“We’re still four-time Eastern Conference champions, so until you take us down from that, (you) ain’t got much to say. Boston, Philly, they ain’t got much to say. … So until someone takes us down, there’s not much they can really say. ...
“We’re a playoff team. That’s realistic. Everyone that says playoffs is overachieving doesn’t know our squad and doesn’t believe in our squad. For us, we’re a playoff team. We just have to go out there, be ourselves and prove the naysayers wrong, which we will.” — Cavs center Tristan Thompson in the preseason
Those words were typical Thompson tough talk prior to the start of the 2018-19 season. Today, following a 19-63 season that started with a six-game losing streak and ended with a 10-game skid, they seem downright blasphemous.
Thompson, of course, had no way of knowing the Cavs’ best player, Kevin Love, would injure his left foot/toe four games into the season and miss 50 straight games.
He had no way of knowing coach Tyronn Lue would be fired six games into the season because he resisted management’s desire to go into total rebuild mode and play young players.
He had no way of knowing he would miss 39 games, that J.R. Smith would be paid handsomely to stay away from the team, that George Hill, Kyle Korver, Rodney Hood, Sam Dekker and later Alec Burks all would be traded.
But even before all that, to think the Cavs were anywhere close to being a contender to win the Eastern Conference was crazy talk. Heck, to think they’d even make the postseason was overly optimistic, but a lot of people, including a number of people elsewhere in the media, were drinking the juice.
No one foresaw Cleveland falling all the way to 19-63 — the same record the Cavs had in 2010-11 when Mr. LeBron James left town for the first time — but that, for better or worse, is exactly what happened.
Here’s a recap of 2018-19 and a look at some pivotal factors going forward:
Larry Drew was the perfect guy to guide the Cavs through this tumultuous season. The calm, seen-just-about-everything 61-year-old built his players’ confidence, kept up their spirits and guided a ship that easily could have sunk through some very tough waters.
Far less certain is whether Drew is the right guy to coach the Cavs going forward. The Cavs hold a team option on his contract for next season and will pay Drew a substantial buyout if they don’t exercise it, but not so substantial that they would hesitate to send him on his way.
An argument can be made that impatient owner Dan Gilbert and young general manager Koby Altman should stretch out this decision until learning the results of the May 14 NBA Draft Lottery.
If Cleveland gets a top-three pick — it has a 40.1 percent chance of doing so — and lands Duke’s Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett or Murray State’s Ja Morant — it will almost certainly move on from Drew.
If it ends up picking fourth through seventh (we’ll get into all that in more detail a bit later), a case could be made that Drew’s veteran leadership and calming influence could serve the team well for what will likely be another non-playoff season.
The guess here, though, is the Cavs won’t drag out their coaching decision for a little more than a month and someone else will be coaching the team next season.
Everyone knows Love is the Cavs’ best player, but he played in only 22 games, so he’s out. Thompson, for all his offensive limitations, is still a tenacious rebounder on the offensive glass and an above-average defender, but he played in just 43 games, so he’s out, too.
Young big man Larry Nance Jr., who is the best passer this team has outside of veteran point guard Matthew Dellavedova, gets honorable mention after averaging 8.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.6 blocks in just 26.5 minutes, but really there are only two choices: Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson.
Sexton was totally befuddled by the NBA game for about half the season, but he finished extremely well and wound up averaging 16.7 points. Only Ron Harper in 1986-87 (1,874) and James in 2003-04 (1,654) scored more points than his 1,371 as a Cleveland rookie, and Sexton added 2.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 31.5 minutes a night.
The 20-year-old also shot a respectable .430 from the field and a very good .402 on 3-pointers and .839 at the line, making him just the third rookie in league history — guys named Larry Bird and Steph Curry were the others — to average 16 points while shooting .400 on threes and .800 at the line.
Sexton’s play likely will earn him a spot on the league’s All-Rookie Team alongside surefire Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic of Dallas, Atlanta’s Trae Young, Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton and Sacramento’s Marvin Bagley, but let’s not forget a couple of things.
One, Sexton often was on the floor at the end of blowouts, which allowed him to pad his stats significantly, though the same could be said of most of the rookies.
Two, and much more important, legitimate concerns remain about his playmaking ability for others, though he did show improvement in this area after the All-Star break.
While a strong argument can be made he was the Cavs’ MVP this season, his huge early season struggles have to be taken into account, which is why Clarkson gets the nod here.
Clarkson, who played in 81 games without starting one, was Cleveland’s most reliable and consistent player from Game 1 through Game 82, averaging 16.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists in just 27.2 minutes.
The fifth-year pro scored in double figures in an NBA-high 72 games off the bench, and his 1,364 points surpassed Campy Russell (1,210 in 1975-76) for the most by a reserve in the franchise’s 49-year history.
Granted, Clarkson — like Sexton — is an atrocious defensive player at this stage of his career. Granted, he probably will be a one-trick pony, but the ability to put up points in bunches off the bench will lead to a long NBA career, as the Los Angeles Clippers’ 32-year-old Lou Williams and Phoenix’s Jamal Crawford, 39, have shown.
Love, Sexton, Nance, Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic have contracts that keep them under the Cavs’ control beyond next season, so they will be core pieces going forward.
Thompson ($18.5 million), Brandon Knight ($15.6M), Clarkson ($13.4M), John Henson ($9.7M) and Dellavedova ($9.6M) have deals that end following the 2019-20 season. One or two could be traded, but most will be part of the team next season.
However, only Clarkson appears to figure into the franchise’s long-range plans, and that means the Cavs should have significant salary cap room in the summer of 2020.
Smith has a contract for $15.7 million next season, but slightly less than $3.9 million of that is guaranteed, which means the Cavs may be able to move him for a player who has multiple years left on a deal that pays $16 million-$18 million a season.
Rugged guard David Nwaba will be an unrestricted free agent and the Cavs would be glad to take him back, but only at their price.
Marquese Chriss is 6-foot-10, has some skills and athleticism and is only 21 years old, but he’ll also be an unrestricted free agent and will be brought back only at the Cavs’ price.
Nik Stauskas showed little in his time in Cleveland and Channing Frye is retiring.
Circle May 14 on your calendar, because that is the night the Cavs will learn whether they will be in position to draft Williamson, Barrett or Morant.
The league’s three worst teams — New York, Phoenix and Cleveland — will have the same odds of getting one of the top four picks in the draft. It breaks down this way: 14 percent chance of getting No. 1, 13.4 percent chance of getting No. 2, 12.7 percent chance of getting No. 3 and 12.0 percent chance of getting No. 4.
After that, it gets a little complicated. Because Phoenix and Cleveland had identical records, a drawing will be held prior to the lottery to determine which team will enter as the second-worst and which will be third-worst.
If the Cavs enter as the second-worst team, they will have a 27.8 percent chance of getting the fifth pick and a 20.0 percent chance of picking sixth. If they enter as the third-worst, they will have a 14.8 percent chance of picking fifth, a 26.0 percent chance of picking sixth and a 7.0 percent chance of picking seventh.
Regardless, the Knicks, Cavs and Suns all will have a 40.1 percent chance of picking in the top three and a 52.1 percent chance of picking in the top four.
Even if Cleveland wins the drawing with Phoenix and enters with the odds of the second-worst team, there will be a 47.8 percent chance it will pick fifth or sixth. If it enters the lottery as the third-worst team, there will be a 47.8 percent chance it will pick fifth, sixth or seventh.
Got all that? If not and you’re a Cavs fan, here’s some simple advice: Keep your fingers crossed.