Max, Trade, Bench: The Cleveland Cavaliers’ young core

The Cleveland Cavaliers have a young core that doesn’t seem to fit well together. This fun game helps us evaluate their assets and clear up their backcourt log jam.

Far from the top of the list of “best young cores in the NBA,” the Cleveland Cavaliers find themselves in an odd position two years out from LeBron James’s second departure from the team. The team has lost, frequently, and none of the four first-round draft picks they’ve made since their last NBA Finals appearance — Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Dylan Windler, and Kevin Porter Jr. — looks like the heir apparent to being the top dog on the next not-awful Cavs team.

But while Windler may have accidentally been wrecked by a John Beilein workout, the other three have all shown flashes of talent, and it’s way too early to give up on them. That creates a situation where the Cavs have three young guards who will demand the ball and playing time moving forward, and also a top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, which has little star talent and plenty of guards at the top of the player pool.

The Cavs are eventually going to have to make decisions on the threesome of Sexton, Garland, and Porter. They probably can’t pay all of them and expect to be competitive, especially defensively. This past year exposed that the three were a clunky fit together at best, with Sexton and Porter both being ball-dominant scoring guards, and Sexton and Garland being under 6-foot-3. Lineups featuring all three got outscored by 26.3 points per 100 possessions, and the most effective tandem between the three was Garland/Porter per which was outscored by 9.9 points/100 possessions on average.

Who should the Cavaliers invest the most energy and hope in: Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. or Collin Sexton?

Who the Cavs value most moving forward remains to be seen, and there’s an argument that you could move on from any of the three to clear space in the rebuild. To help us further break down where the Cavs’ assets appear to be right now, let’s play a game: Max one, bench one, trade one. We’re going to break up the Cavs’ core by wedding ourselves to one player, reducing the role of another, and trading the third for assets. Who makes the most sense of these three for each spot?

Max: Kevin Porter Jr.

KPJ is certainly far from putting it all together, but he is the player of the Cavs’ core who appears to have the most logical high-end outcome — and who, in a vacuum, gives you the most options for building a competent team around him. Porter is considered an afterthought by many general NBA fans, but he was very solid down the stretch for Cleveland, posting a pair of 20-point games and shooting 38.8 percent from 3 on 4.2 attempts per game after returning from injury in late-January.

Porter’s high-end upside is pretty obvious, given his ability to create his own shot from the wing, and the growing passing upside he showcased as the season went on. He’s also by far the best defensive prospect of the three, and that’s not just by default — KPJ showed a shocking willingness to get physical on defense and use his athleticism to fuel a strong off-ball performance that seems like it can be expanded upon long-term.

KPJ hasn’t earned the max, but he seems like the type of player who you gamble that type of deal on — someone who shows flashes throughout his rookie deal, and then you bank on returning your investment with continued growth during his second deal. That he was the 30th overall pick, meaning it’s a relative discount max deal, makes it even more logical. Even if he ends up in the Tobias Harris Zone being your third or fourth-best player on a competitive team, he’s still probably worth what you’re paying him on a max rookie extension, and his skill package and flashes of performance certainly suggest that he could get to that point by the end of his third year. If you’re going to max one of these three players, betting on KPJ to become a legitimate NBA scorer and above-average defender is probably the most worth the team’s time.

Bench: Collin Sexton

This has seemed like the natural endpoint for Sexton since the end of his rookie season, and it probably benefits both team-building and Sexton’s outcome long term. As a starter, Sexton necessitates a second playmaker as his backcourt-mate because he’s not the best at reading the floor, and he’s best served as a play finisher, not a true initiator. Off the bench, Sexton’s strengths become magnified, as his on-ball shot creation becomes more necessary on units where the team’s other stars are sitting. Sexton isn’t, and probably won’t become, an efficient enough scorer and playmaker to play huge minutes against starting units. But he can thrive attacking the weaknesses in bench units, and a shift to an off the bench role seems both likely and ideal for his long-term outlook.

So far, Sexton has been a volume bench scorer forced to play as a team’s primary shot creator. It has predictably gone poorly. But players in his mold have thrived on successful teams in bench roles, and Sexton’s first two years have shown that this may be a good long-term career path. They aren’t sexy players by any means, but if Sexton can be Jamal Crawford, or Lou Williams, or Ramon Sessions, or even Jerryd Bayless, he’s probably going to end up playing a role on a winning team. If the Cavs can center him in that role in their rebuild, it could end up working out that way for them rather than another team.

Trade: Darius Garland

Garland very easily could end up as the best of the three players discussed here, even though he was by far the least effective this season. Garland struggled to adjust to NBA speed after missing most of his lone college season, and that combined with his thin frame meant that he was not an effective finisher or creator, the two most important point guard skills to have. That doesn’t mean that he won’t eventually get there, but it has had two major ramifications — the Cavs can’t commit to the Sexton to the bench plan yet, and also they can’t rule out taking a guard high in the 2020 NBA Draft class, because their point guard of the future debate hasn’t been settled yet.

Trading Garland now solves several issues for the Cavs at this snapshot in time. If a team buys that his lost time in college was heavily contributory to his year one struggles, his status as a former top-five pick generates value by itself, and the Cavs could actually get real pieces back for him, as opposed to in another year or so if his growth stalls. Even if it’s just a middling piece a little further along in the development piece, such as Luke Kennard in Detroit or Frank Ntilikina in New York, finding pieces that are less ball-dominant and can help solve the Cavs’ gaping chasm where complimentary wing players should be isn’t difficult as you search for Garland landing spots.

And more importantly, it gives the Cavs more options in the draft. Suddenly instead of choosing between imperfect fit bigs like James Wiseman or reaching for wings like Deni Avdija, the Cavs could take the two guards who seem off-limits now but fit incredibly well with Sexton and Porter — LaMelo Ball and Killian Hayes. Both are poor fits with the Sexton/Garland pairing intact but as skilled playmakers who would thrive in off-ball roles, the Cavs could make either work next to the other two pieces of their core. Even if Garland succeeds long-term, his best value to the Cavs, with the way the roster is constructed, is probably as a trade asset.