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In Post-LeBron Era, Cavs Show Hope and Promise

LeBron James has moved on. Seemingly before he even left Cleveland, LeBron had become a Laker. Since, the Cleveland Cavaliers will miss the playoffs for the first time in four years and have their fewest wins since the 2010-2011 season. They’ve fired their head coach, that once brought them their first NBA Championship, and currently, employ a head coach that said he does not know if he ever wants to coach again.

Franchise forward Kevin Love played the first four games of the season, then missed the end of October all the way through the beginning week of February. In 13 of the last 14 seasons, perennial All-Stars, LeBron James or Kyrie Irving had led the team in win shares. This year it was Larry Nance, who averaged about nine points and eight rebounds per game.

All of these ingredients smell as if they would cook up to become a nasty season. Yet they don’t. Other factors have come into play that has made this season, while although unsatisfactory, a stepping stone for Cleveland on their path to revival.

That most important factor comes in the form of the Cavaliers’ two young pieces: Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman.

After a tumultuous first half of the year, Sexton has been a budding rose since the All-Star Break. He’s scoring with higher efficiency, albeit on a few less attempts per game, than Rookie of the Year candidate, Trae Young. After shooting 40.8/39.2/84.6 prior to the break, he has shot 47.7/42.7/83.3 since. His true shooting percentage jumped from 48.9% to 58.8% a near ten percent spike.

Sexton’s shooting is important, as he did not shoot the ball from the 3-point line well in his lone season at Alabama before entering the NBA. He shot 33.6 percent on four attempts from deep last year, but this season has shot 40.8 percent on 3.6 attempts per game this year. While the hope was always for Sexton’s shot to come together, few, if any, expected it to be this quickly and with such a significant jump.

He’s struggled to finish at the rim, which is to be expected for rookie point guards. It’s something that will grow in his game as he becomes stronger, smarter, and ultimately when the game slows down for him.

In this clip, Sexton makes the right decision not to challenge the grizzled Andrew Bogut on the rim, and instead settle for a short push shot instead.

It’s the right play because Sexton’s finishing in the restricted area has been poor this year and because Bogut dropped far enough back that he wasn’t close enough to contest the shot taken by Sexton.

Here Sexton makes the rookie mistake. He moves too fast for himself and comes up short on his attack at the rim. Instead of holding back and trying to find a better shot, he throws himself right into Pascal Siakam, a near elite defender, and misses the shot. Luckily, the rebound comes loose, and Sexton is able to pick it up and put it back in before a Raptor can process what happened and contest him.

Making the right decision and taking the right shot will be a crucial part of Sexton’s development.

Overall, Sexton has developed really nicely after a rather disappointing first half of the season. He’s showing that he can be a good player and will only continue to grow, further improving Cleveland’s future outlook.

Flipping to Osman, the second year player has shown considerable improvements after spending his first year in a role where minutes were sporadic. Now, a starter on the wing for Cleveland, he has shown a scoring mentality was also handling the basketball quite a bit for a player at his position. He’s fourth on the team in points per game, fourth in field goal attempts, and third in 3-point attempts.

He is far from a perfect player, and on a good team is likely a good rotation player off the bench, but he just turned 24 years old, and can still grow quite a bit. He wasn’t inefficient from the field, but he wasn’t a flamethrower by any means. He shot 42.7/34.8/77.9 with a true shooting percentage slightly above 53 percent. Again, not bad, but not great either.

Osman’s ball-handling and passing abilities are exciting for a combo forward. He averaged 2.6 assists per game which increased his assist percentage from last season while managing to lower his turnover percentage.

In this play, Osman threads a pass between Derrick Rose and Karl-Anthony Towns at the last second to find Tristian Thompson open for a dunk down low.

Cleveland did not have enough viable scoring options around Osman, which allowed defenses to hone in on him. With Sexton’s improvement, Love’s return, and a top pick in this year’s draft, as well as Osman’s own growth, he’ll be a better scorer next year. Shots will come easier for him with improved teammates around him.

And the importance of Kevin Love cannot be understated. While Cleveland likely won’t be making a push to the playoffs next season, Love is still a very good player and can help develop a new culture and identity with Sexton, Osman, and a promising rookie alongside him.

Between all the injuries Cleveland sustained this season, they never really had the opportunity to see what their lineup could look like at full health, but Love’s return to action stabilized the starting unit. In a lineup that consisted of Love, Osman, Sexton, Brandon Knight, and Ante Zizic, Cleveland boasted a plus-1.5 rating. This lineup proved to be one of their best, and it’s intriguing to imagine it with the return of Tristian Thompson and the arrival of a top-flight rookie such as Jarrett Culver.

There is a reason that in their first year out of the LeBron James era, Cleveland fans are genuinely happy with the season the Cavaliers had. Between Sexton and Osman, the team showed they had a couple of pieces to begin their rebuild with, and both flashed their potential. Kevin Love’s eventual return was a reminder that the Cavs still have an All-Star caliber player on their roster. And with the losses that piled up, they’ll have a chance at Zion Williamson, Jarrett Culver, Ja Morant, and the other top prospects who will be available when they are on the clock come June 20th.

All is not lost in Cleveland. In fact, the beginnings of a franchise heading in the right direction are shining past what had looked to be the beginning of a dark era.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and Stats.NBA.com