Times are changing in Cleveland, again. Ever since the 2016 NBA Finals, we have seen three unique paths of our Cleveland sports teams. The Indians have made three-straight postseason appearances, the Cavs have gone from champions to basement dwellers and the Browns have positioned themselves for first place in the AFC North for the first time in a long time.
Following the trade for Odell Beckham Jr., the Cleveland area may have reached a point of excitement that hasn’t been eclipsed since the Indians were in the World Series in 2016. The city has been so deprived of quality Browns football that even trades can make fans focus all of their attention on next season months in advance.
For the Cavaliers, the stretch of dominance in the Eastern Conference from 2014 to 2018 eased our minds (perhaps only slightly) of the tumultuous times in First Energy Stadium and Progressive Field over the same span. This season, however, the Cavs have downgraded to the back of our minds after being at the forefront of local media for years. What will it take for the Cavs to rebound and make some noise in this city again?
Ask the Cleveland Browns.
Before I continue, I must acknowledge that Cleveland is primarily a Browns town and thus it would be unreasonable to suggest a successful Cavs team will ever have the same impact on the city as a winning Browns team would. But, the Cavs at this point in time are simply incomparable to the Browns. Almost nobody cared what the outcome of the Cavs-Sixers game was after the OBJ trade was announced and even when the game ended we took to Twitter fantasizing over potential Sunday Night Football matchups.
Nevertheless, I do believe it is justifiable to say that the Browns from two years ago are very similar to the Cavs of today, particularly in how we talk about them. Just like the 0-16 Browns, the Cavs are not only hard to watch at times, but also not the topic of a positive conversation. While we may be able to look at the potential of certain players, such as Myles Garrett in 2017 or Collin Sexton in 2019, it would still be difficult to suggest that bad teams make fans happy to watch them. In the darkest times of Cleveland sports teams, we shake our heads and get angry at our TVs, but we will always expect better things to come.
This is the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Step one of our envisioned rebuild for the Cavs must focus on young talent via draft picks. It is rare that an NBA franchise turns into a title contender by trying to force good-but-not-great veterans to lead the team through the playoffs. One example of this philosophy going wrong is the Brooklyn-Boston trade from 2013. Brooklyn gave up their entire future in order to compete with the Heat and in return acquired Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce who were both far beyond their primes. That team never made it past the Eastern Conference semifinals. Meanwhile, the Celtics were no longer contending for a playoff spot after the trade but were able to build a young core that with a few additional star pieces (Kyrie Irving and Al Horford) would be a legitimate contender. The Cavs are a young team, but it is a team with young players whose ceilings likely won’t get much higher.
Players like Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Tristan Thompson all have the talent to remain in the league for years, but no logical fan believes these are the players who will be leading this team to their next NBA Finals appearance. I think it is necessary to either trade away these players for draft picks or let them walk after their contracts expire unless they show significant improvement. Looking towards the upcoming draft, the Cavs need to ignore what positions they need filling. The Browns selected DE Myles Garrett with the #1 pick in 2017. Rather than reaching with their pick and selecting a quarterback they didn’t think was worthy, they took the best player available and that decision is currently paying off well.
The Cavs need to have the same mindset; if the Cavs have the third or fourth pick and Ja Morant is still available, they have to consider him over a less proven shooting guard or center. Collin Sexton and Kevin Love are arguably our most valuable assets, but we cannot eliminate their respective positions from the draft board and take a less talented player overall in a league where positions are far less defined than the NFL. If we miss on these picks, that’s okay, because the team will still be in the lottery and have another chance at getting another potential NBA legend. This leads into my second step of the rebuild… being prepared to lose.
The Browns are seemingly in a good position for the first time in 20 years, and if the Browns win a Super Bowl with their current unit, all of these years of suffering would be worth it. Sashi Brown took note of the repetitive failure of the Browns, which was that they were not drafting well and tried to make up for it by signing veterans past their prime. In response, Sashi Brown let underachieving players walk, traded the others for future picks, and drafted some of his own players as well. While the Browns’ draft picks under Sashi were disappointing as a whole, he put John Dorsey in the perfect position to succeed as long as he got his picks correct. The 2018 draft was a success and that is why the Browns are in such a desirable position and can afford to acquire star players like Olivier Vernon and OBJ. The Cavs likely won’t be able to turn into a contender in one season unless they grab one key free agent and have the rookie of the year. While “tanking for Zion” is a good idea in that fans believe Zion Williamson will be a centerpiece for 15 years, it should be implied that he alone will not make this team a contender, even though he may bring some excitement to the city. We already know too well that LeBron’s supporting cast during his first tenure here was not enough to win a ring.
What went wrong?
Simply put, the Cavs did not commit to a plan. They either could have developed younger players through the draft or went all in during free agency and they really didn’t choose either. The Cavs failed to draft another star besides LeBron and couldn’t sign a veteran better than an old Shaq or Antawn Jamison. We were then left with a terrible team for four years that certainly would’ve gone nowhere if LeBron hadn’t returned. We cannot let the same thing happen again with this new group and rush into signing players that won’t put us at the top. If the Cavs draft Zion and the team looks promising after one year, they either need to clear up cap room for the best player in free agency or try drafting another star alongside him. If the Cavs choose the latter, we must be prepared to lose for another season and wait for when the time is right. If we fail to build around a centerpiece and that centerpiece leaves, we must restart entirely, repeat the process and expect another few years of losing. It is a painful cycle, but a cycle we must brace through in order to get the best results.
If the Browns can do it, so can the Cavs.
The final step of the rebuild stems off of the previous step, and that would be to have no fear. John Dorsey may have the biggest guts of any GM in the NFL. He is not afraid to make trades or sign players with an attitude. He believes that a team either needs to be set for success or waiting to succeed. Mediocrity is not an option for Dorsey. There has not been a trade of this significance for the Browns in its entire existence and fans love it. Dorsey knows when to make a big move because he doesn’t fear the worst, he expects the best and that is what the Cavs need to do as well.
Let’s say hypothetically again that the Cavs draft Zion Williamson and you are the GM. If the Cavs are making the playoffs and Zion is proving to be the future of the NBA, would you or would you not deal away Kevin Love, Collin Sexton and a first round pick for a top five or top ten player? If you say yes without hesitation, then you believe the Cavs need to do whatever it takes to win now. If you say no without hesitation, then you have faith in your players or believe that this trade would go against your vision for the future. But if you cannot decide, is it because you fear of throwing too many assets away or not having enough left if that trade doesn’t work out? I think Dorsey tries to avoid using this logic when making negotiations and is instead more concerned about sticking to his vision and creating a manageable payroll. Koby Altman of the Cavs needs to consider modeling Dorsey’s way of thinking and align the team with his values, even if these values differ from what the fans want because the end result should still be the same but come at different times. For example, the 2020 NBA Free Agency is expected to have multiple big names on the market and many current Cavs contracts are set to expire. Will Altman decide to use this cap space to sign two players to max deals or instead build around his current team and wait to see what happens during 2020 before making any moves? If Altman does not decide on either, then the fanbase will be rightfully upset in looking at a team without a direction and a team without a direction should be a GM’s greatest fear.
How does this process of rebuilding put the Cavaliers on the same level as the Browns? Fans need to see a reason to believe in the team in order to get excited. We saw LeBron and we declared him to be the greatest of all time and the team won 50+ games every year and sold out the arena every game. But without a proper sense of direction, we may have trouble actively supporting a bad team, just like the Browns for the last 20 years. Now that everyone has bought into Dorsey’s plan and the direction of the team, excitement for football has reached its peak and it’s only the offseason. If the Cavs can add extra draft picks, commit to winning or losing, and not have to second guess that commitment, then fans will still be deeply interested in the Cavs’ success, even if it takes many years. And while it may not be to the same scale as the Browns, pulling off a blockbuster trade in a few years may be one of the highlights of the decade for the city of Cleveland.