In May, when Cavs general manager Koby Altman spoke to the media at the end of the regular season, he name-checked two teams: the Suns and the Hawks.
In outlining his view of Cleveland’s future, he cited those teams as proof of younger teams being able to take an immediate step forward. At the same time, he noted that whatever Cleveland is building won’t come together all at once. He tempered expectations, saying that “there’s no quick fix.” But he noted that wins have to come.
“Our guys are hungry. I think they understand that there’s talent here and that has to now translate into wins at some point,” Altman said. “It’s on me to help supplement that young talent and it’s on J.B. [Bickerstaff] to keep growing the culture here.”
It feels like the Cavs are going to try and do something to improve now, even if it’s unclear what that will be. This is a franchise that has been talking about the playoffs since LeBron James left in 2018. They were open about making a push for the play-in tournament. It’s been more than 20 years since they’ve made the playoffs without LeBron leading the way, and looking in on the team and listening to what they have to say, it seems like three seasons with no playoffs is enough.
There are practical reasons for this. Altman is heading into the last year of his deal and probably needs to win games to save his job. Dan Gilbert also isn’t historically a patient owner, so perhaps J.B. Bickerstaff will be coaching for his job too. Life in the NBA moves fast and, barring a lot of winning, teams go through changes.
But the Cavs don’t really need to force something right now. To cite Altman’s examples — the Suns and the Hawks — Cleveland doesn’t have a Devin Booker or a Trae Young to build around quickly. That level of talent demands an effort to win in a way Collin Sexton or Darius Garland — who are good, but not yet at that level — do not.
None of their young players are immediately due a big payday either. Sexton is extension eligible now, and his camp can and should agitate for payment this summer. But Cleveland can wait if it chooses to and probably should, considering the Cavs won 19, 19, and 22 games in the last three seasons. Jarrett Allen is their only real free agent this summer and a deal for him feels more straightforward. Whatever the future holds in Cleveland, Allen is capable of fitting in and it’s not a hard choice for the Cavs to bring back their best acquisition of the season as an RFA.
Sexton is perhaps the best lens to view the Cavs situation through. He’s an interesting scorer, averaging 24.3 points per game last year with a career-best shooting percentage and a career-high in assists. He got the line more last season, taking almost two more per 100 possessions than his previous best — showing that he’s improved as a downhill attacker and that’s capable of adding to his game. Sexton has a place in the league, full-stop. But he’s also hard to center on a team as he exists right now. He doesn’t take a ton of three-pointers – per Cleaning The Glass, he is in the bottom six percent of guards in three-point rate – and largely lives in the mid-range. He’s more 2006 than 2021.
That can be fine in small doses, but it’s hard to build a whole offense around someone seeking out those kinds of shots. He, despite making more of the easy reads and finding some chemistry with Allen, has yet to show the vision to unlock a whole offense or the craft in the pick-and-roll to really lead a good offense in the same way a Donovan Mitchell or Devin Booker does.
There’s a place for him, but it’s probably not as he exists now. The only young players that get his workload for good teams are Young and Luka Doncic, which is a level Sexton just isn’t on right now. The best version of Sexton likely involves more off-ball action and secondary creation on offense — cutting, taking more spot-up threes, and attacking closeouts — which could help him play more consistent defense.
Sexton being three years in but still not quite seeming to have a defined role isn’t really his fault, as he has not had a particularly stable start to his career from an organizational standpoint. He’s had four head coaches, had a season halted due to the pandemic and a compressed season this past year. And when the Cavs have brought in veterans — namely re-signing Kevin Love and trading for Andre Drummond — they haven’t really helped. Love has been hurt more often than not while not seeming happy. Drummond was only around for a bit, but wasn’t additive.
Allen, meanwhile, came in and offered more support on both ends than either. It wasn’t the Garland-Allen lob connection, but you could see how that led to Sexton gaining his first real rhythm with a pick-and-roll partner. Instead of barreling into the lane with no plan, he had someone he could trust rolling behind him.
It’s possible, if not likely, that Sexton also makes some other kind of leap. Maybe next year he takes more three-pointers or becomes a better defender who uses his motor to pester other guards. He also is perhaps the team’s most available piece, so maybe they deal him. It’s a tricky line to walk here too, though. A deal for a Ben Simmons-level player is fun to theorize about for cavs fans, but Cleveland doesn’t have the other pieces as the Sixers are in a “win-now” scenario and picks aren’t likely to entice them off of an All-Star. Would something like a Tyler Herro-Sexton swap really move the needle that much? Probably not, unless Herro is more like 2019 Playoffs Herro and not what he was last year. And if the Cavs attach multiple picks with Sexton as part of a big play, how much is too much and risks the team putting a cap on their potential ceiling?
Regardless of what the outcome, the Cavs are nearing the decision point on Sexton despite him never having a chance at showing consistency in the role he’s likely to take on in the future. Sexton, as has happened to plenty of other young players in the past, was the first piece of a rebuild, and as such, he was given a starring role immediately out of necessity and is being asked to cede more and more of that with every passing year and new top pick added to the roster. That makes it hard to know exactly what he can be on a quality team, and it’s possible a change of scenery provides that stability and defined role that could yield more consistent and better results.
Money plays a big role in that, because if the Cavs are building for so-called sustainable success, they have to be thinking about deals to come. Allen, as noted, is due now and may get $20 million a year. Garland becomes extension eligible next offseason and, despite what they say publicly, it’s hard to see the Cavs ponying up for both. Love’s contract coming off the books will open some future money up, but extensions for Sexton, Garland and Allen probably tie up the cap too much for a group that hasn’t done anything.
Opportunity also matters. Getting the No. 3 pick means bringing in another young player. If that player is another shot creator/taker type, such as Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs, then Sexton has to cede perhaps more than everyone. Young cores don’t really last in part for this reason: there is only so much opportunity and not everyone is going to be happy with what is left for them. It can be particularly true in an organization like Cleveland that isn’t winning and stemming the tide. So, if it comes down to it, you can see why the Cavs would look to make a move this summer, and Sexton seems like the most likely odd man out. Even if he’s proved more in three NBA years, it’s just not hard to see the Cavs taking the 6’6” Green and embracing the potential he oozes in a bigger frame.
“When we started this a few years back we talked about building through the draft and creating sustainable success,” Altman said the night Cleveland landed the third pick in next month’s draft. “There’s some real game-changers at the top of this draft, but also it puts us in a position to capitalize on different opportunities. When you look at our young core, we’re in good shape from a talent perspective and we’re going to have another large injection of talent coming soon. At the top of this draft there’s size, there’s athleticism, there’s talent, so we’re really happy.”
Patience is needed, because jumping at the first offer for Sexton this offseason likely won’t bring back a significant haul. That said, a decision can’t be put off for too much longer — the 2022 trade deadline seems like the point of no return with regards to Sexton’s future in Cleveland. In the NBA, teams go through cycles of ups and downs. Someone is going to pay Sexton, and maybe it is the Cavs. Contracts coming due and time passing ultimate demand action. There are exceptions of teams that never fall off totally, but they are rare. The Cavs, as they exist now, have never been that type of franchise.
The right time to act will be determined by myriad factors, none more important than the available packages out there. It could be this summer, next trade deadline, or possibly over the summer. But when they move, Cleveland better be sure in what they are doing and how it impacts the short and long-term vision for success. If the wins don’t come, the cycle continues before ever going anywhere and cost them something worth keeping.