CLEVELAND –President of basketball operations Koby Altman was impressed by the Cavaliers and their surprise of a regular season.
But he wants to see more.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Altman said. “How do we keep that hunger …?”
Led by an exciting young trio of All-Star guard Darius Garland, All-Star center Jarrett Allen and Rookie of the Year candidate Evan Mobley, the Cavs became the talk around the NBA, particularly in the early season.
Lauri Markkanen gave the Cavs three starting 7-footers (or near 7-footers). They went big in a league that has gone small. No one thought it would work.
Instead, the Cavs climbed high in the Eastern Conference standings, and if it weren’t for some season-ending injuries to Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio (since traded), who knows how far they could go? Allen also missed the final 19 regular-season games with a broken finger.
Nonetheless, the Cavs were on the brink of the playoffs, utilizing a determined and team-first approach under coach J.B. Bickerstaff to finish 44-38. That was the best record for a non-LeBron James Cavs team since 1997-98.
“They captivated the city and put the league on notice,” Altman said of the current group.
That’s the good news. Now for reality: The Cavs won’t be surprising anybody anymore. The secret is out. They learned that truth during the second half of the season. Suddenly, opponents were treating like they deserved to be treated — like a playoff team.
“We’re emerging as a franchise and we’re not going to surprise teams next year,” Altman said.
Altman and his team will have some decisions to make this summer.
Sexton is a restricted free agent. That will be the biggest story to follow. But there are others.
The Cavs are back in the draft lottery, keeping their protected pick that was sent to Pacers as part of the Rubio trade for shooting guard Caris LeVert. They are currently slotted to select No. 14 overall, and given the odds, that is likely where they will stay.
LeVert is entering the final year of his contract. He has said he would love an extension and to stay in Cleveland. Veteran power forward Kevin Love is also entering the final year of his deal. An extension seems unlikely, but after his inspiration of a season, you never know.
Either way, the focus here is on the young core — Garland, Allen, Mobley, Sexton, Markkanen, Isaac Okoro and perhaps a few others.
One big question is if Bickerstaff will be able to find enough minutes for Sexton and LeVert, both shooting guards. And if so, will there be enough to warrant keeping Okoro?
From the sounds of things today, Altman sure seems to think so.
On the Sexton and LeVert possibilities, Altman insisted it can work, that there is “a place for that level of talent.” Sexton was the team’s leading scorer when he went down, but in the eight games he played this season, clearly took a step back for the good of the team.
When he returns, Garland will be the new face of the franchise. Few NBA players went through such a high rise as Garland.
But Altman was quick to praise Sexton, saying that “in a lot of ways, he’s the reason we’re here.”
Of course, there will be time enough for all of that. Sexton, LeVert, Love, Cedi Osman … all could be back. Some may be elsewhere, too. We will know more as spring becomes summer, summer becomes fall and training camp arrives.
For now, the Cavs can feel good about the positive steps they did take. If the entire roster returns intact, so be it. When everyone was healthy, it really worked.
This year, the Cavs finished the regular season as the eighth seed in the East. But then they lost play-in games to the Nets and Hawks, two veteran teams. The next natural step is the playoffs.
“That will probably be our stated goal,” Altman said of the 2022-23 season.
That makes sense. So does just taking a step back for a moment and appreciating what was — and what can still be.
“People realize we have something special brewing here in Northeast Ohio,” Altman said.
That’s quite a difference from what people thought at the beginning of the year, and now it’s just a question of how high they can go.