The sun is setting on the Cleveland Cavaliers' time in Las Vegas as they lost to the New Orleans Pelicans 87-74 and lost to the New York Knicks 103-94, finishing 1-3 overall. Instead of the usual 30-team tournament to close things, the NBA elected that teams will be matched randomly to play a final fifth game based on their respective record and other variables. The Cavaliers will face the Phoenix Suns, a foe that they are familiar with from the regular season.
For Cleveland, there was no Isaac Okoro or Evan Mobley, two franchise cornerstones, in these last two games. Despite this, there was still plenty to watch when it to came to the Cavaliers. Today we'll break down some key takeaways from Cleveland's last few days in Summer League before their finale against Phoenix.
Mfiondu Kabengele's NBA future could be in Cleveland.
Overall it's been a relatively quiet offseason for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hours before the draft, Cleveland traded Taurean Prince along with cash and a second-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves to acquire Ricky Rubio. They then selected big man Evan Mobley third-overall soon after. When free agency officially began, the Cavaliers signed star center Jarrett Allen to a five-year, $100 million contract extension.
Other than that, it's been all quiet on the Cleveland front. With 14 players already under contract, it makes it difficult for the Cavaliers to make any major roster overhauls unless it's through a trade. That, or they can sign a player to at most $9.8 million, the full value of their mid-level exception. Obviously, depth on the wing is a dire need for Cleveland but, based on what Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman shared it may not be the team's highest priority.
While on ESPN's broadcast of Cleveland's contest against the Houston Rockets, when asked about Evan Mobley Altman said the organization doesn't want to rush the young big into playing mostly at the center position. The Cavaliers general manager then went on to say that the organization is taking a close look at young big man Mfiondu Kabengele while the team was in Las Vegas.
Both of these things are extremely important and more than likely go hand in hand with one another. With Allen's primary backup Isaiah Hartenstein testing the waters of unrestricted free agency, it appears Cleveland is looking inwards at Kagenbele to be the team's backup big off the bench next season. While in Vegas, Kabengele has averaged 5.8 points on 33.3% shooting to go along with 8.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 0.8 blocks per game. He provided energy, defense and rebounding – all things that are expected of a high-energy bench center. So, it appears it's so far so good for Kabengele's chances of making it to training camp with the Cavaliers.
The money side of things also helps Kabengele's chances as well. Kabengele is set to make $1.7 million next season and if things don't work out not all of that money is fully guaranteed. It also allows Altman to get creative in a trade and partially guarantee Kabengele's contract, along with another partially guaranteed deal like Dean Wade's or Damyean Dotson's, to facilitate a trade to get a quality backup center.
This wouldn't be the first time Altman made a clever trade like this, he did something similar when acquiring JaVale McGee from the Los Angeles Lakers last season. But, if Kabengele keeps up his solid play through training camp and preseason, Cleveland may not have to explore this avenue. After being waived last season, the Cavaliers might be Kabengele's last legitimate chance at an NBA career. Hopefully, he can continue to make the most of the opportunity in front of him. It might be all he has left.
Just a kid from (greater) Akron coming home.
One of the more fun stories for this Cleveland Summer League squad has been Chandler Vaudrin. The former Winthrop Eagle went undrafted in the 2021 NBA Draft and hails from Uniontown, which is about an hour south of Cleveland. Vaudrin also played briefly for the Cavaliers, the ones from North Canton's Walsh University, as well. It's been cool to see Vaudrin suit up for the team he likely grew up rooting for. Unfortunately, Vaudrin suffered a nasty injury in a game against the New Orleans Pelicans that could derail his chances further. But, before the injury, there might be more to him than just a fun PR narrative.
While in college, Vaudrin led Winthrop to the 2021 NCAA tournament, where they lost to Villanova in the first round 73-63. During his senior season last year, Vaudrin averaged 12.0 points on 46.7% shooting to go along with 7.3 rebounds and 6.9 assists. Vaudrin showcased his abilities as a talented point-forward who was a near-certain triple-double threat but still flew under draft radars. This was due to subpar athleticism and a hesitancy to take shots outside the arc. It also didn't help that Winthrop played weaker competition which only hurt Vaudrin's draft hopes further.
So, that's how Vaudrin went undrafted and how he was able to sign a Summer League contract with the Cavaliers. He's seldom played for Cleveland, averaging 10.2 minutes per game, but in that time has averaged 1.7 points on 100% shooting along with 3.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists. If Vaudrin were to play an NBA standard 36 minutes, Vaudrin would be averaging 5.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists. Naturally, the shooting percentage would go down with more playing time and shot opportunities but Cleveland may have something special on their hands in Vaudrin.
With that said, when Summer League ends for the Cavaliers they should sign Vaudrin to one of their available roster spots with the Cleveland Charge, their G-League affiliate. He isn't NBA-ready right now and will need to rehab from his injury but Cleveland needs a contingency plan for their backup point guard situation going forward. Point guard Ricky Rubio is on the last year of his contract and the team may lose him next offseason in unrestricted free agency. The Cavaliers have already struggled to keep a consistent reserve behind young star Darius Garland. Letting Rubio walk without someone waiting in the wings could be disastrous.
So, right now Cleveland can keep Vaudrin in the team's ecosystem if they sign him to a deal all while getting him valuable on-court experience with the Charge. The team can continue to develop the Northeast Ohio native and then hopefully deploy him at the NBA level next season. Also, no team should willingly let a big-bodied point-forward like Vaudrin walk so easily, especially the Cavaliers. The versatility he could theoretically provide could be huge for the team long term.
J.J. Outlaw is a rising star among the coaching ranks.
In his brief time as Summer League head coach for the Cavaliers, J.J. Outlaw has performed admirably. Starting out his NBA career as an Assistant Video Coordinator with the Los Angeles Lakers, Outlaw has been J.B. Bickerstaff's right-hand man since their time together in Memphis during the 2018-19 season.
Outlaw played college football at Villanova, where he was a standout wide receiver. Following his collegiate career, he was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles for parts of the 2006 and 2007 seasons and played for the Rhein Fire of NFL Europa in the spring of 2007. Outlaw then served as director of basketball operations for the Marist men’s basketball program from 2009-2011, where he also served as an assistant coach during his second year.
While Outlaw has no prior experience playing basketball professionally, he clearly has a mind for the game and has earned the trust of Bickerstaff as one of Cleveland's lead assistants. There's also a good chance that he could eventually become his associate head coach, since according to sources, Antonio Lang, the current coach holding that position, is a future head coaching candidate in his own right.
That's more than likely why Bickerstaff tapped Outlaw to coach Cleveland's Summer League squad over Lang. The lack of formal NBA coaching experience, along with Outlaw's heavy background in player development, made him an ideal candidate. Outlaw has coached the Summer League squad to a 1-3 record and has done a lot of unique tinkering with the roster in order to maximize talent despite the losses. He has had Isaac Okoro playing point guard, which has produced promising results. Outlaw has also made Evan Mobley an offensive hub, playing to the big man's strengths as a true Unicorn.
It's only a sample of what Outlaw is capable of as an NBA head coach but it's clear that his star is rising among NBA circles. He still needs more time to properly grow and develop but the framework is there for Outlaw to succeed. According to multiple sources, opposing teams were beyond impressed with his ability to maximize Cleveland's roster even in a condensed format like Summer League. It feels like only a matter of time before teams are calling the Cavaliers, asking to interview Outlaw for their head coaching vacancy.