The Cleveland Cavaliers are coming off one of the roughest weeks by any team in the NBA this season, losing their last six games, before Friday’s win against the Washington Wizards, and firing General Manager Chris Grant. Already falling far below the expectations of many, the team has a sub .500 record since small forward Luol Deng was added to the lineup after a trade with the Chicago Bulls. On top of that, reports of a fractured locker room and selfish young players are running rampant. While the optimist might point out that the Cavaliers are still just five games out of the eighth seen in the Eastern Conference, they are also just three games behind the Orlando Magic for the second worst record in the East. This unique situation has fans and media members torn on what direction the Cavaliers should go with their young team.
Now with the NBA trade deadline roughly two and a half weeks away, the Cavaliers have some major decisions to make. Do they become sellers, trading veterans such as Deng and Anderson Varejao for younger players, other assets, and the chance to move up in this year’s supposedly loaded draft? Do they add some veterans to try to make one last run this season as well as try to improve the culture in their locker room? Or do they simply stand pat and see if this team can improve on their disappointing level of play?
The Cavaliers as Buyers
Despite giving up a protected first round pick from the Sacramento Kings and two second round picks from the Portland Trailblazers in the trade for Deng, the Cavaliers still have several extra first round picks and expiring contracts to work with. Owner Dan Gilbert has also shown a consistent willingness to spend money if it helps the success of the team. He is also at least partially responsible for the Cavaliers’ increased expectations for this season, essentially guaranteeing a return to the playoffs at the 2013 NBA Draft Lottery, and firing Grant due to the team’s lack of success this season. This would seemingly mean that he will allow acting General Manager David Griffin to make moves to improve the franchise. Finally, as the trade deadline nears, many teams will commit to tanking by making players who could help a team wanting to win available in order to improve their draft position.
Adding veterans to this team could help the Cavaliers in several ways. Although it seems unlikely to happen, the Cavaliers could still make a successful run to a playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. While they are unlikely to go deep into the postseason, this would still give the fans something to look forward to and give the younger players on the team some important experience. Even if the Cavaliers make a solid run at the playoffs but came up short, there would still be benefits. It would help give both the fans and players a positive outlook on next season. This is obviously most important when considering the future of Kyrie Irving. Remember, just a year ago LaMarcus Aldridge supposedly wanted out of Portland. Rather than bend to his demands, the Trail Blazers improved their roster and are now a solid playoff team with a bright future. Now Aldridge talks about how happy he is in Portland and how he would like to stay there for the long term. If the Cavaliers can show that they are headed back to the playoffs soon, it would go far to ease any fears Irving has about committing to the Cavaliers long-term.
Finally, arguably the largest benefits to adding some veterans to this team would be the chance to improve the culture. To say the Cavaliers locker room seems to be a mess may be the understatement of the year. One of the problems may be that the Cavaliers have too many young players who haven’t figured out how to be successful in the NBA and not enough veterans to show them the way. This was one of the reasons the Cavaliers traded for Luol Deng, one of the most respected players in the NBA. Unfortunately Deng is simply not enough, and the morale in the locker room and effort on the court seem to be at all all-time low. In fact, rumors are rampant that Deng has essentially decided not to re-sign with the Cavaliers after this season due to the lack of professionalism that is rampant within both the team and the organization as a whole. Trading a few of those young players for some veterans who could be major contributors both on and off the court would benefit this team both in the immediate future and for years to come.
There is also something to be said for the Cavaliers trading some of their young players for other young players. When Chris Grant selected players such as Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, he seemed to put upside over team fit with these choices. The rationale behind such choices is that you could trade them or other members of the team for more talented fits than the ones you may select in the draft. While somewhat controversial, most draft experts will tell you that teams have a lot more success drafting based on upside rather than fit. If the Cavaliers can trade Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett, or Dion Waiters for a player who can help the team win more now and in the future, that doesn’t make those players busts, as drafting them would have helped the Cavaliers get what they wanted in the long run anyways.
The Cavaliers as Seller
Anderson Varejao is 31 years old. Jarrett Jack has been disappointing so far. It’s hard to be optimistic about Luol Deng, or even C.J. Miles resigning with the Cavaliers at this point. It may be worth it to trade these veterans to teams with better chances of playoff success. The Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons are both trying to make the playoffs and are in need of an upgrade on the wing, may be interested in Deng or Miles. Teams such as the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder could use a big man with Varejao’s skills. A hot commodity just last season, Jack’s age, contract, and current production may make him harder to move, but the Golden State Warriors might be interested in bringing him back into the fold using the trade exception they have from dealing Richard Jefferson to the Utah Jazz considering their lack of depth at point guard. Getting out of his contract may be the only real return the Cavaliers could get for trading him. By trading these veterans the Cavaliers could add some promising young players, draft picks, and improve their own lottery chances.
On a side note, whether or not the Cavaliers are buyers or sellers it’s hard to see Dion Waiters with the Cavaliers after the February 20th trade deadline. He doesn’t fit with Kyrie Irving (easily the better player no matter what some fans think) on the court, and doesn’t seem to fit with any of the team off the court. While it may be hard to trade a talented young guard like Waiters, chances are the Cavaliers will either move him for another asset or a veteran who is a better fit with the team.
Despite the chaos currently surrounding the Cavaliers, there is still something to be said for sticking with the current roster. Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, Anthony Bennett, and Sergey Karasev are all 23 years old or younger. Because of the huge expectations place on him, many forget Irving is just 21. Chances are all of these players are a few years away from reaching their full potential. They will probably experience natural improvement both this season and for several to come. It’s also likely that veterans such as Luol Deng and Jack are able to return to their career norms due to regression to the mean. Because of this, the Cavaliers could improve if this group is able to find some way to come together as a team. If they aren’t able to, their current play would allow the Cavaliers to have another high draft pick, this one in the most loaded draft in years.
While my initial conclusion was that the Cavaliers should add some veterans in an effort to improve the culture of the locker room, I think a different approach might work better. It may be in the Cavaliers’ best interest to trade several of their players in an effort to build a team that has high character, is on affordable contracts through at least next season, and fits well with Kyrie Irving. Below is an example from the mind of a man who plays with ESPN Trade Machine in the middle of the night while taking care of two young children who aren’t sleeping. This starts calmly and then veers off into fantasy land.
If the Bobcats decide they are interested in Deng, could the Cavaliers talk them into giving up Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Ben Gordon (expiring deal to make the money work), and the first round pick from the Trail Blazers? Given Kidd-Gilchrist’s struggles this seems possible. It would also give the Cavaliers a solid defensive small forward known for his tremendous work ethic and high character who they would control for several more years (and was also a high school teammate of Kyrie Irving). Gordon could be waived if need be.
The Cavaliers could then trade Dion Waiters, one of Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee, and the 2015 first round pick of the Miami Heat to the Orlando Magic for Arron Afflalo. This gives them a consistent offense threat and solid (if somewhat overrated) defender at shooting guard who is signed through next season with a player option for 2015-2016, which he may opt into as he will be 30 years old by then. The Magic get a young scorer that can grow with the rest of their team and another asset that can be used in the future as well as some money off the books as they can decline the team option of either Clark or Gee next year.
Next, the Cavaliers could trade Anderson Varejao and C.J. Miles to the Houston Rockets for Omer Asik and Aaron Brooks. The Rockets get a defensive big man in Varejao who can both play with and backup Dwight Howard. Miles is also a solid if underappreciated (at least by Mike Brown) wing that the Rockets are known to have interest in. Despite a turbulent season thus far, Asik has never been known as a complainer before, is four years younger than Varejao, and would give the Cavaliers elite rim protection (an area in which they are currently lacking). Brooks would give the Cavaliers a speedy scoring option of the bench who could both backup and play with Kyrie Irving and could also play with Matthew Dellavedova, which is essential due to the (mythical) departures of Waiters and Miles as well as the final step of the plan.
Finally, the Cavaliers trade Jarrett Jack and one of Tristan Thompson or Anthony Bennett to the Golden State Warriors for David Lee (I’m leaning toward Bennett as Thompson seems like he would thrive as a Taj Gibson-like energy big off the bench). The Warriors get a needed boost at backup point guard in Jack, who enjoyed a career year with the Warriors last year, and a talented big in Bennett who is finally showing signs of being an NBA player. This also would allow the Warriors to play Harrison Barnes at power forward, a position he excelled at during last year’s playoffs. Most importantly they Warriors get out of the last two-plus years of Lee’s contract, which pays the big man thirteen million this year and fifteen million over each of the next two years. The Cavaliers get an elite offensive big in Lee, who, along with Afflalo, should take some of the offensive pressure off of Irving and provide needed spacing. Having Asik would make up for the defensive issues of Lee, who tries hard but is too small to guard centers and not athletic enough to guard power forwards. This would give the Cavaliers the following rotation this season and probably for the next few years.
Point Guard: Kyrie Irving, Matthew Dellavedova
Shooting Guard: Arron Afflalo, Aaron Brooks, Carrick Felix
Small Forward: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Sergey Karasev
Power Forward: David Lee, Tristan Thompson
Center: Omer Asik, Tyler Zeller, Henry Sims
Add in the Cavaliers first round pick this year, the Trailblazers pick this year, and at least one of the two first round second round picks the Cavaliers have this year (theirs and Orlando’s) and you are looking at a team in which Lee is the only player currently over 28, has pieces that fit well together, has solid character, and could contend for home court advantage in the Eastern Conference for several years.