Cavaliers making predictably slow headway in post-LeBron James era

Dan Feldman
NBC Sports

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

This is why Cleveland blew it during LeBron James‘ last year there.

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The Cavaliers spent the 2017-18 season bracing for LeBron’s exit. They kept the treasured Nets first-rounder. They targeted young players. They didn’t trade for Paul George due to fear he’d walk the next summer.

The result: A team with a real chance didn’t maximize its opportunity to win the 2018 championship.

Perhaps, LeBron would have left, anyway. Many believe his exit last summer was fait accompli. But I think another Cavs title would’ve increased their odds of re-signing him. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered much. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered enough. But living through a championship run and celebration could have been transformative.

Even if LeBron still left, a championship would’ve been rewarding in its own right. Each title is so important. That’s the whole point of the game.

It’s so hard to reach title contention, and Cleveland was there. Teams on that level should do all they can to win rings.

But the Cavaliers took only a halfhearted swing in 2018. They were too interested in preparing for their post-LeBron future. More than a year after LeBron’s departure, where has that gotten them?

Not far.

The Cavs stink. They spent three years pushing all-in to win titles around LeBron. Hitting the brakes in the fourth year didn’t stop them from crashing into the wall.

They still have the poor roster (or equivalent parts) assembled around LeBron, just without LeBron. They still have a bloated payroll, which bit them when they couldn’t trade J.R. Smith’s partially guaranteed contract for value without entering the luxury tax. They still have as many outgoing future first-rounders as incoming, though at least the incoming pick has slightly more favorable protections.

This is the head start into the next era Cleveland earned by tepidly pursuing the 2018 title. It doesn’t count for much.

Still, in this quagmire, the Cavaliers made a few interesting moves that could make a long-term difference.

That Brooklyn pick turned into Collin Sexton, who had a crummy rookie year overall but showed incredible progress throughout. The Cavs drafted another point guard, Darius Garland No. 5, this year, anyway. That was the right move, one not every team would’ve had the stomach for. Garland was the best prospect available. Neither he nor Sexton is assured of panning out. Cleveland was correct to take Garland and figure out the rest later, though the situation creates complications.

The Cavs also added No. 26 pick Dylan Windler and No. 30 pick Kevin Porter Jr., who came at a significant cost. Cleveland sent the Pistons four second-rounders and $5 million for Porter. Kudos to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert for that spending. Porter is far from a sure thing, but the Cavs improved their odds of finding a contributor by spending more.

Ultimately, Cleveland used the Nos. 5, 26 and 30 picks on Nos. 3, 11 and 26 prospects on my board. That’s generally excellent value, though in this weak-looking draft, the impact could be limited.

The Cavaliers also surprisingly hired John Beilein. He showed his coaching chops at every level of college basketball, most recently at Michigan. As the oldest first-time non-interim coach in NBA history, Beilein is at least intriguing. These are the type of creative moves that will help the Cavs moving forward.

The most important thing is nailing high draft picks, and I think they did that, though it’s far too early to tell. Cleveland will likely get another high pick next summer, too.

Offseason grade: C+

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