As with after the first time that LeBron James left Cleveland to win titles elsewhere, the Cavaliers have talented young pieces, but seemingly with no plan on how to contend in their division, let alone their conference or the NBA. Things looked good early on when the Cavaliers opened the season with a 3-0 start. Their third game of the season was a 118-94 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Philadelphia. The hot start cooled off, and Cleveland ended January with a 9-11 record. It was toward the end of the month that planted the seeds for the collapse of their season.
On January 13, the blockbuster four-team seven-player deal to move James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets sent budding big-man Jarrett Allen to the Cavaliers. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff opted to use some of center Andre Drummond’s minutes to play Allen more, rather than playing the two bigs together. The decision didn’t sit well with the two-time NBA All-Star. A month after the deal, Drummond was sitting out games as the Cavaliers prepared to move him during the trade window. A deal wasn’t done before the deadline, however, and the two parties agreed to a buyout at the end of March.
Drummond was just one All-Star big man that gave Cleveland problems this season. Kevin Love played just 25 games while dealing with a nagging calf injury, the second-lowest total in his career. When Love was on the court, he averaged at or near his career lows in minutes, field goal percentage, and points from his mentorship role. The Cavaliers finished the season with the NBA’s fourth-worst record at 22-50, marking their third consecutive losing season since James’ departure.
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The Cavaliers started the 2020-2021 season at No. 28 in the PTST Preseason Power Rankings, so they arguably finished better than expected. This was before Harden forced his trade out of Houston. Also, nobody knew how bad the Oklahoma City Thunder would be after their veteran dump. The Orlando Magic surprisingly didn’t take the steps forward that many were expecting either. Still, Cleveland has talent but lacks star power despite three consecutive lottery picks; the Cavaliers need direction.
Third-year guard Collin Sexton has continued to show year-over-year improvement throughout his game, but the turnovers and three-point shooting took a dip. In his second year, Darius Garland has made noticeable improvements across the board, further establishing Cleveland’s backcourt. Allen’s production from Brooklyn continued in Cleveland without a noticeable decline, and rather a slight improvement offensively. Isaac Okoro, the fifth overall selection in the 2020 NBA Draft, nearly mirrored his college stats, despite the increased competition level and schedule demands.
Team Award Winners
MVP – Collin Sexton
In an offensively driven NBA, Sexton has made improvements each year, jumping his season per-game average up to 24.3 points. The total puts him at No.18 overall in the NBA for the 2020-2022 season. With seven games of 30 points or more, Sexton’s high-point was his 42-point, 55 percent shooting performance in January against a Brooklyn Nets team that started Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. As a backcourt player, Sexton should address his three-point percentage that has dropped the last two seasons. It would also be nice to see his assists total increase another one or two points as it did this year.
Defensive Player of the Year – Andre Drummond
Sure, he finished the second half of the season on another team, but Drummond still played about as many games as the rest of the team’s bigs due to issues staying healthy. Due to the rather poor defense on the perimeter, the play of the forwards and centers was a major part of the game plan. In 25 games, all starts, Drummond averaged one and a half steals, one block, and nine defensive rebounds per game. His averages are still in the top two of those categories in the team’s postseason stats. His defensive rating of 105 finished as the team-high as well. Allen did a decent job in Drummond’s absence, actually topping his predecessor’s blocks and defensive rebound averages. He just didn’t disrupt opposing offenses as much as Drummond.
Sixth Man of the Year – Taurean Prince
After joining Cleveland as part of the trade that brought in Allen from the Nets, Prince was producing on the Cavs’ bench. He played in 29 games, 23 off of the bench, before undergoing elective season-ending surgery to “clean up” his right ankle in April. For most of that month, Prince was a major contributor in minutes, points, and three-point shooting. Since joining the Cavaliers, Prince scored double-digits 15 times. His season-high of 25 points was against Charlotte on April 14. That night he shot 6-8 from three and 9-13 from the floor.
On the season with Cleveland, he averaged 10 points while hitting 41 percent from beyond the arc. From the floor, he connected on nearly 40 percent in 23 minutes per game. He also didn’t hurt the team, committing under two fouls and two turnovers per game. From the charity stripe, the former lottery pick from Baylor shot 83 percent.
Most Improved Player – Darius Garland
The second half of the Cavalier’s “Sex-Land” backcourt, Garland made a major step in his second year. His point production increased from 12.3 last season to 17.4. He grew as a facilitator as well, jump his assists average from almost four per game to six. Garland’s shooting percentages increased from the floor and beyond the arc to 45 percent and 39.5 percent respectively. His free throw percentage is still above 80 percent. Defensively he rates just ahead of Sexton and has a lot of upside moving forward. Continued growth from Garland could the Cavs chose him over Sexton, who is nearing the end of his rookie deal.
Biggest Disappointment – Kevin Love
Another season robbed by injury, Love has not lived up to fan or critic expectations on the court, though the front office is still committed to him. As mentioned above, the 2020-2021 season was among Love’s worst of his career. For the second season since his new deal in 2018, Love played fewer than 30 games. He did play every contest in the shortened 2019-2020 season. His point production dropped to 12 points per game while getting a career-low 24 minutes per game. His 40 percent shooting from the floor is the third-lowest in his 13 seasons. Love’s availability is now becoming an issue, and his averages are sliding. Just how valuable it is to hold onto the final piece of the team’s championship trio?
For better or worse, Love is a part of the plan moving forward, which currently is one less decision that management has to make this offseason. Two priorities are the contracts of Allen and Sexton as their rookie deals wind down.
Allen is a restricted free agent this offseason with a current qualifying offer of $7.7 million required, according to Spotrac. There’s talk that a $100 million contract can be expected. Conversations on Sexton’s next contract will likely start in a similar ballpark, though his minimum qualifying offer is $8.5 million. Qualifying offers can be matched or exceeded by another team, which the Cavaliers would then have to decide to match or exceed in turn. That’s a lot to tie up in two players who aren’t quite All-Stars yet, especially given the need for additional help on the roster. A lot of that relies on the vision moving forward for the roster, which means head coach.
J.B. Bickerstaff is set to return in that role next season, though Koby Altman has shown no issue with firing personnel. Bickerstaff still has three more seasons remaining on his deal. Entering offseason free agency already $18.8 million above the salary cap, owner Dan Gilbert will have to decide how much he’s willing to continue to pay the luxury tax on a losing team, which could cause the team to change ownership. Short of a true star to play with the young talent, next season doesn’t project a much different result in the standings. Big decisions will be made. Whether it will be regarding ownership, management or players is yet to be seen, but there is a storm brewing.
Follow Jonas Clark on Twitter @jarkclonas
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