The Cleveland Cavaliers’ rebuild is finally complete as they reach the NBA Playoffs

The rebuild paved the way for Cleveland to build a possible NBA dynasty as the Cavaliers return to the NBA Playoffs.
rebuild garland cavs
CLEVELAND, OHIO – MARCH 26: Darius Garland #10 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates during the first half against the Houston Rockets at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on March 26, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Sunday’s tilt between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Houston Rockets went precisely as you’d have guessed. Cleveland was as much as thirteen points favored at certain times of the day and in the end, the oddsmakers were also correct. This was a blowout and there wasn’t much stock to take in a game between a contender and a bottom feeder. Instead, what this win meant for the Cavaliers made this game special.

Cleveland is back in the playoffs for the first time in a half-decade. More importantly, the Cavaliers made the playoffs without LeBron James, a player who more or less shaped the modern legacy of this organization and won them a championship, for the first time since the 1997-98 season. For Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, he joked he was enjoying life as a sophomore at Oregon State University while following the Washington Bullets, the team his father coached. For their players, meanwhile, most of them weren’t alive or were just in diapers.

This Cleveland team is young and inexperienced from the top down. They’re the new kids on the block this postseason and want to prove they belong. Sure, they have some statement wins against legitimate title contenders like the Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics. They also have some ugly losses to similar contenders in the Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers. The youth and experience of the Cavaliers can be found throughout their regular season campaign. But, again, the fact that Cleveland could climb to this point makes it even more significant on top of the context surrounding it.

Building out of the shadow of LeBron James alone is already an untenable task. Building out of his shadow and picking up the pieces is even more difficult. The Cavaliers tried to do it once before and got close with a big three of Kyrie Irving, Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes acting as the headliner and Mike Brown making the tactical decisions. But, James decided to come home soon after and Cleveland was forced to strip down every last asset to maximize the potential opportunities with James on the roster. It was worth it when the Cavaliers won the title in 2016.

“I think organizationally this is a big deal to come from where we came from and every year continue to take steps in the right direction,” said Bickerstaff. “All the hard work that people in this organization have put in to help get us here should be acknowledged. This is top-down. This is something that has been done as a collective. We told the guys to enjoy this, but we ain’t done yet.”

But, again, when you’re finding a way out of it after James leaves again, this time for Los Angeles, it isn’t easy. It’s a long process with a lot of trial and error.

It’s where young players like Collin Sexton and Kevin Porter Jr. become hopeful franchise cornerstones on bad teams but ultimately become trade assets.

It’s where you see players like Lauri Markkanen and Larry Nance Jr. evolve their game and become even better players.

It’s where you see reclamation projects like Dante Exum, Marquese Chriss, Brandon Knight, Sam Dekker and countless others try to become future players and you, unfortunately, learn that they’re just churned along until someone sticks.

It’s where you say goodbye to franchise legends like Tyronn Lue, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love as they exit for greener pastures.

None of it is easy, but it’s the cost of building around LeBron James and winning a championship. You’re expected to pick up the pieces and find a way forward. But, for Koby Altman, Cleveland’s President of Basketball Operations, remaining patient, pragmatic and opportunistic was the best course of action for the future of this organization and this rebuild. When you’re in a non-glamor market like Cleveland, OH, and cities like Miami, Los Angeles, New York or Houston are options, it’s all you can do.

BROOKLYN, NY – MARCH 23: Isaac Okoro #35 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates after the game against the Brooklyn Nets on March 23, 2023 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Nevertheless, Altman maintaining his approach from when James left town to Sunday’s playoff-clinching win over the Rockets was the entire ethos of this rebuild for the Cavaliers. Altman found players that wanted to be a part of what they were building, and more importantly, wanted to be in Cleveland through the draft and trades. Sure, throughout this process there were sometimes misses. But, as things start to come to a head, what Altman and his staff hit on during this rebuild becomes even clearer.

It’s how the young nucleus of Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, the original unit that sparked this sudden turnaround, formed.

It’s also how key roleplayers like Isaac Okoro, Caris LeVert, Dean Wade and Lamar Stevens were acquired to fit in seamlessly with the youth on the rest of the roster.

It’s how Donovan Mitchell came here, frustrated from his time with the Utah Jazz, and took the Cavaliers from young hopefuls to a future title threat. All while finding his love for basketball again.

It’s how J.B. Bickerstaff went from coaching for his life in Houston to finding his voice as a leader and tactician all while leading his team to the playoffs as one of the postseason’s youngest coaches.

“You want to appreciate every step along the way and it’s definitely a blessing,” said Donovan Mitchell. “I don’t want to downplay the moment. But in the same token, and I told the guys in there, this is what you come to expect. You made your first one, appreciate it, enjoy it, celebrate it for the city, for the organization, for your individual guys who have made it, but at the same token, three seed is in play. That’s the goal. That’s the focus.

“We should come to a point now where that’s what is expected of us: making the playoffs and continuously pushing forward.”

There was a ton of trial and error and plenty of tribulation, climbing from some of the franchise’s lower points like John Beilein’s brief time with the team to what the Cavaliers are today. But, there is never a clean blueprint through a rebuild and anyone who says there is either lying or has never truly experienced a rebuild before. Garland, a key piece throughout the rebuild process, shared with Right Down Euclid recently that he was fiending to reach the postseason. Garland and the rest of his teammates all felt this way and finally reached the goal they’d all been fighting for. The rebuild is now officially complete.

Now it’s time for one of the NBA’s youngest teams to get a taste of the postseason and build toward the ultimate goal: an NBA Championship.


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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 protected] 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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