Consider the Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe you haven’t all season, or for several seasons now since LeBron James wanted to try a title in the West on for size and the team, less his gravity, slowly spiraled thinner and thinner. But it’s time to turn your gaze toward them again because on one weird winter night the Cavs snuck themselves into the biggest deal of the 2020-2021 season so far and with it, longterm franchise sustainability.
Big stars always pull outliers along in their wake, and the James Harden deal’s no different. It took four teams to generate the momentum Brooklyn needed to net Harden, and just like that two parts of Brooklyn’s future internal development went careening away — Jarrett Allen to Cleveland and Caris LaVert to the Pacers.
For the Cavs, Allen is the equivalent of a train heist. A versatile, stretch-potential big who plays concise and cool defense, rarely tangling himself up with fouls or frustration, and overall a franchise changing acquisition Cleveland would never have been able to secure in the clamor of free agency. Allen’s last three seasons with the Nets were a well-kept secret in that his development was measured, almost demure, but in that time he easily became the team’s more functional center, second to DeAndre Jordan only in rotation. His numbers have all ticked up incrementally and at 11 points, 9.6 rebounds per game he’s averaging the best of his career and will probably get much better within what is essentially the NBA’s, work ethic wise, most blue-collar team.
It’s been necessarily slow, what Koby Altman is building. Cleveland’s current GM was there for the team’s Cinderella title as assistant GM, and had one year in the driver’s seat before James left for L.A. After that, he was effectively handed a re-do but was realistic with the franchise’s draw and trajectory, holding off on dynamite in favor of pulling reliable talent from nearby, like the acquisition of Andre Drummond, and fostering growth in the promise of younger players like Colin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Darius Garland and now, Isaac Okoro. Altman has also leaned on his mainstay vets to foster the head down work ethic and DNA of the team, recognizing the inherent value in Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr. as floor leaders as much as locker room contributors, stabilizers for a franchise in development.
In sizing up with Allen, and adding some relief with Taurean Prince who is averaging 11 points per game, Drummond is no longer such an outlier player. Allen will be Drummond’s relief off the bench and, depending on whether the Cavs hang onto Drummond or let him walk in free agency this summer, eventually eclipse him as he’d started to do with Jordan.
Cleveland will look to retain Allen because now, as frontrunners, they can match any prospective RFA deal, and because Allen raises the ceiling on what meaningful competition can look like for the Cavs. While the East now has one very clear frontrunner, the rest is still shaking itself out. With Miami and Toronto’s rough starts and the middling middle of the pack, Cleveland only sits two wins behind the 4th ranked team, the Pacers, and Indiana took a gamble in the same 4-way deal with swapping mainstay Victor Oladipo to Houston for the promise of LeVert.
It’s a developmental deal as much as it seals some necessary longevity, and the fact that the team now holds a boon of young, energetic, hardworking players makes Cleveland’s place in the Harden blockbuster a compelling one. But a heist is a heist, even if it’s a smiling one, and as it stands the Cavs are laughing all the way to the bank.