It’s hard to believe it’s only been five days since the sudden end of the Cleveland Cavaliers 2022-23 campaign. Sure, Right Down Euclid broke down every one of Cleveland’s postseason games – win or lose. But, it was hard to say what exactly happened, or rather why things fell apart spectacularly for the Cavaliers when the series ended. Having time to look back, there are many things you could attribute it all to. Maybe it was the first-time jitters. Perhaps it was New York’s physicality. As Isaac Okoro and Ricky Rubio said, the Knicks wanted this series more than the Cavaliers did.
Nevertheless, no matter what information you glean during this autopsy, things always circle back to one simple albeit unfortunate fact: as currently constructed, Cleveland still needs to be fully built for the rigors of the postseason. Sure, on paper, the Cavaliers were one of the best regular-season teams in terms of net rating heading into the playoffs. They were the no. 1 team in defensive rating and no. 8 in offensive rating, respectively.
But, when teams reach the playoffs, what you accomplished in the regular season is just empty calories. Opponents don’t care about how great you were in the regular season. All that matters is whether or not is if you can hang with the best the rest of the field has to offer. Cleveland’s most significant flaws were exposed by New York when the lights were the brightest. Whether it was the lack of depth, the lack of shooting, the lack of adjustments, or anything in between, that seemed even mildly concerning. If there was an issue, the Knicks found ways to exploit them tactically, which sent the Cavaliers packing. When Game 5 wrapped and Cleveland’s season had ended, there were more questions than answers about where things go from here.
For now, you can chalk up many answers to youth and inexperience for this postseason meltdown. But, from now on, that can no longer be the excuse for the Cavaliers. Sure, crystalizing their entire season based on a playoff blunder and ignoring everything that went right for Cleveland can seem harsh. But that, unfortunately, is the nature of sports, and the Cavaliers don’t get to be the first-ever exception. For Cleveland to go from playoff hopefuls to one of the league’s best teams, wholesale changes need to happen.
But, based on what President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman shared during his season-ending availability, a dramatic change might not be coming to the Cavaliers. Of course, Altman is correct on keeping things the same through the lens of retaining head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Cleveland’s head coach only had five viable options to turn to in the playoffs and needs more ammunition to support the team’s star-studded quarter and, more importantly, make his defensive-first ethos thrive.
When looking at the Cavaliers’ roster, they’re incredibly top-heavy and were a factor in why Cleveland was so limited this postseason. Thankfully, Altman did acknowledge that the lack of depth was on him and his front office staff not giving the Cavaliers what they needed most this season: three-point shooting and spacing. Altman did clarify that need will be a priority this offseason. Unfortunately, with how much Cleveland gave up to acquire Donovan Mitchell leading into last season, they’re limited in options to obtain more of what they need.
Three-point shooting is a premium commodity, and the Cavaliers cannot cash in on acquiring it since the check will bounce. With Altman also remaining steadfast on maintaining the status quo, players like Jarrett Allen, Cleveland’s most attractive trade asset, are unavailable in trade discussions. The Cavaliers are already limited enough and cannot afford just to run it back next season. So, what options are even available to them? If dramatic roster moves aren’t on the table, it’s somewhat limited.
Financially, Cleveland can play around with their non-taxpayer mid-level exception worth approximately $12.2 million and a bi-annual exception worth $4.4 million. The Cavaliers could break those exceptions into chunks and sign multiple players. Or they can throw all of it at one or two individuals, which depends on the exception used. Encouragingly enough, Altman said that Cleveland would consider going into the luxury tax threshold to maximize their roster’s potential. So, that gives them more breathing room before the Cavaliers eventually sign sixth-man Caris LeVert to a long-term deal. Unfortunately, outside of LeVert, the upcoming free agent market isn’t the most attractive for Cleveland’s needs.
Of the names available, sources say that Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes, Denver’s Bruce Brown, New Orleans’s Josh Richardson and Miami’s Max Strus are free agents worth monitoring for the Cavaliers. Similar sources have said restricted free agents like Brooklyn’s Cam Johnson and Boston’s Grant Williams could also be in the mix for Cleveland, depending on whether or not Johnson or Williams can test the market. There are options for the Cavaliers, and it depends on whether Altman and his staff can close the deal with any of the names mentioned. What Altman can do this summer will likely make or break the future for Cleveland.
There are apparent issues that need fixing regarding personnel to make the Cavaliers more cohesive come playoff time. Cleveland’s clock is ticking since jobs will likely be on the line next year, depending on the result. Meanwhile, Donovan Mitchell is the other quiet clock ticking this whole time. The Cavaliers must prove to Mitchell that they are fully committed to winning around him and his star-studded supporting cast. If not, Mitchell could walk in free agency, and Cleveland will have burnt all their assets for plenty of scoring and an embarrassing first-round exit.
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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