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How the Cavaliers survived LeBron James’ exit to build a bright future

The Cleveland Cavaliers exceeded any and all expectations this season, and this is only the beginning.

2022 NBA All-Star - Taco Bell Skills Challenge Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

As the 2020-2021 season concluded, the Cleveland Cavaliers were back in an all too familiar place.

A team that went to the NBA Finals in four consecutive seasons from 2015-2018, and won an NBA championship in 2016 after being down 3-1 against the Golden State Warriors, was now coming off of their third consecutive losing season after LeBron James left to join the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2018.

The Cavaliers finished the ‘20-21 season 22-50, good for 13th place in the Eastern Conference. Which, to be fair, was better than their 15th place finish in the ‘19-20 season when they were 19-46 and their 14th place finish in the ‘18-19 season when they were 19-63.

The situation was bleak, to put it mildly.

The Cavaliers selected Collin Sexton and Darius Garland in consecutive drafts, but while each player had shown flashes of their potential, it’s a fact of life in the NBA that it’s typically difficult to win games consistently with two smaller guards starting in the same backcourt.

After trading for Andre Drummond proved to be ... less than successful, Cavaliers General Manager Koby Altman helped facilitate James Harden’s trade to the Brooklyn Nets, acquiring Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince in the process. While there were no guarantees either player would help lead a turnaround, Jarrett Allen did finish the ‘20-21 season very strong.

The Cavaliers selected Isaac Okoro with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and he immediately showed a tenacity and consistency on the defensive end in his rookie season. The issue, however, was that he was a complete non-factor on offense. You know how people say, “he’s never met a shot he didn’t like?” Well, Okoro was the complete opposite. Often hesitating to take even the most wide open shots.

Kevin Love, the only remaining member of the 2016 title team, often looked miserable and dejected throughout these last three seasons. How could anyone really blame him though? Any player, but especially one with multiple All-Star and All-NBA nods on his resume, that goes from playing in the Finals every year to languishing on a perennial lottery team would be.

Needless to say, heading into the 2021 offseason, there was nothing but uncertainty and very little cause for optimism outside of the team owning the No. 3 overall pick the draft 2021 NBA draft.

It appeared that the Cavaliers were destined to spend the next several seasons in a rebuild with no clear end in sight.

Altman refused to allow that to happen.

San Antonio Spurs v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

The turnaround started on July 29, 2021 when Altman drafted Evan Mobley with the 3rd overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. The lanky, 7-foot center played just one season at USC, but was named 2020-21 Pac-12 Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year in that season.

The only other player from a major conference to win all those awards in the same season? Anthony Davis. He’s pretty good. You may have heard of him.

Altman didn’t stop there.

That same day he traded Taurean Prince, a second round pick and cash considerations to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Ricky Rubio. The then 30-year old guard was coming off of a spectacular stretch of play in the Tokyo Olympics, punctuated by scoring 38 points against Team USA, and had a reputation of always playing winning basketball no matter what team he was on.

Then on August 2, Altman signed Jarrett Allen to a five-year, $100 million extension. Rewarding the 23-year-old big man for his excellent play in the second half of the previous season, and establishing him as one of the centerpieces of the franchise moving forward.

On August 27, he traded Cleveland native and fan favorite Larry Nance Jr. along with a 2023 second round pick to the Chicago Bulls for 7-foot forward Lauri Markkanen and signed him to a four-year extension worth $67 million. The former No. 7 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft needed a fresh start on a new team, and the Cavaliers needed to add a shooter that opposing defenses had to guard consistently.

Even with all these moves, there were MANY questions.

How were Garland, Sexton and Rubio going to fit together?

Would any of the young players the Cavaliers drafted in recent years take a leap?

Can Jarrett Allen live up to the extension he signed?

Is Evan Mobley really ready to step in and help turn this thing around as a rookie?

How was J.B. Bickerstaff going to allocate minutes to the three seven footers he now has on his roster? There’s no way in the world he would play all of them together right?

...right?

Cleveland Cavaliers Introduce Draft Picks - Presser Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

In an era where NBA teams want to downsize and increase space on the court, Bickerstaff decided to zig when the rest of the league was zagging. Not only were Allen, Mobley, and Markkanen going to share the floor together, they were all going to be in the starting lineup along with Garland and Sexton.

It was unprecedented. Starting two 7-footers isn’t abnormal at all, but three? With the way basketball is played right now? The conventional wisdom said there’s no way it could work.

The Cavaliers over/under for wins this season was 27.5, and you would have been hard pressed to find ANYONE that would have picked the over. A team starting two small guards and three 7-footers had to be destined to fail, right?

Wrong.

So very, very, very wrong.

The Cavaliers were winning and quickly established themselves as one of the most fun teams in the league. This crazy experiment that seemed impossible before the season started was actually working.

The frontcourt of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen was making life a living hell for the opposing teams on the defensive end. Darius Garland and Collin Sexton were electric and seemed to be figuring out how to win together. Lauri Markkanen, playing out of position on the wing, was holding his own defensively and providing spacing and timely shooting offensively.

They started the season 6-4 in their first ten games, before disaster struck and they lost Sexton for the season with a torn meniscus in their 11th game. While the team still found a way to win that game, in large part due to 37 points and 10 assists from Ricky Rubio, this was the kind of injury that would have derailed everything and sent the team spiraling in any of the prior three seasons. How would the team fare without their leading scorer from a season ago?

As it turns out, just fine.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

After their first 33 games the Cavaliers had a record of 20-13 and established themselves as, not just one of the best young teams in the conference, but one of the best teams in all of basketball.

Garland’s responsibility increased due to Sexton’s injury and he was blossoming with increased opportunity. His playmaking, ball-handling, shooting, decision making and ability to takeover down the stretch of games were awe-inspiring. We weren’t just watching a good young player, we were watching the beginning of superstardom.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the Cavaliers season was Mobley quickly establishing himself as the best rookie in the 2021 draft, and one of the most impactful defenders in the entire NBA. How often do you see a seven footer center guarding point guards on the perimeter and locking them up? Not even halfway into his first season and he was already drawing comparisons to Anthony Davis, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan.

Allen was a double-double machine and the anchor of a top five defense. Combined with Mobley, opposing players were terrified of attacking the rim for fear of seeing their shot sent right back in their direction. The connection Allen and Garland formed in the pick-and-roll on offense was simply unstoppable at times. If you didn’t know any better, you would think you were watching the second coming of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire.

Rubio’s role also increased in wake of Sexton’s season ending injury, and he became the glue that kept it all together. He was constantly creating easy scoring opportunities for his teammates on offense and was just as impactful defensively as he’d always been throughout his career. What was truly special about his play with the Cavaliers was his aggressiveness as a scorer. Coach Bickerstaff told him he needed “Olympic Rubio” and the veteran guard had success taking it upon himself to score the basketball whenever the team was going through lulls on offense.

Before the season began, Love was asked to come off the bench and he was now thriving in his new role. Much in the same way that Garland and Allen formed a lethal connection offensively, Love and Rubio were coming off the bench and obliterating the opposing reserves. Love was hitting threes and smiling more in 30 games than he did in the last three seasons combined.

That’s not an exaggeration either, he was literally ALWAYS smiling now.

New Orleans Pelicans v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Lauren Bacho/NBAE via Getty Images

The Cavaliers opened the season with one of the most difficult schedules in the league and it didn’t matter. Opposing teams coming into Cleveland expecting to face the same listless, unserious Cavaliers team from years past were in for a rude awakening.

The Cavaliers weren’t just beating teams at this point. They were beating the hell out of teams more often than not. Teams that would have been resting their starters in the fourth quarter against the Cavaliers last season were suddenly watching the Cavaliers rest their starters against them.

Every week you could see the stands in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse filling up with more fans. There was some understandable hesitation in the beginning because people wanted to make sure the Cavs were the real deal, but not anymore. The Fieldhouse was rocking every game and you could feel the energy, excitement and genuine joy through your television.

For spearheading this unexpected turnaround, both Altman and Bickerstaff were rewarded with contract extensions. Bickerstaff will remain the head coach of the Cavaliers through the 26-27 season, while Altman was promoted to President of Basketball Operations and extended through the 27-28 season.

This wasn’t a fluke. This wasn’t some random lightning in a bottle season similar to what the New York Knicks had last year. This was the beginning of something special being built in the city of Cleveland and, for the first time in decades, it was being built without LeBron James as the centerpiece.

Everything that everyone predicted would go wrong before the season went better than anyone could have possible imagined. It felt like the Cavaliers weren’t just going to make the postseason, they were going to finish as a top-four seed after having the third overall pick just a few months prior. It felt like nothing could stop them.

Then Rubio went down, and everything changed.

Cleveland Cavaliers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

In late December, Rubio tore the ACL in his left knee in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans. It would ultimately be the turning point in what had been a phenomenal season to this point. Rubio and his stellar play was a significant part of the reason Sexton’s injury did not hamper the team’s ability to win basketball games.

His contributions to the team’s offense and defense could not be understated, and the impact of his injury was felt immediately.

It also did not help that Garland was dealing a back injury of his own that had him in and out of the lineup. The Cavaliers suddenly found themselves down their top three guards, with two of them now lost for the season.

Altman had to act fast. The Cavaliers were No. 5 in the East at that point and needed to remain competitive in a conference that could best be described as a bloodbath. On Dec. 31, he traded Denzel Valentine to the Los Angeles Lakers for veteran point guard Rajon Rondo to bring stability and a veteran presence to a roster lacking available bodies.

That wasn’t the only move he had in store. On Feb. 6, Altman traded Rubio’s expiring contract, a lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick and two second-round picks for Caris LeVert and a 2022 second round pick from the Miami Heat. LeVert had been linked to the Cavaliers for months and was brought into provide consistent offense on the perimeter the team was lacking from anyone not named Darius Garland.

Though injuries were becoming a concern, the Cavaliers headed into the All-Star break with a record of 35-23 and had established themselves as a playoff team. If there was ever a team that needed this break, it was this one.

It also didn’t hurt that All-Star Weekend just happened to be in Cleveland this year.

2022 NBA All-Star Game Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

For the first time since the 1992-1993 season, when Mark Price, Larry Nance Sr. and Brad Daugherty were selected, the Cavs had multiple All-Stars that did not include LeBron James as one of them.

Garland was selected an All-Star reserve after averaging 19.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.23 steals per game headed into the break. Allen was also selected as a reserve, though it took a little bit longer for him to make it after being snubbed a couple times, after averaging 16.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.3 blocks headed into the break.

Both Garland and Allen being named All-Stars was just another example of how far the Cavaliers had come in a short amount of time. Rebuilds in the NBA often last longer than three seasons. Sometimes they never end, just look at the Kings.

This was a team just scratching the surface of what they could eventually become. This was proof that the future in Cleveland is just as bright as any young team in the league, with the exception of the Memphis Grizzlies. There are no guarantees in sports, and things can change quickly, but the Cavaliers having two current all-stars and a future all-star in Mobley is a better outcome than fans could have possibly imagined.

While the future was certainly looking bright, the present — well not so much.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Cavaliers were absolutely decimated by injuries after the All-Star break.

LeVert missed the Cavs’ first nine games after the All-Star break before returning to the lineup, and Garland missed the first three.

In early March, Allen fractured his left middle finger and would end up missing the remainder of the regular season. A week later, Dean Wade, who made 28 starts throughout the regular season for the Cavaliers and performed well, tore his meniscus in his right knee and was out for the remainder of the season. Even Rondo, who was brought in to fill the void left by Rubio’s injury, missed 16 games after the All-Star break.

Then Mobley suffered a right ankle sprain in late March, forcing him out of five games.

The Cavaliers finish the season just 9-15 after the All-Star break and fell all the way to the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. What looked to be a sure-fire top-four seed in the Eastern Conference suddenly found itself in the play-in tournament fighting for a postseason berth.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Brooklyn Nets - Play-In Tournament Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Cavaliers first play-in game against Kevin Durant, arguably the best player in all of basketball, former Cav Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets didn’t end the way they hoped.

Kyrie and KD could not miss. The Nets jumped out to a significant lead in the first quarter but the Cavaliers, as they’ve done all season no matter the situation or opponent, fought back valiantly in the second half. They had opportunities to complete their comeback in the fourth but, without Jarrett Allen, they simply could not get enough stops and lost 115-108.

Atlanta Hawks v Cleveland Cavaliers - Play-In Tournament Photo by Rick Osentoski/Getty Images

The Cavaliers season was officially on the line at home in their final play-in game against Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks, but they received some good news beforehand.

Allen, who had not played since early March, was returning to the lineup to give his team the boost they so desperately needed.

Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse was rocking from the moment the ball was tipped, and in the first half, it really felt like the Cavaliers were going to make the postseason for the first time since 17-18 season. After all, Young only scored six points in the half and Clint Capela had to leave the game with an unfortunate knee injury.

The second half was a complete different story. Young, the NBA’s leader in total points and assists this season, exploded for 32 points in the final two quarters to propel the Hawks to a 107-101 victory, securing the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and a postseason matchup against the No. 1 seed Miami Heat.

2022 NBA All-Star - AT&T Slam Dunk Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers season is officially over and, while it didn’t end the way the city hoped, the team exceeded every expectation.

Cavs fans should be extremely excited about the future of this basketball team.

Darius Garland is 22 years old. Jarrett Allen is 24. Evan Mobley is 21.

All three of these players are only going to get better going forward, and two of them are already All-Stars. Just think about it: This is the worst this team is going to be for the foreseeable future, and the only reason they didn’t win 50+ games this season is because literally everyone got injured at some point.

Injuries held this team back from reaching their potential, but it also may have been a blessing in disguise. The Cavaliers will keep their first round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft because they are in the lottery. Teams that win 44 games in the regular season are not supposed to get lottery picks. Whether the Cavs actually use that pick to draft a player or not, the core of this team will be even better going forward.

The Cavs are poised to become a dominant force in the East for the next decade, and for the first time since the ‘90s, they’re doing it without that Kid from Akron.