. Smith, or George Hill’s veteran presence, and there will definitely be a bidder for 37-year-old Kyle Korver’s sharpshooting. (Hello, Lakers?) Kover and Smith are playing just 15 and 12 minutes a game this season anyway. By dealing their vets, the Cavs can give all the minutes they can to their young players.
This doesn’t have to happen right away. The season is young and there will be plenty of injuries or expectations that go awry around the league. It will make teams look elsewhere for ways in which they can improve, and the Cavaliers will be a perfect vessel for that. That is, if they’re willing. At this point, trying to win with Drew as coach and a team full of players that don’t fit with each other would be malpractice. It would stunt the growth of Osman and Sexton, and it would do nothing but make the players that want out of dodge disgruntled.
There’s nothing left to do for Gilbert and Cavs general manager Koby Altman but to completely move on from the LeBron regime. Lue is the first step. The second step is being realistic and investing in the future by accruing future draft picks and taking a chance on young players. Life with LeBron may have been difficult for the Cavs, but as the old Cavs saw and the Heat can tell you now, nothing is tougher than trying to figure out life without him. The window to win left when he did, and now Cleveland has to make the best out of what it has left.