In early March, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Cleveland Cavaliers were both threatening to surpass the New York Knicks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Then on March 14th, the Bucks traded the struggling Stephen Jackson to Golden State for a prolific offensive talent in Monta Ellis. The next day, the Cavaliers dealt Ramon Sessions to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Luke Walton. The overachieving season ended there as a result for the Cavs, no offense to Luke, and the natural tank job began.
The New York Knicks have gone 8-2 in their ten games since, the Bucks 6-4, and the Cavaliers have stumbled to 1-8 heading into tonight’s game with the Spurs. In those ten games for Milwaukee, Monta Ellis is averaging over 14 points, 5 assists, and 3 rebounds per night. He’s helping his new team stay within a 2.5 game striking distance of New York in the process, and pairing better than most people thought alongside Brandon Jennings in that Bucks backcourt too. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Luke Walton has appeared in 6 games for the Cavaliers, averaging 2.5 points, 1.2 rebounds, and 0.8 assists per contest. The Cavs have now fallen to 8.5 games behind New York, and will almost certainly lose again to San Antonio tonight as well.
After a season in which the Cavaliers exceeded expectations for just about two thirds of the year, however, they are now in a position that many Cavs fans feared their winning ways would prevent them from being. They are in the ultimate NBA free-fall, sinking fast, and rising up the draft lottery board all at the same time. Their latest loss to New York on Saturday now has Cleveland (winning percentage: .340) percentage points ahead, or behind, of Toronto for the 5th worst record in the NBA. The fourth worst record by season’s end, in a move past the Raptors, better than only Charlotte (.140), Washington (.226), and New Orleans (.245), is certainly attainable. Which is why I sat last night watching Michael Kidd-Gilchrist help Kentucky win the National Title picturing him starting alongside Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson next season for just about the whole game. But I’m getting ahead of myself there.
The better talent it now seems the Cavaliers will be in a position to acquire by way of the draft this June, as opposed to where they were a month ago, is certainly an encouraging aspect of all this losing. But what I’m also encouraged about, moving forward, is that the Cavaliers have not only put themselves in a position to draft high, but have also taken winning steps along the way this season too. How many times have teams been in the playoff race after the All Star Break and then ended up with the 4th worst record in the League, is what I’m getting at. Something I think will benefit the Cavaliers long-term, because winning organizations are never built on the idea of tanking for better draft picks alone. You do need to compete, which is why I celebrated each and every one of the Cavaliers wins this season, and still firmly believe those victories were valuable parts of this rebuilding effort. Even if that means losing out on an Anthony Davis, for example, as much as I’d like to have him here too.
Mandates of specifically losing to improve your draft position only create cultures of losing in return. The results of accepted losing do not spontaneously combust into the Oklahoma City Model that so many people talk about, so much as it just ends with good players on bad teams forever. But the Cavaliers did not make the decision to tank when the season began. Byron Scott clearly identified the postseason as his goal, and talked about the push towards playoff basketball all year long. He never accepted losing, and still doesn’t, even though they currently are. For both that conscious effort to try and win as much as possible this season though, in addition to the fact that they inevitably lost a ton anyways, the Cavaliers will be ultimately rewarded.
The environment those victories over teams like Oklahoma City, Boston, and Dallas, began to create will have a lasting effect moving forward. The Cavs are just completely done at this point in the season. They’re utterly out of gas, severely undermanned, and in a position now to pile up losses quickly. The fact that Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert could’ve went the other way at the trade deadline too, and didn’t, shouldn’t be dismissed either. With a healthy Anderson Varejao, Ramon Sessions was arguably the third or fourth best player on the Cavaliers team this season. They were willing to trade him though, knowing their chances to win now diminished substantially as a result, in a strategic attempt to build for the future.
The late first round pick the Cavaliers did receive from the Lakers as compensation for Sessions, in addition to Walton, was only one piece of that too. The other future asset that was gained by the Sessions move is the improved value of the first round pick the Cavaliers already owned as well. A likely outcome that I highly doubt was lost on Grant when he decided to deal Ramon in the first place. Regardless of where exactly that draft lottery pick ends up being though, I’ll never begrudge the winning that preceded it. The game winning shots that Kyrie Irving hit this season were critical steps forward for the organization. It was also critical that this young group was able to find out, that at full strength, they did compete with anybody.
For a good portion of the year, this Cavs team naturally and genuinely competed for a spot in the playoffs much sooner than anybody around the NBA thought possible. Then, once that became unattainable, they genuinely fell completely out of the race and into the lottery. They’ll have one first round pick in the top-10 for sure, maybe top-5, followed by three more draft picks in total after that. As opposed to preconceived tanking though, this tank job currently underway from the Cavaliers is a natural one. A healthy one. They tried to win all the way up until they just couldn’t win anymore. In the long run, I’m not sure that collective end to season one of this rebuild could’ve played out any better either.