It’s funny to be sitting here a day before the NBA trade deadline and thinking about how a Cleveland trade would impact their own playoff hopes.
It’s true, though. That is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ reality. As of today, Cleveland is 1 game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference. I don’t think anyone ever thought this would be an issue for Cleveland this soon, yet here we are.
With Anderson Varejao now having been out for a month, how did the Cavaliers get here? It’s really a combination of things. First, getting the 8 seed in the East is nothing special. The Cavaliers are 8 games under .500 and yet are 1 game out of the playoffs. If anything, these playoff aspirations are more about the pathetic nature of the Eastern Conference than about any perceived quality of the Cavaliers.
Were they in the Western Conference, the Cavaliers would be in 14th position, five and a half games behind 8th seed Houston. Rather than talking about how exciting the season is and having all this hyperbole about how incredible it is that Cleveland is in the playoff hunt, the talk instead would be just how far the Cavaliers have to go to be competitive with their Western Conference peers.
I write this not to be disparaging or negative, but just to lend some perspective to a topic that I feel has spun somewhat out of control this week. Look, I was the guy who firmly stated that making the playoffs wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I still feel that way. But somewhere along the line, the message got mixed up. It’s one thing to not be worried about making the playoffs, it’s a completely other thing for the Cavaliers to make decisions with the intention of making the playoffs.
I am perfectly ok with it if the Cavaliers fall backwards into the playoffs. I am of the opinion that their odds of finding an impact player in the draft at pick #15 are close enough to pick #10 to make it worth it to get playoffs experience, even if, yes, that means getting swept in ugly fashion at the hands of the Heat.
Over the past week or so, however, there’s been this idea floating around in the media that the Cavaliers are actively trying to make the playoffs, and the implication there is that the Cavaliers would possibly hold off on trading a player like Ramon Sessions or Antawn Jamison if it meant it would hurt their playoff chances.
Our weekend editor Ben Cox wrote an interesting article the other day on his own site about the Cavaliers potentially going out of their way to make the playoffs. In it, he writes:
Look, this is a Cavs team (filled with non-longterm pieces like Jamison, Anthony Parker, Sessions) who’s ceiling, if everything goes right, is the 8th seed. That’s best case scenario: the 8th seed. The 8th seed is also where they’ll face either LeBron and the Miami Heat or Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls. The Cavs are 0-5 against the Bulls and the Heat this season and have lost by an average score of 107-85. Man, can’t wait for four games of that!
(And I’m sure that the media would love a Miami-Cleveland first round match-up. Cleveland fans… notsomuch).
Getting Kyrie Irving playoff experience and developing a winning culture are both good things. But you know what helps develop a winning culture? Great basketball players. What’s the best place for the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise to find Great Basketball Players? The top of the draft.
I may disagree with Ben on the playoffs being a bad thing, but I agree with him completely that picking in the top 10 is a better way to get a great player to play with Kyrie Irving. I am of the strong opinion that any move the Cavaliers make should be with their eyes on the future, and not on this season.
If the Cavaliers could trade Sessions and Jamison in the next 24 hours, and with Anderson Varejao still a couple weeks away, more or less, the Cavaliers would almost certainly slide easily into the top 10 while still trying their hardest, still developing young players, and still getting better as individuals.
I don’t define that as tanking. The team isn’t making decisions to intentionally hurt the team for the sake of drafting higher. Instead, trading Sessions for a first round pick is all about acquiring more assets. If the Cavaliers lose more games this year because of it, the rest of the season would be less fun, but their draft pick might end up being a better player, leading to more fun next season.
This is why I also don’t understand the logic of the current Sessions trade rumor. ESPN’s Marc Stein has reported that the Cavaliers are trying to spark a 3 team trade that would see Sessions go to the Lakers, the Lakers’ first round pick would go to Houston, and the Rockets’ Jonny Flynn would go to Cleveland. Jonny Flynn may have been drafted 6th, but at this point, he is not worth more than one of the Lakers’ first round picks.
Scott pointed out on his Twitter account last night that there is some truth to this rumor. This tells me a couple things. First, it tells me that the Cavaliers think more of Flynn than probably virtually every other NBA franchise. Two, it tells me the Cavaliers are concerned about Irving’s backup PG. Meaning, they are afraid to trade Sessions without having a backup PG in place because of the playoff implications.
The obvious flaw in this logic is that if you’re concerned about the playoffs, and you’re concerned about having a backup PG for Irving, then why trade Sessions at all? You already have a player who fits both criteria, so there’s no reason to trade him. I like Ramon Sessions a lot and I’d love to have him be Kyrie’s backup for the future. But for all the reasons I’ve previously pointed out, it’s not likely to happen.
It is so easy for Eastern Conference teams to delude themselves and their fans into fake progress. Making the playoffs as the 8 seed is not the measure of progress in this league. I want to reiterate again that I’m fine with the Cavaliers making the playoffs, as long as that happens organically. As soon as the Cavaliers let this thought cloud their judgment, though, the more I have a problem with it.
The Lakers are struggling. They so desperately need a PG upgrade. Before the trade deadline tomorrow, they will trade the Cavaliers one of their first round picks to Cleveland for Ramon Sessions. This deal will be there. Chris Grant just has to reach his hand out and grab it. If the Cavaliers refuse to do so on the false premise that making the playoffs is unequivocally better for this franchise than gaining an extra first round pick, it will be the first time I will strongly disagree with the mindset of this front office.
Go back and read that Ben Cox post again. In it, he links to an older post of his in which he points out that the when the Cavaliers drafted LeBron James, they had just 8 picks in the seven years after. The Sonics/Thunder drafted Kevin Durant in 2007 and had 10 other picks in 3 years. When the opportunity to stockpile first round picks presents itself, especially when you already have a franchise player in place such as Kyrie Irving appears to be, you have to take advantage of this opportunity.
There are no participation medals for making the 8th seed. Sure, the franchise will get some extra money and some national TV exposure for the first time. Yes, I believe the experience of playing in the postseason now with no pressure to win will benefit guys like Irving, Alonzo Gee, and Tristan Thompson in the future. But that benefit is not worth changing direction on the rebuilding process to get there.
That’s the distinction I am trying to make, as someone who mostly been pro-playoffs. I have never believed the Cavaliers would actually make it on their own volition. But if the rest of the East managed to be worse than Cleveland, and the team found themselves making it there while still holding true to the rebuilding plan, then I am all for it.
The Cavaliers might be standing at something of a crossroad right now. Chris Grant has a choice. He has paved the road the team is currently on. The plan is in place and you can see it working before our very eyes. On this road, the team continues adding draft picks, leaning on the strength of this scouting staff to infuse more young talent, when eventually the team will be good enough to make the playoffs and mean it.
Or Chris Grant can alter the route at this crossroad. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t. But the Bucks just traded for Monta Ellis, likely making their team better down the stretch this year. The Knicks, while completely dysfunctional, still have vastly more talent than Cleveland. This is what the Cavaliers are up against should they choose to pursue that route. Wins at Denver and Oklahoma City are great, but should they overshadow losses to Boston, New York, New Orleans, Toronto (3 times), Chicago, Miami, etc.?
The point is, the Cavaliers are not there yet. It is important they continue to build for the future and continue to acquire assets. Which is why I’ll end this by pointing out that right now, everything is just rumor. Until Chris Grant actually refuses to trade Sessions for draft picks, or trades him instead for a backup PG for right now, there is nothing to worry about. I haven’t disagreed with too many decisions the front office has made in recent years. I trust them, and until they give me reason not to, I will continue to do so.
Hopefully by this time tomorrow, a Ramon Sessions trade for a first round pick will be nearing completion. As for the playoffs, who knows. Once Varejao comes back, anything could happen in the East. Irving gives the Cavaliers a 4th quarter confidence that they can win any game. Losing Sessions would make it more difficult, but already I refuse to doubt Kyrie Irving. I’m just not willing to forsake future rebuilding because I’m happy with where Irving is at in his development. I hope the Cavaliers see things the same way I do.
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