The Cavs’ front office has taken a lot of heat lately for the team’s sluggish 10-17 start to the season. After three years of struggling, the team was finally supposed to break through this year, we were led to believe. This is a playoff team (Spoiler: It still might be because LOL the East right now). That hasn’t materialized, and the media and fans are angry. But why must the Cavs think win now? Isn’t a season like this, where there has been obvious improvement in overall quality of play but some growing pains, just part of the normal development curve?
Let’s take a look at every team who’s drafted in the top 5 three years in a row, and their records over the five seasons after the initial pick. This has happened 14 times since 1985.
87-89 Los Angeles Clippers -Drafted Reggie Williams 4th in ‘87, Danny Manning 1st in ‘88, and Danny Ferry 2nd in ‘89
89-92 Charlotte Hornets – Drafted J.R. Reid 5th in ‘89, Kendall Gill 5th in ‘90, Larry Johnson 1st in ‘91, and Alonzo Mourning 2nd in ‘92
90-92 Denver Nuggets – Drafted Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf 3rd in ‘90, Dikembe Mutombo 4th in ‘91, and LaPhonso Ellis 4th in ‘92
92-95 Minnesota Timberwolves – Drafted Christian Laettner 3rd in ‘92, Isaiah Rider 5th in ‘93, Donyell Marshall 4th in ‘94, Kevin Garnett 5th in ‘95, and Ray Allen in ‘96 (Traded for Stephon Marbury)
92-94 Dallas Mavericks – Drafted Jim Jackson 4th in ‘92, Jamal Mashburn 4th in ‘93, and Jason Kidd 2nd in ‘94
96-00 Vancouver Grizzlies – Drafted Shareef Abdur-Rahim 3rd in ‘96, Antonio Daniels 4th in ‘97, Mike Bibby 2nd in ‘98, Steve Francis 2nd in ‘99, and Stromile Swift 2nd in ‘00
98-01 Los Angeles Clippers – Drafted Michael Olowokandi 1st in ‘98, Lamar Odom 4th in ‘99, Darius Miles 3rd in ‘00, and Tyson Chandler 2nd in ‘01
99-02 Chicago – Drafted Elton Brand 1st in ‘99, Marcus Fizer 4th in ‘00, Eddy Curry 4th in ‘01, and Jay Williams in ‘02
04-06 Charlotte Bobcats – Drafted Emeka Okafor 2nd in ‘04, Raymond Felton 5th in ‘05, and Adam Morrison 3rd in ‘06
05-07 Atlanta Hawks – Drafted Marvin Williams 2nd in ‘05, Shelden Williams 5th in ‘06, and Al Horford 3rd in ‘07
07-09 Memphis Grizzlies – Drafted Mike Conley 4th in ‘07, Kevin Love 5th in ‘08 (Traded for O.J. Mayo), and Hasheem Thabeet 2nd in ‘09
07-09 Oklahoma City Thunder – Drafted Kevin Durant 2nd in ‘07, Russell Westbrook 4th in ‘08, and James Harden 3rd in ‘09
09-11 Minnesota Timberwolves – Drafted Ricky Rubio 5th in ‘09, Wesley Johnson 4th in ‘10, and Derrick Williams 2nd in ‘11
11-13 Cleveland Cavaliers – Drafted Kyrie Irving 1st and Tristan Thompson 4th in ‘11, Dion Waiters 4th in ‘12, and Anthony Bennett 1st in ‘13
Of these teams, a total of TWO made the playoffs in year three after the initial pick. Those were the 07-08 Atlanta Hawks, and the 09-10 Oklahoma City Thunder. Five teams made a playoff appearance in year four. That’s not exactly a conversion rate that backs up the idea that the Cavs should be really good this year. In fact, the Cavs in year two and three (stretching their 10-17 record out over a full season would put them around 30 wins) puts them as a slightly above-average team in this category. It’s not ideal if you’re looking for playoff basketball. However, that’s not where our expectations should be.
But why are expectations so high if this is normal for a team with so many youngsters? One of the teams listed above is the reason. The Oklahoma City Thunder, in a way, ruined player development for the rest of the NBA. The Thunder hit on three consecutive draft picks, and made a Finals appearance within five years of drafting Kevin Durant. That’s the absolute best-case scenario for this situation, and now, it’s forced other teams to expect that same thing to happen, when in fact that’s just a ridiculous expectation. Think about it: You need a once-in-a-generation superstar to fall into your lap, and the other players you draft to compliment him well AND to develop rapidly. That just doesn’t happen with every top 5 draft pick.
Look at the other teams in this category above: How many can you say hit on all of their draft picks? The Hornets, who got Gill/LJ/Zo in consecutive drafts, are probably our closest thing to it. The Mavericks probably got the best three players of any team that isn’t OKC, but the chemistry there was, um, not good. This is just so difficult to do. Also, outside of the Thunder, only three teams even turned into perennial playoff contenders: The Timberwolves, who nailed the KG pick then built around him through trades; the Hawks, who already had Josh Smith and Joe Johnson and completely blew two of their three picks; and the Grizzlies, who made a plethora of questionable trades, picks, and signings, and nailed arguably all but the Thabeet pick. The OKC situation is simply a once in a generation, and perhaps a one-time-ever, deal. However, teams like the Wizards, Cavs, and Timberwolves, who have stockpiled a fair amount of top-end talent over the past few years, are accelerating their expectations due to this Thunder mentality. And that’s not only putting pressure on the front offices, but also potentially on the young players themselves.
So what does this mean for the Cavs? Their core of top-five picks most closely resembles the trio the Nuggets pulled above. One potential superstar (Mutombo/Kyrie), one serviceable forward who is a jack of all trades (LaPhonso/TT), and one scoring guard who may or may not be slightly insane (Abdul-Rauf/Dion). That core made consecutive playoff appearances in ‘94 and ‘95, before falling apart because Dikembe wanted to get paid, LaPhonso’s knee shattered, and Abdul-Rauf became a headache (undeservedly, but still). The Cavs likely won’t end in the same way, but they are similar in that we’re not sure that Kyrie is actually a superstar (like Mutombo), and the other players look like serviceable players who will never be more than serviceable starters on a playoff team. Both groups also haven’t really been surrounded with the ideal supporting cast. Kyrie and company have Anthony Bennett, Jarrett Jack, and Andrew Bynum as their probable main supporting cast past this season, which is similar to the Nuggets going to war with Reggie Williams, Bryant Stith, and Bison Dele as their 4th-6th-best players. It’s a group you can have some success with, certainly. However, there are some glaring holes that prevent you from getting over the top.
Even if that is the case, and the Cavs’ ceiling with this group is a few playoff appearances and that’s it, it’s not worth it to blow up the core until we know what we have. The Cavs have one of the youngest groups of any of the top-5 pick cores above, and have cap-flexibility past this year, as well as a plethora of picks stockpiled to make a deal for a key piece. Chris Grant has been pretty solid with trades to date, turning Mo Williams, J.J. Hickson, and Jon Leuer into three first-round picks and stockpiling second-rounders into 2016. It makes no sense to deal one of these players unless there’s an awesome deal on the table; and right now, trading for Arron Afflalo or Evan Turner doesn’t scream “awesome!” Likewise, I don’t think it’s a good idea to reboot the front office just yet. Bringing in new blood there will certainly warp the development of the young prospects, as a new front office would want their own guys and their own plan to be followed, without necessarily taking the needs of the current guys into consideration. Just because Dion isn’t a stud, the free agents have flopped this year, and Anthony Bennett looks like garbage, that isn’t enough to justify canning Grant before these players are experienced enough to properly evaluate the plan as a whole. It’s not like we’re dealing with Wes Johnson and Jan Vesely here. These are decent players, even Bennett, whose situation coming off shoulder surgery is a major confound to his development. If this year ends poorly and next year doesn’t get any better, then by all means, blow it up, because it likely means that these guys just can’t work together. However, it’s still a little bit too early to pull that trigger. Remember, two of 13 other teams in this situation made the playoffs in year three. It’s a process, and the Cavs still have time to put it together.