The Cleveland Cavaliers made four straight NBA Finals appearances from 2015 to 2018. Since then, however, the team hasn’t even sniffed the postseason after LeBron James departed for Los Angeles following the ’17-18 campaign. In the three seasons since James joined the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cavs finished 14th, 15th and 13th in the Eastern Conference standings. But while the past few seasons have been rough for Cleveland fans, there are some real reasons for optimism moving forward.
The team used the third overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft to add promising center Evan Mobley out of USC. Mobley is a mobile big man who can knock down shots and protect the paint on the other end, and has the potential to be special. In addition to drafting Mobley, the Cavs also traded for sweet-shooting forward Lauri Markkanen and veteran guard Ricky Rubio. Both players should provide a boost to a Cleveland offense that has shown a propensity for stagnation.
Factor in the continued growth and development of young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, and the Cavs have a chance to be better than they have been since LeBron left. No one is going to mistake them for a true title contender, but you have to start somewhere. With that said, here’s a look at Cleveland’s roster and four key storylines to watch ahead of the 2021-22 season.
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Cleveland Cavaliers roster
1. All eyes on Evan Mobley
The Cavs could have gone in a bunch of different directions with the third overall pick as the 2021 draft class was widely considered to be a deep one. They ultimately went with Mobley, and for good reason. The team already has a pair of promising young guards in Sexton and Garland, so it makes sense that they’d want to even out the roster by adding a big man to complement those guards. If all three players are able to grow together and reach their potential, the Cavs will have a formidable inside-outside attack for the foreseeable future.
Plus, Mobley has arguably the highest ceiling in his entire draft class. How high is that ceiling? Anthony Davis-level high, according to CBS Sports’ Colin Ward-Henninger. Here’s what he wrote about Mobley prior to the draft:
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Every skinny, mobile big man who can shoot a little bit seems to be compared to Davis, but with Mobley the comparisons are apt — that is, if he fully develops his burgeoning skill set. Mobley can be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate while providing incredible versatility offensively with ball-handling and shooting for his size. When people talk about Mobley as the best player in the class, they probably see a Davis-like future for him.
Given the current state of the Cavs, Mobley should see ample on-court opportunity right away. And while no one is expecting Mobley to morph into Davis during his rookie campaign, people — especially those in Cleveland — will certainly be looking for signs of superstardom. As such, Mobley’s play will be a central storyline in Cleveland’s upcoming campaign.
2. The continued development of Sexton and Garland
In addition to Mobley, the future of the Cavs also hinges on the continued development of Sexton and Garland. Thus, both players will be expected to take a step forward this season.
Sexton is entering his fourth season in the league, and he’s coming of his best year as a pro. He averaged 24.3 points, 4.4 assists and 3.1 rebounds per performance last season, and often looked a lot like a future All-Star in the process. As good as he played though, he still has some obvious areas of improvement. His assist-to-turnover ratio from last season (4.4 to 2.8) could be better, and as a career 45 percent shooter from the floor, he could improve his efficiency as well. If Sexton can continue to improve in those areas, he could quickly establish himself as one of the better guards in the Eastern Conference.
Garland is a similar story. He’s coming off a solid sophomore season where he averaged 17.4 points, 6.1 assists and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 39 percent from long range. Like Sexton, he would benefit from cutting back on turnovers (he averaged three a game last season), while also continuing to develop defensively. If both players continue to move in the right direction the future will be bright for Cleveland.
3. A reduced role for Kevin Love
With a roster comprised largely of young talent that isn’t quite ready to contend, the Cavs are clearly still in the midst of a rebuild that began when James departed in 2018. Given the fact that Kevin Love is 32 and thus doesn’t really fit into the franchise’s future timeline, many thought the veteran forward would be eager to agree to a buyout on the remaining two years of his contract with the Cavs so that he could continue his career elsewhere and potentially compete for a title while he still has some air in his tires.
That isn’t the case, though. Love, who has two years and $60 million remaining on his contract, is reportedly not interested in a buyout at all. Love would potentially be interested in a trade from Cleveland, as that would allow him to carry his current contract over to a new team. However, the Cavs obviously haven’t found any deals that they like up to this point. Given his age, injury history and the size of his contract, the trade market for Love is very low, and the Cavs aren’t interested in trading away an additional asset just to move Love.
Perhaps a trade will come to fruition during the season. But for now, Love remains on Cleveland’s roster, though his role moving forward will likely be limited. The Cavaliers want to make sure their young guys — like Mobley, Markkanen and Jarrett Allen — get ample on-court opportunity, and as such the team has already spoken to Love about having a diminished role moving forward, according to Jason Lloyd of The Athletic. Love has started in every game that he has played since joining the Cavs in 2014, but perhaps a shift to a reserve role is in the cards.
The Cavaliers were consistently mentioned as a potential landing spot for Philadelphia 76ers All-Star guard Ben Simmons over the offseason. In fact, just last week it was reported the Cavs were still actively trying to acquire Simmons. So, when discussing Cleveland’s upcoming campaign, the possibility that they trade for Simmons has to be addressed.
The Sixers have maintained an extremely steep asking price for Simmons, but it’s possible that their asking price will drop as the start of the season draws closer, especially since Simmons has threatened to skip training camp. At that point perhaps the Cavs can capitalize and make a deal. Here’s CBS Sports’ Sam Quinn on what the Cavs could potentially offer Philadelphia in a Simmons swap:
Cleveland has control over all of its first-round picks, so in theory it could offer Philadelphia a package of picks similar to what Brooklyn gave up for James Harden (though whether Simmons warrants such a haul is another question). In Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, Cleveland has two young players with All-Star potential. One — likely Sexton given Cleveland’s apparent disinterest in giving him a long-term extension and Garland sharing an agency with Simmons in Klutch Sports — could go to Philadelphia without depriving the Cavaliers of a more traditional guard.
A Simmons trade could also serve as a solution to Cleveland’s Kevin Love problem… The Cavs would need to send out a sizable chunk of salary to match money in a Simmons deal, and including Love could get him to a winning team without him having to make a financial sacrifice. Throw in other young players such as Isaac Okoro and Cleveland has all of the pieces it needs to make a competitive offer for Simmons.
At this point, a Simmons trade feels like an inevitability. However, there are other teams interested in the young star, so there’s no guarantee that he’ll end up in a Cavaliers uniform. Nonetheless, the possibility is certainly something worth keeping in mind.