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Cleveland Cavaliers 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Cleveland Cavaliers continue to look like a team rebuilding, could this be the year they shed their big contract and really tank? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Cleveland Cavaliers in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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The Cleveland Cavaliers enter the 2019-20 campaign with a whole bunch of questions. There’s new head coach John Beilein coming in to take hold of the team’s direction and a trio of rookies being added to the mix of – for the most part – a youthful group of guys looking to make the most of the opportunities presented to them.

On the player and coaching front, this will be a season of development and growth more than one set out on the final results, though we will probably see the maturation over the course of the year. At the end of the day, this team is likely lottery-bound once more, but the players in the locker room want to show that they’re for real and can get into the postseason picture. Unfortunately, they’ll have their work cut out for them in a quickly improving Central Division.

One year removed from the start of another project without LeBron James, let’s see where this new era of Cavaliers basketball is headed.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Cavaliers are still in the beginning phase of a rebuild. They haven’t identified a go-to player around whom a playoff team can be built. They do have some nice young pieces; however, there is some redundancy in their rotation. First-year head coach John Beilein will have his hands full in trying to identify which point guard – Brandon Knight, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland – will be their lead guard of this year and the future. Ultimately though, the narrative of the season in Cleveland will be what they do with Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. But to be clear, the Cavaliers are making strides, but there’s a lot of rebuilding left to do.

5th place – Central Division

– Drew Maresca

The Cavaliers had themselves a solid draft night. They picked up a few intriguing players in Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. and Dylan Windler. One of the biggest question marks heading into the season is can Garland coexist in the backcourt with Collin Sexton? Both are undersized guards who aren’t really true playmakers. Expect to see new head coach John Beilein experiment with that pairing this season. This team is clearly in full rebuild, so don’t be surprised if Kevin Love’s name comes up in trade talks quite often. It’s going to be another tough year for the Cavaliers, but the name of the game for them is development. If the younger guys show improvement and consistency throughout the year, it will be a successful season for Cleveland.

5th Place – Central Division

– David Yapkowitz

It was difficult to watch the half-LeBron, half-young-guy roster of the Cleveland Cavaliers last year. The remnants of the championship years were frustrated and it wasn’t helping the player development side of things, so the team underwent major changes throughout the season. This one coming up is essentially a clean slate under head coach John Beilein and a trio of rookies joining Kevin Love. There will be plenty of ups and downs with an extremely inexperienced bunch collectively but, at worst, they’ll push forward in the culture shift focusing on growing their young duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, amongst others. Unfortunately for them, the wins won’t come easily and that will show with a second straight ending in the Central Division.

5th Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

The Cleveland Cavaliers are somewhat in limbo with an expensive roster and insufficient talent to be a viable playoff team. However, outside of Kevin Love, the Cavaliers’ other big contracts either expire after this upcoming season or decline each year moving forward (as is the case for Larry Nance Jr.). Thus, the main focus right now is adding assets and young prospects and building a culture that the players can develop in effectively. The Cavaliers, despite some mixed opinions, added some nice prospects in this year’s draft. Cleveland drafted Darius Garland (5th), Dylan Windler (26th) and traded 2020, 2021, 2023 and 2024 second-rounders and $5 million to the Detroit Pistons for the rights to Kevin Porter Jr. (30th). Garland plays the same position as Collin Sexton, whom Cleveland drafted eighth overall in last year’s draft. However, I am a firm believer in drafting the best talent available even if there is some overlap on the roster, so I am generally a fan of this move. This season is mostly a bridge to next year when Cleveland gets a lot more flexibility and another year of development for their younger players.

5th Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Cavaliers are in a rebuild, and rebuilds suck.

The upcoming season for Cavaliers fans will likely be more about watching Darius Garland and Collin Sexton figure each other out, more so than anything meaningful in the win-loss column. Sure there are veterans on the roster that have been to the NBA Finals, like Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, but neither are going to anchor Cleveland as a playoff contender — it’s more likely they play themselves into trade bait. That’s just the sad reality of the rebuild.

The good news is that Love and Thompson may return value in a trade, same as veteran John Henson, who is on an expiring deal. As the Cavaliers try to re-make themselves, how much those veterans return will tell the story of how long the rebuild will take, especially if the Garland/Sexton pairing is more like John Wall/Bradley Beal than Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum.

5th Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Cavaliers have whittled down their salary for the 2019-20 season below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line. Provided the team stays below, they’ll reset their repeater tax clock (earned from massive payrolls through the more recent LeBron James era). That means they’ll probably leave their exceptions unused (Mid-Level, Bi-Annual and a few small trade exceptions).

Cleveland is not a contender this season, which probably makes several expiring veterans available in trade (or bought out later in the season) like Tristan Thompson, Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson and Matt Dellavedova. The team still owes $120.4 million to Kevin Love. While the Cavaliers may find a market for the former All-Star in a trade, not every team will be able to easily match his $28.9 million in salary for 2019-20.

Collin Sexton and Ante Zizic have team options for the 2020-21 season that need to be picked up before the start of November. Cedi Osman is eligible for a contract extension, at least until the season begins.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kevin Love

There isn’t any question as to who the go-to guy is for the Cleveland Cavaliers, nor is there a question about who this team’s leader is. Kevin Love’s impact on the games themselves and the young players around him was clear in the overall confidence of the group, as the wine and gold won seven games between mid-February and mid-March. He helped instill self-belief in rookie Collin Sexton and an inexperienced Cedi Osman, while also providing the spacing necessary for each player’s success.

Love’s value comes from forcing opposing big men out to the perimeter to clear the lane for Cleveland’s offense to operate. Whoever initiates the offense will be able to attack the basket, leaving a choice to either finish, draw a foul or kick it out for a shot. There wasn’t much good from that last season with a lack of shooting, but Love certainly shined as of the few who consistently converted on those opportunities. He also showed a versatile side as an impressive passer when the Cavaliers utilized the inside-out game by playing through the post. It will be interesting to see how head coach John Beilein takes advantage of the 31-year-old’s talented skill set.

Top Defensive Player: Larry Nance Jr.

Today’s NBA requires adaptability on both ends of the floor. Larry Nance Jr. is the furthest thing from a one-trick pony. With a wide wingspan and impressive mobility, it really is a matchup nightmare for anybody he defends. Against guards on the perimeter, he’s quick and steady. In the paint versus bigs, he’s strong and has a nose for the ball, evidenced by his 2.8 percent steal percentage last season, good for fourth-best in the league.

What isn’t said enough about Nance’s activity on the defensive end and on the glass is how smoothly it starts transition opportunities. He’s crashing the boards after misses to immediately outlet the ball, or he’ll force a turnover and bring it up himself. We’ve seen flashes of his shot-blocking capabilities, too, but the rim protection and use of verticality are certainly improving.

Top Playmaker: Larry Nance Jr.

While the term Swiss Army knife may be cliche, it’s probably the most fitting to describe Nance. We knew how much potential was there when we watched him play in Los Angeles, yet we didn’t know how many different areas of the game he could affect. He got the opportunity last year to expand his game, and he did not disappoint.

With Nance assuming the role of point forward, Cleveland often played through the middle. He would get the ball at the top of the key, where guards and wings would cut either behind or in front of him. Palming the ball high with one hand, he’d typically find a teammate off ball by the rim with a flashy pass. If there wasn’t a lane, he’d settle for a dribble hand-off and set a pseudo-screen to open up a look just long enough for the shooter on the receiving end. With a few more three-ballers added to the mix now, Nance’s ability to make plays will be a key asset to Beilein.

Top Clutch Player: Collin Sexton

Perhaps the most endearing quality about Sexton is his refusal to quit. Time and time again last year, there were plenty of moments in which he could’ve thrown in the towel. He never did. His work ethic didn’t allow him to. He’d be out on the floor two hours before every game – studying film, working with assistant coaches and shooting with the two-way contract players and G-League guys. It’s pretty rare for a lottery pick, the former eighth overall selection in an NBA Draft, to go to such lengths to improve.

Those hours of work showed up in games, especially in crunch time. It’s like Avery Johnson, Sexton’s former coach at Alabama, told the media – he just loves when the lights are brightest. Last year’s Cavaliers’ coaching staff fawned over the rookie’s marked improvement in shot selection and decision-making down the stretch. His 70 percent three-point conversion rate in the clutch partially shows it, but it’s really the fearlessness of having the ball in his hands and the progression of making the right play that stands out here.

The Unheralded Player: Ante Zizic

Isn’t it curious that when people bring up who won the Kyrie Irving – Isaiah Thomas trade, they usually forget that Ante Zizic was a part of the deal? This is a man who was picked 23rd overall in the 2016 NBA Draft. All it takes for somebody to gain some confidence is a little playing time. With injuries to Love and a fluctuating roster, the Croatian center received an opportunity. He didn’t let it go by the wayside.

In essentially his first season (he sporadically played in 2017-18), Zizic put his footwork on display with his back to the basket. More often times than not, he’d have a feathery touch on his jump-hook shot and showed he could work the pick-and-pop game from mid-range. He’s got to work on conditioning, his foot speed still needs to get better and his reactions defensively must be sharper, but we’ve got to remember Zizic is only 22 years old. Cleveland has an intriguing young talent on its hands.

Best New Addition: Darius Garland

The Cavaliers desperately needed anything and everything to accelerate this organization’s rebuild from a talent standpoint. Drafting Darius Garland and two more dynamic rookies only adds to that pool and, for the Vanderbilt standout, could give him the keys to the castle. Beilein and his coaching staff are envisioning a dual-guard set between Garland and Sexton a la Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Portland.

Both will be able to handle the ball and orchestrate the offense. Vice versa, the two backcourt partners will play off the ball and switch roles when necessary. Following his introductory presser at Cleveland Clinic Courts, a league source raved over Garland’s potential. If his track record before his short college stay translates to the pros, there’s a bright future in store for him.

– Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Cedi Osman

Elected to the Rising Stars Game at NBA All-Star Weekend this past year, Osman was another young player that exhibited the advancement in his development. Thrust into the starting forward role right away, there were ups and downs partially due to playing out of position. When Love was hurt, then-head coach Larry Drew played him up a slot at power forward, where he was often overpowered and outmatched on the defensive end.

However, it was a good learning experience for the Turkish swingman to reveal the hardships of being depended on night-in and night-out with a rigorous schedule. He pushed through and, like Sexton, passed with flying colors when playing with a healthy roster. Per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com, here’s the most notable stat regarding Osman: His points per game average increased by 8.1, the second-most in the NBA from 2017-18 to ‘18-19 – right behind Pascal Siakam, the Association’s Most Improved Player.

According to Fedor, the Cavaliers and Osman have had preliminary talks regarding a contract extension, but the 24-year-old’s main priority at the moment is representing Turkey in the FIBA World Cup.

2.  Tristan Thompson

Though he only played for a bit over half of the season total, Tristan Thompson had a career year. It was the first campaign that the veteran big man put together a double-double average, proving to the masses how skilled he has always been if not for the setbacks and injuries. Before any of that, he’d been Cleveland’s iron man to always make the hustle plays, pull down the big-time rebounds, throw down high handoffs and bring the energy. We saw that version of Double T last season. With a contract year coming up, it’s likely he’ll turn on the jets even more – regardless of whether he remains with the team that drafted him or not.

3. Jordan Clarkson

It’s understandable that little attention was paid to the Cavaliers last year, so not too many basketball enthusiasts saw the display Jordan Clarkson put forth as a sixth man. When you look at the totals – a career best 16.8 points per game – it was arguably his best season as a pro yet. The instant offense is the name of JC’s game. He’s as streaky as they come, but when he gets it going, he turns into a microwave at the snap of a finger. Although when he doesn’t have it going, there’s a lot of forcing and bad possessions. It’s just the type of player he is. Similar to Thompson, Clarkson is entering a contract year and could draw plenty of interest around the league from those teams in need of bench help. If he continues to pack a powerful punch off the pine, Cleveland could receive an offer it can’t refuse. We’ll see if general manager Koby Altman decides to hang on to him.

4. Kevin Porter Jr.

The wine-and-gold brass is such a believer in Kevin Porter Jr. that the franchise bought the 30th overall pick for a league-record $5 million in addition to trading four second-round picks to the Milwaukee Bucks. 2018’s Mr. Basketball in Washington has a multitude of tools in his bag. It’s getting the 19-year-old to focus and hone in on being a professional that will be the challenge – for both sides. According to Chris Fedor, the Cavaliers saw Porter as a top-10 talent. If their talent evaluators turn out to be right, this could be a steal of an addition.

5. Dylan Windler

The first of two late first-round picks, Dylan Windler is a sort of “do everything” player. He can pull up from distance, pass the ball to set up teammates and sniff the ball out on both sides of the court. With an unorthodox style of ambidextrousness, Windler could earn advantageous situations by keeping defenses on their toes. The shot’s going up lefty, but he’s right-hand dominant, can make plays with both hands and is always around the rim looking to find extra possessions for his team.

– Spencer Davies

STRENGTHS

Cap guy Eric Pincus already addressed this surely, but how about the job Koby Altman has done in just two years of work? He started a rebuilding process halfway through LeBron James’ last season in Cleveland and continued it further a year ago. The road map from what he’s acquired and sent out, plus what those moves have turned into in the present, deserves more praise than he’s gotten — especially with the fact that the team is now under the luxury tax amount. Asset accumulation mode has been prioritized in the last year or so, and that won’t be changing in the upcoming season.

The Cavaliers have a boatload of expiring deals – Tristan Thompson ($18.5M), Brandon Knight ($15.6M), Jordan Clarkson ($13.4M), John Henson ($9.7M) and Matthew Dellavedova ($9.6M) – and that could lead to even more draft capital in the future. It’d be hard to see every one of those players traded, but there’s little chance Altman doesn’t strike when the iron is hot with at least two of these valuable contract assets. And that’ll open up floor time for the younger players and potentially affect the long term picture in a positive manner.

– Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

The inexperience on and off the floor is quite concerning. You can argue how much better the team is from the “on-paper” perspective. Until we see it in action, what can we really say? John Beilein hasn’t coached in an NBA game and he’s an integral part of pacing a rebuild with a bunch of young pieces. This roster currently has nine players with four years of experience or less, four of which are rookies and three of them have two or less. Now, having the players who have seen the floor time and been through the wringer is huge leadership-wise – but this combination of a lack of exposure to the pro level between the head coach and the team is something the Cavaliers will have to go through together.

Defensive breakdowns were maddening a season ago, so we’ll see if the staff addresses that first and foremost. Shooting, obviously, was not the strong suit of this squad either, but new personnel could help change that trend. An overlooked element in all of this to keep an eye on – staying healthy. It just seems like the injury bug bites just a little harder than most in The Land. It screws up rotations, makes things more difficult and demands adjustments.

– Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

Does Kevin Love Get Traded Away?

For most pundits and national news outlets, we’ve seen “Trade Kevin Love?” float about since he came to Cleveland. Most of the time, it’s been a clickbait headline in an effort to get a rise out of people. This offseason, it’s been a legitimate inquiry.

Love is a hot commodity at the moment. When he is on the floor, his impact on the game supersedes most stretch bigs around the league. He cans three-pointers, hits the glass hard and has an All-Star-level skill set — and, best of all, he’s in the best shape of his life. There’s plenty left in the tank. The phone is going to be ringing in Koby Altman’s office early and often. The Cavaliers know where they are in their timeline and, obviously, know where Love is in his. The obvious answer to the question of whether he is moved should be a defiant “yes.”

However, it’s more complicated than that. Love has a hefty contract that goes through 2022-23 and will require a ton of salary to match it in a potential deal. There are also questions of whether or not that price is worth it for some teams hesitant about his injury history. On the other side of the spectrum, the Cavaliers likely won’t be “shopping” Love. He’s the face of the franchise right now. His locker room leadership is invaluable. He signed a lengthy extension last summer knowing the road ahead might be rocky.

Love won’t be one to complain behind-the-scenes to force his way out. He’s been nothing but the consummate professional since his arrival, and that’s not going to change. In fact, he’s already got a team mini-camp planned out in New York prior to training camp.

The only way Cleveland sends Love packing is if a team comes with a home run offer. There’s a reluctance in the front office to part ways with him not only because of his meaning to the franchise but also because there may not be an offer deemed good enough to get the proper return on his value.

Where that ultimately leaves the Cavaliers in 2019-20, we can only wait and see for now.

– Spencer Davies

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