April 2, 2020, 12:55 am
Just like they did after the first time LeBron James left them, the Cleveland Cavaliers finished the 2018-19 season with a 19-63 record. By that measure, this season has been an improvement, as the Cavs’ current record sits at 19-46. And in some ways, that’s quite a surprise given that this is a team with many young players, including three first-round rookies. There wasn’t much hope for a season of playoff contention.
But it hasn’t been a typical rebuilding year by any means. We’ve seen the Cavs deal with malcontents, a new coach that didn’t last long and multiple trades. If you squint hard enough, there may be some young building blocks, but the team will probably need to hit on another high pick in the 2020 NBA Draft in order to take the next step.
Beilein’s Brief Gig
Longtime Michigan Wolverines coach John Beilein headed south to Cleveland last offseason to lead the Cavs, signing a five-year deal. After just 54 games (14-40) that included locker room controversy (“slugs”? really?) and plenty of uninspiring play, Beilein was out at the All-Star break.
Enter J.B. Bickerstaff. For the third time in six seasons, he takes over a team midseason. Early returns are positive, as the Cavs are 5-6 with him at the helm. And it may just be the infatuation stage of having a new head coach, but many players are upbeat and optimistic about this first stretch with Bickerstaff, who has already been signed to a multi-year deal.
What should we expect from a Cavs team led by the new guy? He’s emphasizing unselfishness and competitiveness. And it’s hard to know exactly how individual players will react to the change since many players have been in and out of the lineup due to injury or rest during his 11 games. And that’s a lineup that wasn’t even settled when Bickerstaff was promoted due to a sizable move at the trade deadline. There is hope that the young Cavs might be in a decent situation to grow with a young head coach that has greatly improved the team atmosphere.
The Cavs made a minor deal on Christmas Eve, swapping Jordan Clarkson for Dante Exum. As far as the trade’s on-court impact, it mainly opened up some backcourt minutes and shots. Not a game changer, but it was a good move for a rebuilder, as they picked up two second-round picks for a veteran that wasn’t part of their future.
However, the other Cavs trade this season was a deadline blockbuster of sorts. Well, half of the deal was of the blockbuster variety, as the Cavs acquired a still-just-26-year-old Andre Drummond without sending much of anything back.
Drummond was a breakout fantasy star early this season due to another increase in his free throw percentage and slight jumps in assists and steals. He put up stats like a first-rounder for much of the first half of the season before reverting back to his poor shooting from the stripe. Will Drummond return to a must-punt-free-throw guy once again, or is there hope that he can finally keep the percentage over 60% for the rest of his career? If the beginning of his Cavs career tells us anything, it’s looking like the former.
The eighth-year big man has seemed unhappy in Cleveland so far. And while he’s had some strong games and launched a few 3-pointers, he’s been very inconsistent and the numbers are down overall. This could simply be the signs of a player trying to fit in with a team full of established big men, not to mention a team that swapped head coaches two games after he arrived. Drummond also sat out for five of the Cavs’ 13 games since he was acquired, so there have been some injury concerns as well.
Drummond is understandably expected to opt into the final year of his deal next season (worth nearly $29M), however it’s no sure thing, as a few playoff teams were rumored to be in on Drummond at the deadline and could offer him a more lucrative longer-term deal. And he just might want to remove himself from such a…
Glut of Big Men
Fantasy enthusiasts that have rostered any Cavaliers power forward or center this season know that this situation has been a headache when it’s come to projecting which players will play consistent nightly minutes. In addition to Andre Drummond, the logjam includes these fantasy contributors:
Kevin Love, who still doesn’t appear to be going anywhere for a while with the three years left on his deal. Hopefully he enjoys playing for Bickerstaff more than he did for Beilein, though it was the young guards that appeared to be the source of his frustration earlier this season. He may be able to continue his 17 points, 10 boards and a pair of threes with good free throw shooting for a few more years, but that’s only good for mid-round production. And that’s when he’s healthy.
Tristan Thompson, who started off the season on fire before predictably burning out. His deal is up at the end of the season, and it sounds like he’ll find his way onto a contender. But he’s unlikely to have a role as big as he’s had recently in Cleveland.
Larry Nance Jr., an efficient player that so many have wanted to see in a larger role for years. He was buried on the depth chart and nicked up for much of the season. But even with Drummond in town, Nance has found his stride and even a good chunk of minutes lately.
And that’s leaving out the departed John Henson and the limited Ante Zizic, who could be gone next season, too. Ideally for fantasy, we’d see Drummond, Love and Nance each get 32 minutes next season. And maybe injuries and rest will lead to those three plus Thompson all playing in that range down the stretch.
Sexton’s Eventual Leap
Collin Sexton had a disappointing season to begin his NBA career, at least from a fantasy perspective. Outside of a decent point total and free throw percentage, he was much worse than what you could find in the free agent pool. And that was still true for the first few months of this season as the Cavs let Darius Garland handle the ball quite a bit.
Some had once had hopes that Sexton could turn into a Donovan Mitchell type as matching relentless 6’1″ athletic competitors. But the prospect of Sexton reaching that level was looking grim. Personally, I thought Sexton had a chance to eventually hit the C.J. McCollum level (just a click below Mitchell), at least when it came to fantasy stats.
Well, Sexton is now well on his way to matching McCollum’s numbers sooner rather than later. But more than that, Sexton started taking off right around January 1st… and check this out:
Sexton has, at least temporarily, reached Donovan Mitchell territory. Field goal percentage is where he’s really got the advantage on Mitchell and McCollum. And that’s probably not sustainable, but this sample does cover nearly half a season, so there’s certainly reason for hope that he can keep it closer to 50 percent than 40 percent. At age 21, there’s suddenly a path for Sexton to become a reliable mid-round 2 guard after looking like a bust for over two seasons.
The Cavaliers came out of the 2019 NBA Draft with three first-round picks: Darius Garland (5th), Dylan Winder (26th) and Kevin Porter Jr. (30th).
Windler hasn’t played a game for the Cavs due to injury and his season is done after undergoing season-ending surgery in January to repair a stress reaction in his lower left leg. He played just 37 minutes over two games in the G League. (Extensive and intense practices under Beilein during training camp and Summer League have been mentioned in passing whenever Windler’s injury comes up, though we’ll stop short of connecting those dots completely.)
Darius Garland was a 19-year-old relative unknown for a top pick coming into his rookie year after having played in just five games at Vanderbilt, so it’s completely understandable that he’s struggled to run an NBA offense. But the 59 starts he’s had so far have been sharpening his skills, and there have been flashes here and there. Depending on what the Cavs do in the next draft, Garland could be in a position to make a sizeable leap into fantasy relevance next season.
That brings us to the exciting one. Kevin Porter Jr. fell in the draft due to off-court issues and the Cavs scooped him up, making what could be the biggest value selection in that draft. Just as the Clarkson trade opened up some additional time for Porter and he got into a bit of a rhythm, he suffered a knee injury and missed most of January. However, once he returned, Porter had some eye-catching games, including a 30-point game with four triples and three steals. The minutes still weren’t always consistent, but the breakout was definitely in full swing until he got concussed on March 4th. Look for Porter to be a fantasy draft darling next season as he looks for a more solid role with this young team looking for building blocks.