For my next few posts I will be previewing the 2019-2020 season for the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team mired in questions as they try to rebuild themselves. This is part one, where I will look at the team’s background, as well as new additions.
To begin this preview, we must first look back. Last year’s Cavaliers went into the season knowing that the best player in the world would no longer suit up for them. Still, they decided to hold onto All-Star forward Kevin Love with hopes he could propel the remnants of a four-time Eastern Conference Championship squad to a playoff spot. Those aspirations though were clearly not in the cards, as expectations were likely too optimistic, and injuries played a large role in keeping most of the team’s talent off the floor. Love was certainly not an exception in this as he only played in 22 games last season.
Ultimately, the Cavs went 19-61 and the team statistics were just as ugly as the record. They were 29th in Points Scored Per game and 29th in Pace. Unfortunately, this was not the product of a slow, methodical, defensive-minded style prompted by Coach Larry Drew. To that point, Cleveland was also dead-last in the NBA in Defensive Rating. In fact, the analytics dictate that Love, once panned as the defensive weak link on a number of teams with championship aspirations, was the 3rd best defender on the team in both Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Rating. To be fair, Love was good defensively in limited action, but still, the juxtaposition is staggering.
However, that was then and this is now. For their pitiful and perhaps understandable effort, the Cavaliers were not able to come to terms with Drew on what his future should look like. He departed the organization and John Beilein has been hired away from the University of Michigan to lead this year’s club. Beilein is expected to nurture a young pool of talent this year and into the future, which should be an easier transition to the pros than he would receive on a star-studded team with high expectations. He is a long-time college coach, used to teaching young prospects, and should be better equipped for this type of crew. He also runs a motion offense that lends itself to creativity and empowering the players, it should be fun to watch, assuming the players can master it.
I do have questions though. Beilein is 66 years old, just 4 years younger than the league’s oldest coach. That elder statesman just so happens to be Gregg Popovich, a 23 year veteran head coach with 5 championship rings. Is Beilein really long for this job? I do not expect this Cavaliers’ rebuild to be a quick turn-around into contention. Brett Brown was 52 when he took over the Philadelphia 76ers rebuild and was given miles and miles of job security. It took 4 years for those Philadelphia teams to get over .500 with Brown. Beilein has just 4 years until his seventh decade on this Earth and a front office with a history of finding coaches to be disposable. Even if the ultimate move is to hand the reigns over eventually to the much younger Associate Head Coach JB Bickerstaff, who is to say the front office can stick to that plan? Do they want to? How much of Bickerstaff being hired is based off of his father being a Senior Basketball Adviser to the team? He’s a coach that’s already had 2 head coaching jobs, albeit both were interim efforts, but neither lasted longer than 2 years. For the moment, Beilein will be tasked with teaching, and I do feel good about his ability to bring talent up to speed. He coached NBAers Tim Hardaway Jr, Caris Levert and Glenn Robinson among others while at Michigan, had a .650 winning percentage there and made it to the Final Four twice.
On the court itself, the biggest additions for the Cavs this year have been their draft picks. Despite having the 2nd worst record in the league in the 2018-2019 season, Cleveland had to settle for the 5th pick in the draft due to the new lottery rules. They used this selection on Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland. I believe the Cavaliers drafted Garland on the premise of best player available, and I applaud them for that. However, I have serious questions about the player they deemed the best at that moment. Garland led Vanderbilt in Points Per Game and shot nearly 48% from the 3 point line as a freshman last year… in a grand total of 5 games played. Yes, he played 5 non-conference college games, and then called it a career as he had injured his meniscus in the 5th game of the season, requiring surgery. This would not be the first time the Cavaliers would take a freshman guard who didn’t even play a full season of college basketball due to injury (Kyrie Irving), but I still find it troubling. Irving was close to a unanimous first pick in the draft and you cannot say the same about Garland. Scouts still sing his praises. They love his footwork, quick release and general scoring ability, and I feel this was a pick taken likely on potential, but the relative unknown is quite concerning.
The Cavaliers made 2 other picks in the first round of the draft as well. Dylan Windler is a 4-year guard out of Belmont taken 26th overall. He’s actually my favorite pick for the Cavs in this draft and while not being flashy, I think he can be a rotation player in this league for a long time. He was a markedly improved shooter from range at Belmont and should be able to transition into the Association as a wing who can both shoot and rebound. He averaged 10.8 Rebounds Per Game as a senior at 6 foot 8. This league is now built on players that can shoot while having at least the partial skills sets of big men. Windler can definitely play a role in that regard in the future.
Lastly comes the very last pick of the first round of the draft. The Cavaliers traded up to take a player, who was named the biggest steal of the draft in the annual rookie survey. Kevin Porter Jr. is a bit of a developmental project, but he could be a very good one. He’s a great athlete and could project into a defensive stalwart if he applies himself to that end of the floor. However, he is another guy that did not play much in college due to both a quad injury and being suspended by USC for an undisclosed conduct issue, which could be a gigantic red flag. For a player that might not even get that much action this year, will it be worth it to keep around someone that might not be the best teammate? I appreciate the Cavs going the extra mile to find talent where others might have passed, perhaps this is an overreaction on my part, but I certainly have questions.
A group of fresh faces both young and old will try to re-invigorate this Cavaliers team as they are still in the beginning stages of a rebuild. In my next entry we will focus on the players that will be returning to the floor for Cleveland next year to aid this young talent in their transition to professional basketball. Expect more content fast, as the season approaches this coming week.