Despite making the NBA Finals for three consecutive seasons, coach Tyronn Lue was fired by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday after a 0-6 start. Lue’s dismissal comes after reports that he and the front office were at odds over playing time decisions for the team’s younger players.
With the Cavs currently last in the NBA in defensive rating, by over a full point more than the 29th-ranked team, and in the bottom third in offensive rating, something had to give.
That something ended up being Lue.
Where does this leave the Cavaliers now? Basically in the exact same spot they were in with Lue at the helm. The team would like Larry Drew to take over as the interim head coach, but Drew reportedly has some reservations about accepting that role without some sort of long-term commitment. Whoever takes over is going to be tasked with shepherding Cleveland through a painful season, one that involves a lot more losing than it does winning.
[Yahoo Store: Get your Red Sox championship gear right here!]
The first challenge for a new coach is the edict from the front office to play the kids. We’ve all seen this before. A club gets off to a rough start, realizes it isn’t a playoff team and changes directions. The focus then shifts to development, and that’s where the Cavaliers seem to have turned.
But who are they developing? This is a roster that was built to win around LeBron James. When he left town, Cleveland was left with precious little youth to rebuild around. When Lue was told to play the young players, he likely looked at his bench and said, “What young players?” The Cavs are a rebuilding team that had no plans to rebuild and don’t have a roster suited to do so.
The primary beneficiary of this development turn should be Collin Sexton. The 19-year-old point guard has gotten off to a rocky start, but that’s not unexpected. Point guards take the longest to develop in the NBA, and Sexton is pretty raw. He’s far more scorer than playmaker, so any additional time as the primary floor general is good for him.
Beyond Sexton, the only other players on the Cleveland roster that can be considered developmental prospects are Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic. Osman is already starting and playing over 32 minutes a game, so there isn’t much more time he can be handed. He could move into more of a primary scorer role, but that’s a change in strategy, not a change in playing time.
Zizic is a tougher call. His 2019-20 rookie-scale option must be exercised by Oct. 31, and it remains very much in question. He was a highly touted prospect, but hasn’t shown much in the NBA. It might be sink-or-swim time for him, but that time could be after a decision has been made that he’s not really a part of the team’s future.
That’s really it for Cleveland. No one else on the roster is under 25 years old and slots in as anything resembling a developmental prospect. Even Larry Nance Jr., who recently inked a four-year extension, turns 26 as the calendar flips to 2019. While the new coach may be tasked with playing the kids, he doesn’t really have many kids to play.
How do the Cavs go about rectifying that? This is where GM Koby Altman comes into play, as Cleveland might be about to start a fire sale of epic proportions. Altman has lots of options here, as he’s got a bunch of veterans who could be useful additions to playoff teams. If he can return a combination of young players and draft picks, middling as they may be, that sets the Cavaliers on a much more clear rebuilding path.
The logical place to start is at the very top of the roster with Kevin Love. First thing to recognize with Love is that he can’t be traded until Jan. 24, 2019, because he signed a contract extension in July. Additionally, recent reports are that Love will be out for at least the next month or so with an injured left toe. With the Cavs off to a dismal start, there is little reason for Love or the club to rush things. A further injury would only lessen Love’s trade value.
But does Love even have trade value? That’s an interesting question, as he’s now on the books for over $120 million through the 2022-23 season. Some might see that contract as an albatross. But if you’re a contender in need of a stretch four/five, Love being locked up long-term could offer some value. With him unable to be traded for about three months, expect Cleveland to let him get healthy and re-evaluate as it approaches the trade deadline.
Next is the veteran trio of George Hill, Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith. All three are in interesting spots, as they carry somewhat hefty contracts for 2018-19, but have little guaranteed money for the 2019-20 season. Hill is still a solid point guard that can run an offense, hit shots and defend. He’s overpaid at $18 million for this season, but he’s guaranteed just $1 million for 2019-20. That makes him a de facto expiring contract. Some team always comes up in need of a point guard by the trade deadline, which makes Hill an attractive option.
Another spot where teams are always searching for upgrades is bench shooting. Even at 37 years old, there isn’t a better bench shooter than Korver. His contract is far more palatable at $7.6 million for this year and $7.5 million next year, with just $3.4 million guaranteed. Players with Korver’s skill set have little use to a rebuilding team, and he should fetch the Cavs a decent asset in return.
As for Smith, that one’s a little tougher to work around. He’s owed $14.7 million this season. And while just $3.9 million of his $15.7 million is guaranteed for 2019-20, that’s a bigger bill than a lot of team will want to pay. In addition, Smith isn’t as “plug-and-play” as Hill or Korver are. Cleveland might not be able to find that perfect situation of a team that is willing to spend and also has a role to justify trading for Smith.
Tristan Thompson and Jordan Clarkson are in the same boat. Both are paid in the mid-to-high teens in terms of salary over the next two seasons. Both play their roles well, despite being overpaid. In an environment where half the NBA is looking at having cap space in July 2019, it’s unlikely anyone is jumping at adding either player, who each have a fully guaranteed season on the books for 2018-19.
That leaves two more Cavs that could be on the block: Rodney Hood and Nance Jr. Hood’s situation becomes a challenge, because he has a de facto no-trade-clause. This is because Hood signed his qualifying offer and will be a free agent with full Bird rights following this season. His ability to block any trade gives him control over picking a destination.
As for Nance, the Cavs just signed him to a rookie-scale extension. That doesn’t hamper their ability to trade him, but matching salary becomes a problem. When a player has an extension due to kick in, that makes his salary count for a different amount for the team acquiring him. This is commonly called a “poison pill”. Nance’s outgoing salary in a trade for the Cavaliers would be approximately $2.3 million, equal to his actual salary for 2018-19. For the acquiring team, his salary would be $9.4 million, which is the average of this season, plus the four seasons of his extension. That difference of $7.1 million can make finding a trade a difficult proposition.
Firing Lue and moving in the direction of building this season around the few young players the Cavs have isn’t necessarily the wrong decision. But to do it correctly, the Cavs need to go all in and finish the job by trading the rest of the veterans for whatever they can get. Anything less is taking a half-measure. Rebuilding teams that only go halfway usually end up in purgatory longer than those that truly bottom out. Cleveland got its title. Now it’s time to face the hard truth and start over.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Ty Montgomery disobeyed orders and fumbled Packers’ game away
• Eric Reid says Malcolm Jenkins asked him to stop protesting
• Rangers roast Dodgers and themselves in viral tweet
• Seahawks rookie punter ices win in wild end zone play