CLEVELAND, Ohio — On Feb. 6, the Cavaliers stunned the NBA by trading for two-time All-Star center Andre Drummond.
At that time, Cleveland believed it had the final two months to begin conducting a Drummond experiment. General manager Koby Altman has long been a fan, their relationship going back to USA Basketball. Then-coach John Beilein spent weeks shouting about the team’s lack of size.
Suddenly the Cavs had more talent, size and a formidable frontcourt for the minimal cost of two expiring contracts (John Henson and Brandon Knight) and a future second-round pick.
In an NBA dominated by pace, space and 3-point shooting, the Cavs wanted to at least explore a different look. They were curious to see how a traditional big — a big-bodied, athletic, rolling rim protector — would impact the development of young guards Darius Garland, Collin Sexton and Kevin Porter Jr. They also thought Kevin Love, disgruntled at times, would benefit at both ends from having such an accomplished interior presence while also being lifted with an infusion of help-now talent.
There were 30 games to collect the requisite data to make an informed decision heading into an important offseason…or so the Cavs thought.
Instead, they got just eight.
That’s one of the many pitfalls in the Cavs’ exclusion from the league’s proposed return-to-play plan. Pending expected ownership approval in a Thursday Board of Governors call, NBA commissioner Adam Silver will announce a format that sends 22 teams to Walt Disney World to play out some portion of the remainder of the regular season before crowning a champion. The Cavs won’t be invited, sources say. Their season is over, finishing 19-46, last in the Eastern Conference.
“This is a killer for us and our development,” one member of the organization told cleveland.com Wednesday afternoon.
“I wish we could have played but I obviously understand the decision,” one player said via text.
Drummond played eight games. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff got 11 after taking over for Beilein. Tristan Thompson didn’t get what could’ve been a proper Cleveland sendoff — although a source says there’s a chance Thompson still returns this offseason.
Garland never got an opportunity for the expected second-half surge, the kind Sexton used as a springboard into an eye-opening sophomore season. Instead, Garland played just 59 games, ranking as one of the league’s worst players in numerous analytical categories.
Porter won’t get the chance to initiate offense, using some of his underrated playmaking, an area Bickerstaff wanted to explore in the final weeks. Porter’s intriguing flashes, showing why some within the organization believe he’s got the best chance to become the centerpiece, will have to be enough.
Rookie Dylan Windler, who might’ve been able to make his long-awaited NBA debut had the Cavs been included in the return-to-play format, will have to wait until December. For him, it was a lost year.
When the NBA stopped because of Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test on March 11, the Cavs were 5-6 under Bickerstaff. They snagged wins against Denver, San Antonio, Philadelphia and Miami during that stretch. A new team, with renewed hope and optimism, the Cavs were eager to not only play spoiler down the stretch but also build on the positive momentum, finishing the season strong.
“We beat San Antonio on our home court. You know, we played and really competed with and beat some really good teams in that stretch,” Larry Nance Jr. said recently. “And I think it was how we did it. I think there was no fluke about it, because you know, a few of those games went into overtime and we just out-manned the other team and just out-executed, out-physicaled, out-muscled.
“And so I think for lack of another reason we want to get back is because, for me, at least, I was really enjoying that, just really enjoying getting to play and win and really compete this year. And, you know, obviously I was also thoroughly excited to keep playing our big lineup. That was probably my favorite part of the year.”
Nance was thriving as part of the super-sized lineup that allowed him to play small forward. Sexton was in the midst of the best stretch of his young career. Matthew Dellavedova had worked his way back into the customary rotation, leading some within the organization to contemplate bringing back the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent on a team-friendly deal. After months of misery, Love was happy again — playing for Bickerstaff, the coach Love worked alongside in his early Minnesota days.
Player development is at the core of this rebuild. It’s headed into Year 3 of the undertaking that followed LeBron James’ departure in 2018 free agency.
But under this new format, by the time the 2020-21 season starts, the Cavs will have gone nine months between games. Who knows what they will look like? Who knows how much time will be in between team-organized mandatory workouts?
The Cavs — and other non-playoff teams — don’t currently have those answers. According to sources, one member of the team’s front office has spent the last few days working on that project specifically, letting the league know what the team needs/wants during this unprecedented hiatus. Sources say the Cavs plan to push mandatory training camps during the summer because of the unique circumstances to their shortened season. But whether they actually win that battle remains to be seen.
Those are just a few of the many unanswered questions.
While Drummond is likely to exercise his $28.7 million player option, the pandemic has led to a loss of revenue, which will likely impact future salary caps. When Drummond makes the choice to stay, the Cavs’ path to external improvement will be blocked. They could also consider a Drummond contract extension, although that seems unlikely given how short his stint has been. There are other decisions ahead — on free agents Ante Zizic, Dellavedova and Thompson as well as the always-lingering possibility of trading Love. The Cavs will have months to figure out their plans while 22 other teams are in Disney.
But given their young core, new coach, ideas they had for the final stretch of 2019-20 and stability they were beginning to find after a rickety season, the Cavs — buried deep in the standings — will be one of the teams impacted most by the NBA’s plan.
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