Mon. Jun 17th, 2019

How a Botched Draft Pick in 2013 Ultimately Landed the Cavaliers Collin Sexton

When I bring up a certain name, what words or phrases come to mind? Underachiever? Wasted talent? Flop? Bust?

It may be hard to grasp at the moment, with the knowledge of later events we now have at our disposal, but in 2013, Anthony Bennett was a big deal. In college at UNLV, he averaged over sixteen points, eight total rebounds and an assist per game. For that one year he spent in Vegas as a nineteen-year-old, he was shooting 53% from the field, 70% from the line and 38% from three-point range. Unsurprisingly, Bennett was a presumed top pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.

That year, the Cleveland Cavaliers had the number-one overall draft selection for the second time in three years, after going a dismal 24-58 the previous season. And according to Bleacher Report, the near-unanimous decision within the organization was to take Bennett with that first pick. Within the Cavs’ front office, the vote was 9-1 to select Bennett; the only dissenter, as per Jason Lloyd of The Athletic, via Bleacher Report: General Manager Chris Grant. Despite not having Grant’s okay on the decision, the Cavaliers still grabbed Bennett at number one, shocking some around the league who projected Cleveland to possibly select guys like Nerlens Noel from Kentucky, Ben Mclemore from Kansas or Victor Oladipo from Indiana. 

As it turned out, the rest of the room should have listened to Grant. In his first year in Cleveland, the Cavs found Anthony Bennett’s performance underwhelming. He didn’t start a single game that season, although he did participate in 52 contests coming off the bench. Bennett average less than sixteen minutes played per game though, and in that time, he left a lot to be desired, only registering 5.2 points, 3.8 total rebounds and 0.8 assists per game.

Bennett failed to deliver the numbers Cleveland expected out of a number-one overall pick. On August 20, 2013, Anthony Bennett signed his rookie contract with the Cavaliers. On August 23, 2014, the Cavs traded him to Minnesota, along with Andrew Wiggins, in the three-team deal that got Cleveland Kevin Love. In between those two events, though, the Cavs made a move at the general manager position. On February 6, 2014, GM Chris Grant was sent packing, and was replaced by another member of the Cavs organization: David Griffin.

It is assumed that Grant received his pink slip for a multitude of causes, the most prominent of which being the team’s disappointing rate of improvement since losing LeBron in 2010. But part of the reason Grant lost that job was because Bennett, a busted pick, was drafted under his watch. Although Grant is the only one to not vote to select Bennett with that first pick, he still took the hit for Bennett’s poor play. And as Chris Grant was dismissed from Northeast Ohio mid-season, David Griffin, who’d been a part of the Cavaliers organization for years and who had actually been one of those to vote to draft Bennett, turned out to be the beneficiary.

When Griffin took the general manager job in Cleveland, it couldn’t have come at a better time. As we’ve learned by now, LeBron James operates on the same timetable as a high-ranking political figure–every four years, election time for his next destination rolls around. The 2013-14 NBA season was a successful one for James, whose Miami Heat returned to the NBA Finals for the fourth-straight year since he’d arrived. However, the Heat lost in five games to the San Antonio Spurs by a record margin. Dwyane Wade showed signs of decline, Chris Bosh was getting older and LeBron’s contract with Miami was up.

Thus, on July 11, 2014, LeBron announced through Sports Illustrated that he’d be coming back home to the Cleveland Cavaliers, on a mission to win fans that all-elusive title. Again, David Griffin became the beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time to take full advantage of a great opportunity. Under Chris Grant, the Cavs had been awful, despite having little shot to do anything of note in the league without much talent on the roster. Now with Griffin, the narrative would be that the team rose to contender status once again under his watch, even though the greatest basketball player of this generation had fallen into his lap. 

And although he was presented with very favorable circumstances, David Griffin was excellent at his job. During his tenure, he became a well-liked figure within the Cavaliers organization and the mastermind behind many of the moves that netted the team with players who would go on to help bring the first championship to the City of Cleveland since 1964. It was Griffin who found a way to get Kevin Love into a Cavaliers uniform and give LeBron the third member of his new “Big Three.” It was Griffin who made the trades for Timofey Mozgov, JR Smith and Iman Shumpert when the Cavs were sputtering in 2015. For his efforts, he placed second in the running for 2014-15 NBA Executive of the Year Award. And the following year, it was Griffin who brought in Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, key contributors in the 2016 playoff push that would end in paydirt. The fans and the players both appreciated his work, including one member of the Cavaliers who would particularly miss Griffin’s presence in the front office: starting point guard Kyrie Irving.

 Over his first three seasons toiling on a lottery team, Kyrie Irving was one of the only reasons to watch the Cavaliers. From his first year in the league to his second, Irving’s numbers jumped up in several categories. His PPG went from 18.5 to 22.5, his field goals per game increased from 6.9 to 8.2, and his free throws per game went from 3.4 to 4.2. In his third season, he was named the 2014 NBA All-Star Game MVP. Irving was turning into one of the hottest up-and-coming players in the league and he was poised to lead the Cavaliers to the playoffs. But then, in Irving’s fourth year, LeBron showed up. The team was no longer Irving’s, and the twenty-two year-old from Duke would now have to adjust his game to fit LeBron’s style of play.

From the outside, Irving and James seemed to have a great thing going for those years in Cleveland. They repeatedly ventured to Oracle Arena to face the mighty Warriors in the NBA Finals, and in 2016, the pair almost single-handedly saved the Cavs’ season, putting up all-time performances in Games 5-7 against Golden State to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Cavaliers the first championship in franchise history. From the outside, all appeared to be peachy. 

Within the team itself, though, the situation was less-than-ideal. Irving, who was tired of playing in James’ shadow, desired to have his own team to lead. Offended at rumors that LeBron had attempted to have him traded the previous summer, at the end of the 2017 season, after losing badly to the Warriors, Irving was considering requesting a trade. Then at the end of June, when Dan Gilbert decided to not bring back David Griffin as general manager, a guy Kyrie liked and respected, Irving had finally had enough.

The following month, Irving requested to be traded from the Cavaliers. Later on, we would find out that he’d threatened to undergo season-ending surgery if the Cavs failed to comply with his demand. Gilbert and new General Manager Koby Altman did what they could to negotiate to receive the best package possible in return, and on August 22, 2017, the Cleveland Cavaliers traded Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the rights to Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round draft pick (a second-round pick would also be added about a week later). Irving had been granted what he desired; he would no longer have to play second fiddle to LeBron James.

Speaking of LeBron, now that the second-best player on the team was gone, James would be counting on the new acquisitions to replace the value Irving brought on the court. In addition to the guys the Cavs received in the Kyrie trade, Cleveland had also signed the likes of Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, Jose Calderon and Dwyane Wade in the offseason in a bid to be able to compete against Kevin Durant and the Warriors. It was quickly made apparent that the team could not advance far in the playoffs in its current form, and on February 7, Cleveland made several major moves, trading away six players: Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, and LeBron’s old pal, Dwyane Wade. The team also gave up its own 2018 first-round draft pick, as well as a 2020 second-round pick from Miami. In return, the Cavs got back Rodney Hood, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.

Note that while Cleveland traded away a total of eight (8) assets on that day, not one of them was the Nets’ 2018 first-round draft pick, acquired in the Kyrie Irving deal with Boston. Dubbed “the Brooklyn pick,” this potential top-five draft pick was used both as a bargaining tool with other teams in attempts to overhaul the entire roster at the deadline and as a backup plan in the event the inevitable would happen again. Remember, it was 2018, and that offseason, it would have been four years since LeBron switched teams. Realizing full-well LeBron’s probable reluctance to stay in Cleveland and play on a team devoid of the talent necessary to make a legitimate championship run for an owner he neither loved, liked or even respected, the Cavs saw that Brooklyn pick as the ultimate insurance policy. Were LeBron to depart for Los Angeles or somewhere else, Cleveland would at least have a high first-round draft pick to use to start building for the future post-LeBron. Seeking to avoid the catastrophe that ensued when LeBron left in 2010, Dan Gilbert wanted to hold onto the Brooklyn pick at nearly all costs.

With his new teammates, LeBron somehow dragged the Cavaliers further than most expected and ended up back in the finals, facing the Warriors for an unprecedented fourth year in a row. But an egregious error by JR Smith played a significant role in the Cavs losing Game 1, and a severely frustrated LeBron would injure his hand punching a white board in the locker room after the game. The demoralized Cavaliers would go on to lose the following three games, and it seemed like James would be perfectly justified to move on from such a mediocre team and dysfunctional front office.

In the NBA Draft Lottery, Cleveland’s Brooklyn pick landed the eighth slot overall, slightly below the hopes of fans and members of the Cavs’ organization. As LeBron contemplated his next “Decision,” he held the Cavaliers hostage. LeBron had until June 30 to pick up his option with Cleveland, and if he did not do so, he’d hit free agency on July 1. Meanwhile, the Draft was on June 21, and the Cavs had several players to choose from. There was Michael Porter Jr. from Missouri, Wendell Carter Jr. from Duke, or maybe Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from the Kentucky Wildcats. But there was also another guy, a 6’2” point guard from the University of Alabama known as “Young Bull,” who the Cavs had their eye on: nineteen year-old Collin Sexton. He’d averaged 19.2 points, 3.8 total rebounds and 3.6 assists per game in thirty-three games played for the Crimson Tide, and the Cavaliers felt he could definitely contribute for the team for years to come. That’s why on June 21, 2018, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Sexton with the eighth-overall pick in the NBA Draft.

But the story was not over yet. Still in the dark as to LeBron’s intentions, the Cavs were rumored to be willing to trade Sexton for a veteran sidekick for James if he chose to stay. On July 1, though, after declining his player option with the Cavs and becoming a free agent, LeBron announced through his media company, Klutch Sports, that he’d be signing with the Los Angeles Lakers, simultaneously ending the second LeBron era in Cleveland and beginning the Sexton era, who was now in no danger of being moved from a rebuilding Cavs team.

And that, as they say, is pretty much all she wrote. Collin Sexton has now started 30 games for Cleveland at the point guard position, a position held only a little over a year prior by Kyrie Irving, the player for whom Sexton was ultimately traded. While his rookie season has not been flawless so far by any means, Sexton is showing clear signs of improvement, something that could not be said for Anthony Bennett, with whom this entire process began.

So Cavaliers fans, when you turn on your tv and watch Collin Sexton play for the Cavs, don’t take it for granted. So many events had to take place over a five-year stretch to make this possible. When you look at Sexton, see him for who he is and the raw potential he brings to a basketball court. But at the same time, keep in mind the shoulders on which he stands. His being in Cleveland is the byproduct of a chain of events from 2013-2018 involving five key people. And whether it be Anthony Bennett or Chris Grant, David Griffin or Kyrie Irving or LeBron James, whether he’s aware of it or not, Collin Sexton owes a debt of gratitude to all of them.

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