Soon after their season ended, anyone and everyone associated with the Cleveland Cavaliers was on the same page. In their eyes, the New York Knicks out-hustled and out-worked the Cavaliers in the opening round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. New York hit Cleveland with a stronger level of physicality they weren’t entirely comfortable with, and, at least in the eyes of Knicks big man Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks had the Cavaliers rattled.
It was seemingly pre-destined that New York, one of the league’s best rounding teams, would take advantage against Cleveland, the twenty-fourth best rebounding team, in this matchup. Nevertheless, on paper, the Cavaliers had more talent than the Knicks, which should’ve been a critical factor in this series. Unfortunately, talent isn’t everything (ask Cleveland, the Phoenix Suns or the Memphis Grizzlies), and the mental battle matters just as much, if not more.
Despite playing two seven-footers in their starting lineup, one of Cleveland’s bigger flaws as a team was exposed on the biggest stage and sent them packing. There are still more questions than answers about this team going forward, but based on their limited body of work against New York in the postseason, there is a path to avoid this from happening again. It will come from internal growth, with Allen and his co-partner Evan Mobley committing to adding more bulk to their frames this summer. Darius Garland, meanwhile, could become a bit stronger as well to handle the physicality of opponents and, in turn, convert it to opportunities at the free throw line.
Running most things back and banking on internal growth and development is all you can do for a team as top-heavy as the Cavaliers. When dissecting their entire body of work from last year, there’s already a rock-solid foundation to continue building from. But, based on how the playoffs went, Cleveland also cannot afford to rest on their laurels. The Cavaliers try to carry a similar mentality on a game-to-game basis to the one the Knicks hit them with.
Mind you, there’s only so much that Cleveland’s core four can do to impose their will how they want to. It takes a village to build a championship-worthy team, which ultimately boils down to bench production. Other than the rebounding disparity, the lack of bench production from the Cavaliers compared to the Knicks was stunning. Once Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff pulled sixth man Caris LeVert from his role and inserted him into the starting lineup, the Cavaliers went from 25.0 reserve points per game to 17.3 reserve points per game. New York, meanwhile, averaged 26.6 reserve points for the entire series.
Heading into the offseason, Cleveland needs to zero in on targets to improve the depth behind their star-level talent. The Cavaliers are heading into the offseason with ten players under contract if they pick up Lamar Stevens’ team option. To make it fit, they will have four more roster spots and roughly $35 million below the luxury tax line. Assuming Caris LeVert returns to Cleveland in free agency, which league sources say feels like a “virtual lock,” Cleveland will have three roster spots open when free agency begins. If Sam Merrill or Cedi Osman are waived, it adds more space to the roster. But, it all remains fluid. If Cleveland wants to get stronger off the bench, all options must be on the table.
The Cavaliers are an over-cap team with a $12.2 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception and a $4.5 million bi-annual exception available to them. Cleveland can use the entirety of one exception to sign an individual player or break them into chunks to sign multiple players. Mind you, the Cavaliers cannot combine exceptions to offer a player a deal worth $16.7 million annually, either. Since Cleveland will have so few roster spots available, they must be pragmatic in their signings. It’s a delicate balancing act, especially when the shores of Lake Erie aren’t considered a glamor market in the NBA.
Cavaliers President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman stressed in his end-of-season availability that acquiring shooting is a priority for Cleveland this offseason. In the past, Right Down Euclid has mentioned source sharing that Max Strus, Josh Richardson, Terence Davis, Lonnie Walker IV and Malik Beasley are all names worth monitoring this offseason for the Cavaliers. Multiple sources have confirmed that Yuta Watanabe, Derrick Jones and Keita Bates-Diop could also be options for Cleveland.
There’s also an in-house option for shooting in two-way big man Isaiah Mobley, who spent his rookie season with the Cleveland Charge. Mobley won’t command money in the range of one of Cleveland’s exceptions. But Mobley did connect on 35.3% of his three-point attempts while in the G League, which could give the Cavaliers spacing and high-quality depth behind his younger brother Evan Mobley and, at times, Allen. Suppose Cleveland wants to expand their interest in signing a proper big man to support their stars. In that case, sources say that Mason Plumlee, Thomas Bryant, Chimezie Metu and Drew Eubanks are all options for the Cavaliers. Any of these players could give Allen and Mobley a proper reprieve in-game and, in the case of Eubanks, provide them with the edge they lacked in the postseason.
Cleveland’s best course of action is picking between the available shooting crop and bigs. Of course, there will also be many questions about Ricky Rubio’s future with the team. But, Rubio stressed that he needs more on-court work to recover from his ACL surgery recovery fully and will get them with the Spanish National Team this August during the FIBA World Cup. Either way, the Cavaliers should consider options on the market if Rubio still isn’t 100% for Cleveland next season. Few stellar options are available, but sources have said that Austin Rivers and Shake Milton could be in play for the Cavaliers.
There’s also the avenue of Cleveland wheeling and dealing with improving their rotation. Make sure you’re subscribed to Right Down Euclid’s newsletter since that will be a subject that’s tackled in depth early next week. Sources say that Royce O’Neale is a player that the Cavaliers will “strongly consider” trading for this summer.
Meanwhile, a separate source says that the Orlando Magic are keen on acquiring Fred VanVleet or drafting a guard with the no. 6 overall pick, which could make Cole Anthony or Jalen Suggs available in trade conversations. Anthony or Suggs would be a better option at reserve guard for Cleveland than Rubio, preventing the bench from becoming a total liability. But before considering that, there are avenues available for the Cavaliers to get stronger in free agency this summer, and they must be mindful of who they should sign when the time comes.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at email@example.com. He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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