In all seriousness, Friday's loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA's play-in tournament was the perfect microcosm of the Cleveland Cavaliers season. In the first half, Cleveland looked unstoppable. They imposed their will on Atlanta on both ends of the floor and played with contagious, frenetic energy. But, in the second half, the Cavaliers tightened up on offense and allowed the Hawks to get ahead of them due to some careless defense.
Please stop me if you've heard this about Cleveland's season before.
It's an unfortunate way to see things end this way for the Cavaliers. It obviously isn't what the organization wanted - from the outset of this season they were hellbent and determined to make the playoffs. They were close to reaching that but the basketball gods had different plans for Cleveland this year. Unfortunately, that's how the game of basketball works too. There always has to be a winner and a loser and, for now, the Cavaliers are the losers as they wrapped up their season earlier than they intended.
But, the late-season slide and collapse against Atlanta shouldn't be what fans use to crystalize Cleveland's overall season. Sure, it played a part and there's no ignoring that. But, when looking at the big picture, this season was an overwhelming success for the Cavaliers. Culturally, they're rock solid under the guidance of head coach J.B. Bickerstaff working in tandem with the vision President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman is trying to build. They have the talent to support it - with a self-made Big Three of Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen as well.
Clearly, Cleveland is in a good place going forward and the team's potential on the court is limitless. Now, the pressure is on Altman and his staff to ensure that the Cavaliers don't have another late-season slide that keeps them on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The goal is simple and clear: build around the triumvirate of Garland, Mobley and Allen. Thankfully, there are plenty of options available in free agency and the 2022 NBA Draft. But, when it comes to free agency, things might be a little complicated for the Cavaliers internally.
First off, Cleveland has two key veterans in Rajon Rondo and Ed Davis that will be unrestricted free agents this summer. Rondo was key for his play on the floor after the Cavaliers lost Ricky Rubio and also was a major factor in Garland's development. Davis, meanwhile, was key in the locker room for helping flesh out the team's culture and was a reliable veteran when called upon.
While both are valuable neither Rondo nor Davis should be the top priority for Cleveland in free agency. Instead, those honors should go between Collin Sexton and Caris LeVert. Sexton, who went down with a torn meniscus early into the season for the Cavaliers, is an elite, three-level scorer that will be a restricted free agent this offseason. LeVert, meanwhile, was brought in to fill some of the scoring left by Sexton at the trade deadline. He was supposed to also provide a midseason jolt to a Cleveland team that needed something offensively whenever Garland sat.
Unfortunately, LeVert was a dud in a lot of what the Cavaliers were hoping for. Granted, some of that has to do with the fact that he was sidelined for nearly a month with injuries. But, whenever he did play for Cleveland something felt off. If you were the Cavaliers, would you want to extend LeVert who is going to be entering the last year of his deal? Based on the mixed results, you'd naturally be leery to do so.
But, don't be so quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Since acquiring him Cleveland internally had been wanting to see how LeVert would look in what could be their future starting five, playing alongside Garland, Mobley, Allen and Lauri Markkanen. Due to a variety of unforeseen injuries and other factors, it took until the final game of the season. That group played 24 total minutes together in Friday’s loss to the Hawks. They had a blistering 119.6 offensive rating and a superb 102.2 rating on defense. Sure, it's an extremely small sample size against a porous Atlanta defense, but, with those five on the floor together, the Cavaliers shot 53.8% from the field and 41.2% from three-point range. The quintet also outscored the Hawks by eight points.
“Obviously people didn’t see our best, but I think that will light a fire under us and make us go that much harder this summer because we know we should still be playing right now,” LeVert said. “We’re good enough to still be playing right now. I think every day in our workouts, will light a fire under us and just make us want it that much more for next year.
“I think we were a really good team this season. But if everyone keeps growing and keeps building in the same direction, and we stay together, I think the sky’s the limit for this group.”
The final two months were supposed to give the front office an opportunity for an honest evaluation of LeVert and his fit. They weren't able to get a full idea of that and now, heading into an offseason where LeVert has made it clear he wants to be with Cleveland long-term, it gets murky with Sexton back in the fold. Sexton, when compared to LeVert, is the more established player in terms of on-court familiarity. But, there are uncertainties about whether or not Sexton will be the same player he was prior to his season-ending injury. He said on Saturday morning during exit interviews that he will be but, actions always speak louder than words.
Thankfully, LeVert still has one year left on his deal and at this point, the Cavaliers should give him the benefit of the doubt. Let LeVert get fully healthy during the offseason and have a full training camp under his belt to fully understand Cleveland's system. If he thrives, then it only makes sense to sign him to an extension. If he continues to flop, then he should be an easily movable asset when the annual trade deadline comes calling. But, that also means that Cleveland should sign Sexton to an extension. Sexton said he wants to remain with the Cavaliers and sources say the feeling is mutual. Now, it all depends on how negotiations will go between the organization and Sexton's agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports.
Paul will be busy negotiating Sexton's extension as well as Garland's who is likely to be signed to something close to a max contract. That's a lot of money going towards young, talented players that deserve to be paid. But, it also makes things a little tricky as well for a Cavaliers team that's in serious need of depth.
Luckily enough, that's where missing the playoffs might be a good thing for Cleveland. The Cavaliers now have a pick in the 2022 NBA Draft Lottery, which unfortunately has the lowest odds of being first overall. Sure, getting the first overall pick would be great but having options in the middle of the first round isn't bad for Cleveland either. They could grab a more NBA-ready prospect like Kansas forward Ochai Agbaji or Duke's Wendell Moore at that spot. Then, with their two picks in the second round, they could add some quality depth like Tennessee point guard Kennedy Chandler and Michigan forward Caleb Houstan, who according to sources, has fans in Cleveland's front office.
Using the draft to add depth to a cash-strapped team like the Cavaliers does make a lot of sense. Especially when Cleveland might have to pay Sexton and LeVert both this summer. The decisions made by the Cavaliers in the coming months will shape the future of this team for the foreseeable future. No pressure but, when you flirt with the playoffs the expectation next year will be to make it.