CLEVELAND, Ohio (92.3 The Fan) – Rebuilds are hard, especially in the NBA.
They take some luck, a lot of losses, the willingness to be aggressive acquiring assets and players as well as a ton of patience.
In the NBA, losing the most doesn’t guarantee you a top pick to build around either.
Sunday evening, the Cleveland Cavaliers reaped the rewards of their hard work by clinching their first playoff berth since LeBron James left for Los Angeles in the summer of 2018 with their 48th victory of the season – the most for the franchise without James on the roster since the 54-win 1992-93 squad.
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“Organizationally this is a big deal to come from where we came from and every year continue to take steps in the right direction in a positive direction,” head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “Our guys have bought in to something bigger than themselves. It's unique for a young team to do that at such a rapid pace. Typically young guys are so worried about figuring out themselves that the team is secondary. We've got a bunch of guys where the team is the primary thing and the only thing and whatever individual awards, rewards, glory all comes because of the team's success and our guys have bought in and committed to that.”
Despite not having the No. 1 overall pick at any point in this post James 2.0 rebuild, the Cavs managed to build a contender for the foreseeable future under president of basketball operations Koby Altman.
When James left a second time the Cavs hoped they could continue to win without him. Maybe not at the level they had been accustomed to but extending Kevin Love for $120 million over four years shortly after James’ departure was a sign of their desire to compete.
It took less than a month into the 2018-19 season for the reality of another post-James back to the lottery we go rebuild to hit them squarely in the face.
Five seasons, six first-round selections and a multitude of savvy trades later, the Cavs are back in the NBA Playoffs and contenders in the Eastern Conference.
To say it has been a long, winding road back would be an understatement.
Tyronn Lue left within the first month of the 2018-19 season after James bolted that saw the team win 19 games. Another 19-win season followed, and first-year head coach John Beilein barely lasted half of that season before Bickerstaff was called upon to take over.
Most coaches tasked with developing young players while absorbing the losses don’t get to stay when the time to win comes, but the Cavs believed in Bickerstaff, and he believed in them. It’s not hyperbole to say Bickerstaff and the culture he’s created has helped resurrect the franchise on the floor.
“I am indebted to this organization for them having the patience and helping us and giving us all the tools to get here,” Bickerstaff said. “And again, it's our responsibility not to stop. It's our responsibility to keep pushing, keep growing, and keep trying to get better.”
Bickerstaff’s first full season as head coach ended early due to COVID with Cleveland not qualifying for an invitation to ‘the bubble’ in Orlando at 22-50. James’ Lakers went on to win the NBA title while Bickerstaff and the Cavs took the slight personally.
Last season the Cavs faded down the stretch and were unable to survive the play-in tournament, but they finished with their first winning record – 44-38 – without James on the roster since the 1997-98 Cavs.
This year there has been no fade, only resolve.
Including Sunday’s win over the Houston Rockets, the Cavs have won nine of their last 11 to lock in their first playoff berth in the post-James era. It’s the first postseason for the franchise without James since 1997-98.
“We're not a finished product,” Bickerstaff said. “And just the question about where we started, we've got bigger places to go and this is a start for us to be able to clinch a playoff spot. But as we think about this and as we put this team together, we all have one end goal and those end goals don't come and happen overnight.”
Bickerstaff created the culture, but that would not have been possible without players.
“I don't think there's one guy on this team that's worried about just themselves,” All-Star Donovan Mitchell said. “And I think that's what makes this group special. I don't think that's the case in every organization. And you have that from top to bottom, and I think that's special.”
Three of the five starters on this year’s playoff team were drafted by the Altman – guard Darius Garland, fifth overall in 2019; forward Isaac Okoro, fifth overall in 2020; and forward Evan Mobley, third overall in 2021.
Garland was an All-Star in 2022 and Mobley is on his way to becoming one himself.
“It means a lot,” Mobley said. “I mean, first playoffs feels good, excited to play [but] we still got work to do.”
Then there were the trades.
Altman snuck in the back door to create a three-team trade that pried center Jarrett Allen away from Brooklyn and sent James Harden from the Rockets to the Nets in January of 2021.
“The first year I got traded here, it was rough,” Allen said. “[We] didn't have much to play for towards the end of the season and…then just a lot of things were getting put into place. Koby in the front office did a good job to help motivate us so that we know we have more to play for.”
Backup swing man Caris LeVert was a 2022 trade deadline acquisition from the Indiana Pacers.
The blockbuster came over the summer when the Cavs grabbed Mitchell, a four-time All-Star, from the Utah Jazz for forward Lauri Markkanen, rookie wing Ochai Agbaji, guard Collin Sexton, three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) and two pick swaps (2026 and 2028).
“You don't make a trade with that many people and picks in it if you're not ready for that moment right now,” Mitchell said. “I think that's something that showed me and also showed everybody like, all right, it's time and does it put expectation on it? Sure. But I've been around this expectation for a pretty long time and I think that's what makes it fun.
“When the organization makes a trade like that, they expect not only just to be here but continue to win, and that's our expectation as a group and I think that's great when you have that support to continue to push and win.”
Mitchell was the missing piece to push the franchise over the top.
“The playoffs wasn’t even the question,” Mitchell said. “It was like, how far can we go? What can we do? I think the group felt the same way from the jump.”
The four consecutive Eastern Conference championships and NBA Finals appearances, including the 2016 NBA championship, were boosted by the return of James in 2014 and a lot of lottery luck that delivered three No.
1 overall picks in four years while James was in Miami.
And there was no guarantee that rebuild was going to work had James not decided to come back to Cleveland. Some of that lottery luck was flipped for pieces to build around James.
This time around, there is no doubt the post James 2.0 rebuild has been a success.
The only question is, how big of a success will it ultimately be?
“We told the guys to enjoy this, but we ain't done yet,” Bickerstaff said. “And I think that's the mindset we got to continue to have. We're still on the road of this process and we got to keep taking a step by step until we get to where we want to be.”