For the next few weeks and all the way into the summer, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a lot of decisions to make. But, the gravity of the situation notwithstanding, there are far worse problems to have. The Cavs are in Phase Two of rebuild mode. They tore it all down (1), and are currently in the process of erecting a new foundation (2).
As the team continues its hopes of pushing into phase three: become a contender, there are still quite a few things on the checklist that the Cavs need to do their due diligence on, and many of those moves will be coming from now until the 2012 NBA Draft.
The first step was partly luck, and that's fine, every successful NBA franchise needs some of that. The Cavs got a little ping pong ball magic when they drafted first to get LeBron James, and the deal with the Los Angeles Clippers for Mo Williams turned into the No. 1 pick as well. If the Clippers still have that pick, who knows, maybe they don't even win the lottery in the first place. Maybe they don't get Chris Paul. Maybe they don't even draft Kyrie Irving with the first pick anyway, and they take someone else. So, that happened. What ifs are fun and all, but they aren't the purpose of this exercise.
Bottom line, the Cleveland Cavaliers made a smart move trading Mo Williams for Baron Davis and LAC's first round pick. They moved a guy who liked being in Cleveland for another guy who had a bigger contract and was perceived as a malcontent to help the long-term success of the franchise. Good on you, Chris Grant.
The fact that it netted Kyrie Irving, who is looking more and more like the Rookie of the Year and a future All-Star is an added bonus. The Cavs trusted their scouts in making the Irving and Tristan Thompson picks, and so far it is paying off.
Here's where it gets a bit dicier. In the Cleveland Choose Your Own Adventure game, there are a few moves that need to be made, and these will lead to more decisions in the future, whether the Cavaliers jump forward to page 159, or just skip ahead three pages. GM Grant has said he wants to do this thing like Oklahoma City, and if that is the case, a few important conclusions have to be reached.
Cleveland has trade assets, and they aren't a championship team right now. So, the first question they have to ask themselves is: which is more important, the draft or the playoffs? One offers more in the long-term, one offers instant gratification. One is a calculated risk in a stacked class, one gives the team's cornerstone (Irving) incalculable experience as he seeks to grow and learn his craft. Both arguments have been made ad nauseum, and the jury is still out, but the wise choice with a 19-year-old point guard is to build around him.
Ramon Sessions and Antawn Jamison are clearly not going to be here after this year. Sessions wants to start and/or play on a playoff contender. Jamison is in the twilight of his career and his contract is expiring. What they are doing now is blocking young guys from playing minutes (Irving and Thompson), and adding to the team's short-term win total, which is hurting the team's overall draft prospects. That isn't to say that winning is a bad thing -- it isn't -- but both players have tangible, measurable value.
Sessions is the most likely to be moved. The Lakers have shown interest, other teams are in need of a reliable ballhandler and the 25 year old has a $4.55 million player option next season that he'll likely opt out of in lieu of a more lucrative, long-term contract. It isn't a question of if Sessions will be wearing another team's jersey, but when, and that should come after the All-Star break this weekend.
Jamison poses more of a quandary. He is 35 and in the last year of an abatross of a contract that is making him $15 million this season. The Cavs have a significant amount of cap room next year if they buy him out and decide to make a play in free agency. He is blocking Thompson's minutes and taking a tremendous amount of shots. Aside from giving Cleveland a 2.3 Win Share so far, there is little to gain from keeping Jamison around unless the team is actively trying to push the .500 barrier. There is a small chance a playoff team wants him for his mythic stretch four powers, or a rebuilding club with a big contract they want to unload could dangle picks in front of the Cavaliers in order to take the strain off their hands. Any of these alternatives are better than letting Jamison continue to hoist shot after shot for no real endgame.
Anderson Varejao: A Polarization
What to do about Varejao has been bounced back and forth on the interwebs all year. The two main arguments are this:
(a) Andy is controllable for another three years after this season. He is paid fairly relative to his skill level at a position that is usually overpaid. He is a fan favorite. Andy is, like, totally good at defending the pick and roll. The Cavs are not likely to get fair return value for a player whose main assets are non-measurable hustle plays. There may never be another player like Varejao ever again. He has curly hair.
(b) Varejao turns 30 in September. He has reached his ceiling as a 10 & 10 guy, cannot really create for himself and does not necessarily fit into the long-term plans. He deserves to play on a contender. He offers more to a team with a variety of playmakers so that his hustle can be fully realized. He will bring a nice package from a team looking to make a push for a championship. Isn't his hair adorbs?
There is no right or wrong answer to this problem. It isn't really a problem to begin with. The Cavs control a big man who has value either to them or to someone else. This is a good thing.
Evaluating The Bench: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Semih
Come summer 2012, here is the list of players who will have guaranteed contracts on the Cleveland Cavaliers:
That's it. Everyone else's contract is either up (Jamison, Ryan Hollins, Anthony Parker, Alonzo Gee, Samardo Samuels, Erden, Luke Harangody) or is a team option (Daniel Gibson). This is a lot to deal with. NBA teams, by design, have to have a certain number of players on them. We already discussed Jamison. It is a stretch to believe Hollins, Parker or Harangody will be on the team next year.
Samuels, Erden and Gee are still under consideration, and the second half of the season will be a good evaluation period to decide if any of the three will be in the future plans. Gee has likely played himself onto a team, whether that team is the Cavaliers or not. Erden has given better minutes lately, and might be worth a look as a backup. The undrafted Samuels has shown some offensive flashes, but does not seem to mesh well with Byron Scott. Luckily, all three are young and cheap, regardless.
That said, the Cavs will need to sign people, and the best way to get players to Cleveland is to trade for them, rather than overpaying in free agency. That brings us back to the aforementioned other two issues. Part of what would make trading Sessions, Jamison and Varejao enticing is that it shores up the roster for next season and beyond. Otherwise, you're left with the draft and the open market.
Ah Yes, The Draft
Currently, the Cavs have their first round pick, their second round pick, New Orleans' second round pick, and if by some act of God, the Sacramento Kings were to make the playoffs, Cleveland would also have SAC's first rounder as well. Let's just assume that won't happen.
The Cavaliers want more picks than that. This is pretty much a guaranteed statement. Again, there are only five players (six if you believe Gibson's option will be picked up) on the Cavs for the 2012-13 season right now. This leaves a lot of minutes for young players. The draft is the best place to find said young guys. This is why moving Sessions and Jamison is so critical. It is also not out of the question that Cleveland tries to buy a first-rounder, as well.
Teams will also often sell their picks (i.e. the Phoenix Suns) to save money, and the Cavs should be jumping at any opportunity to get back into the first round in this draft class.
The Cavaliers' most pressing needs are at wing and in the paint. With Sessions gone, they are going to need a backup point guard as well (although this makes more sense with a veteran free agent). There are a variety of solid options at shooting guard, small forward and center in the 2012 draft, and the Cavs need to hit on a high percentage of their picks. This is a make or break draft class. The more picks the Cavs are able to acquire, the more flexibility they have to move around or take risks.
March through July is a critical time period for the Cleveland Cavaliers if they hope to build a lasting franchise for the future. If you can't eat an elephant in one bite, you certainly can't win a championship with one move, and Chris Grant, along with the rest of the Cavs' front office, better be hungry.