A month ago the Cleveland Cavaliers took a big step towards replenishing a barren roster when they made three first round selections in the 2019 draft. The first, Darius Garland, was the result of the 5th overall pick that they ‘earned’ through mediocrity. The other two, Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr., were the result of owner Dan Gilbert’s perpetually open pocketbook, which Cavs General Manager Koby Altman used to take on longer contracts, and the draft picks teams paid him to do so.
That part of the rebuild -- using cap space and having a financially invested owner -- is being done quite well, if not perfectly. The Cavs should absolutely use their fluidity to provide other teams with get-out-of-jail cards, though obviously not of the ‘free’ variety. Where one starts to wonder is if these draft picks are being used as effectively as possible.
For a team as bad as the Cavs are, the ‘best player available’ philosophy seems to be unassailable. The team’s best player, Kevin Love, is on the wrong side of 30, and seemingly unlikely to be a part of the next stage of success in Cleveland; if the right power forward -- or stretch 5 -- was available, Love wouldn’t preclude his selection. Collin Sexton, last year’s first round pick, improved substantially as the season progressed, but at times was considered the worst regular in basketball by some of the advanced metrics. He didn’t appear to be (and ultimately wasn’t) an impediment to taking another primary ball-handler.
When I think about the most recent gut-renovation executed in the NBA, however, I have to wonder if it’s just as easy as taking the best player and worrying about the rest later. When we examine ‘The Process,’ there’s a question of how well it really all turned out, specifically at the center position. In 2013, they selected Nerlens Noel with the 6th pick; in 2014, Joel Embiid with the 3rd; and in 2015, Jahlil Okafor with the 3rd again.
We all know that Joel Embiid is a great player -- a two-time All-Star, All-NBA, and All-Defensive player -- but he also hasn’t played a total of two full NBA seasons in four seasons since he was drafted, and an ‘All-In’ season in Philadelphia dead-ended in the conference semi-finals.
The other two, whatever their merits on draft day, didn’t get meaningful development and playing time while competing with the others, left the 76ers without leverage in their trade talks -- teams knew that the Sixers had too much supply, so bidders could lessen their demand -- and ultimately both Noel and Okafor left for pennies on the dollar.
Does it necessarily go to reason that if you get your Embiid, it doesn’t matter how many picks you burn and players you cast aside along the way to him? It might. In the star-driven NBA, when championships are decided, ‘Your Five’ are all that really counts. I just don’t know if it’s necessary, or if the Cavs, in this era of flattened lottery odds, can count on quite as many high picks as Philadelphia blew through to get to Simmons and Embiid -- a shotless point guard, and the physical embodiment of ‘Injury Risk.’'
Is there true wisdom in the Cavs making three of their four first round picks in this era of rebuilding young, ball-dominant guards? All of Sexton, Garland, and Porter Jr. are one-and-done players, impatient to get to the Association despite little-to-no success at the collegiate level. The college assist leader of the three? Sexton, with 3.6 per game. All are used to the offense running through them, and all have the brashness of youth, and the certainty that an empty possession directed by a competitor is one they would have better utilized.
The John Beilein offense is said to be an egalitarian one, that thrives with multiple ball-handers rather than put them at odds with each other, but I have a tough time envisioning a situation where each is developed to his fullest capacity, and that at least first rounder -- if not more, hasn’t already been flushed away.
I would happily be proven wrong; I can still remember when the Toronto Raptors took Rafael Araujo the pick before Andre Iguodala because ‘they needed a center’ -- but this isn’t advocating to reach for positional need. Just to remember that ‘Your Five’ has five slots to fill, and even in the best case scenario for Windler and one of Sexton/Garland/Porter Jr., the Cavs have likely used four of their bullets on just two targets.