Building a championship team is a gradual process. Teams that begin at the bottom, as the Cleveland Cavaliers have, face enormous odds in trying to become championship organizations. They must choose the right coach, identify one to three superstars that have the talent and character that a team can be built around, manage the salary cap well and then they must get lucky. The Cavs have gotten the last step right so far by winning the lottery twice and by having four top-five picks in the last three years. In addition, the Cavs moved up 11 paces with their second pick in the first round because the Los Angeles Lakers made the playoffs; if that had not happened, they would have picked 30th and not ended up with Sergey Karasev. Such twists of fate are often the difference between good teams and great teams.
Piling up high draft choices, to be honest, is easy. All you have to do is suck for an extended period. It is more difficult to come up with players who can be part of the rotation on a playoff team with mid-to-late first round picks. If the Cavs accomplish this with Karasev and Tyler Zeller, they will accelerate the process of contending quite a bit. However, fans of the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons and even the Charlotte Bobcats feel like they are in the same place or even closer to contention than the Cavs. Odds are against any of these teams advancing to even a conference final within the next few years; the decisions made in the next year or two will determine which of them beat the odds.
My feeling is that the Cavs are ahead of those other teams because they have acquired so many talented young players. History tells us that not all of the young players on the Cavs’ roster will reach their potential. Some will merely have long careers as rotation players; still others will end up as towel wavers at the end of someone’s bench. By stockpiling six first-round picks over the past three drafts, plus signing three valuable free agents in the prime of their careers, plus continuing to accumulate picks in future drafts, the Cavs have increased the odds that they will emerge from this rebuilding period with enough players to form the core of a championship team.
Now comes the hard part. The Cavs have team options on seven players at the end of the upcoming season. Even if they exercise all of those options, at some point over the next two years they will need to identify which of those players that they want to keep and lock those players up with long-term contracts. It would be good if they could recoup some value from the other players in trades, but some of them will simply be cut loose with nothing in return.
As an example of what can happen if the wrong decision is made, I give you two names from the recent past: Carlos Boozer and J.J. Hickson. We all know the deception that led to Boozer getting a six-year, $66 million dollar offer from the Jazz after two years with the Cavs, but the fact is that his career after leaving Cleveland was better than anyone who played for the Cavs with LeBron James. Would the Cavs have won a title with Boozer as James’ wingman? We’ll never know, but $11 million a year for the second-best player on a championship team seems like a deal anyone would make these days.
Hickson was the 19th pick in the 2008 draft. Throughout his time in Cleveland he showed flashes of talent that hinted he could be a star. Those flashes kept the Cavs from including him in trades for players who were already stars, players who could have been the wingman LeBron craved. It turned out that the Cavs were wrong about Hickson, who has developed into a serviceable player but certainly not a star, and by the time they realized it his trade value had sunk to practically nothing.
Those two mistakes, more than any of the bad draft picks and questionable free agent signings, doomed the LeBron era in Cleveland. The trick is to learn from those mistakes and not repeat them in the Kyrie era. So as you watch games this year, think about more than the drive for a playoff berth, as fun as that will be. Remember that no more than three of these guys will be offered long-term deals for much more than $10 million per season. One of those is virtually certain to be Kyrie Irving. There is a slight possibility that Mike Brown watches Irving play defense for a year and tells the front office that this is not the right guy to build a team around, but realistically, the only chance Kyrie is traded before he is eligible for unrestricted free agency is if he tells the front office there is no chance he will stick around past that point.
It makes sense that the Cavs will hold one big-money contract until they see how Andrew Bynum works out. He will be just 27 years old when his current two-year deal runs out, and if he shows the ability to play 70 games at anything approaching his Laker years, he would justify such a deal, if for no other reason than the fact that the Cavs are probably done drafting in the top five, which is where championship caliber centers are usually found. If Bynum leaves, Tyler Zeller is the only seven-footer on the roster.
Of the remaining players on the roster, Anthony Bennett probably has the best chance of playing his way to a max deal. If Bennett finds a position he can defend consistently, he has the skill set to fill up a stat sheet at a level only a handful of NBA players can match. The Cavs would not have bypassed players with higher profiles and stronger pedigrees if they did not believe Bennett was capable of doing this.
What does that mean for Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Sergey Karasev and the remaining players currently on the roster? It means the Cavs must decide whether these players fit for the long term. Are they willing to be complimentary players, with salaries that match? Will they play defense the way Mike Brown expects and do the little things that a championship team must do? Do they have skills that mesh well with the stars? If so, the Cavs should lock them up as soon as the collective bargaining agreement allows to deals that match their role and maintain flexibility under the salary cap. If not, it is better to figure that out within the next year. At this point all of these players are viewed as having talent and untapped potential, and they are on their rookie contracts, which means other teams will be willing to give up significant assets to see if that untapped potential can be fulfilled. A year from now, that potential may seem less likely to be realized, and they will be closer to being eligible for bigger contracts, so their trade value will go down accordingly, as was the case with Hickson.
The bottom line is that a year from now we should know who the six or seven players are that the Cavs view as the core going forward. If next summer it seems like they are still trying to figure it out, the odds of them building a championship team will be severely diminished.