Tramel: Thunder needs Cavaliers' NBA Draft lottery luck, not their drafting acumen
The Thunder beat the Cavaliers 117-101 Sunday night. Sharing the court with the Cavs is a cautionary tale for all things Thunder.
Even if rebuilding efforts go exactly right, you still have to draft well. The pressure soon will be on Sam Presti and staff to produce through the draft.
Cleveland was blessed with the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2003, the year LeBron James came out of an Akron high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary. LeBron meant long-term success, and Cleveland certainly rode high all those years with LeBron.
But without LeBron, when first he left for the Heat (2010) and again when he left for the Lakers (2018), Cleveland has struggled and was rewarded with lottery luck.
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In the seven drafts without LeBron, 2011-14 and 2018-20, the Cavaliers stunningly won the lottery and had the overall No. 1 pick three times. During that span, Cleveland also had overall picks of 4, 4, 5, 5 and 8.
And yet the Cavaliers sit with a 10-21 record, worse than the break-it-down Thunder (12-18) and third-worst in the NBA. A year ago, Cleveland finished 19-46, second-worst record in the league. The year before that, 19-63, second-worst in the league.
In the four years between LeBron’s departure and return, the Cavaliers were 33-49, 24-58, 21-45 and 19-63.
The truth is evident. Without LeBron, Cleveland has withered in the NBA, and no amount of lottery luck has changed that.
The Cavs’ overall No. 1 picks have been Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. A superstar, an all-time bust and a good-but-not-great player.
Irving helped LeBron bring an NBA championship to Lake Erie. But Bennett had little impact, and while yes, 2013 was not a good draft, there were some good players selected. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Rudy Gobert. Victor Oladipo. C.J. McCollum. Steven Adams. Dennis Schroder.
Not long after the 2014 draft, the Cavs traded Wiggins to Minnesota for all-star Kevin Love, and Love helped Irving and LeBron deliver that 2016 NBA championship. But trading the overall No. 1 pick rarely means greatness for franchises. Wiggins’ college teammate from Kansas, Joel Embiid, went third that season. The 76ers are quite pleased that Wiggins and Jabari Parker went 1-2.
Missing on draft picks in the teens or 20s is common and to be expected. Missing on draft picks in the top five is a way to build a consistent loser.
The Cavs also drafted Tristan Thompson fourth overall in 2011. All kinds soon followed. Jonas Valanciunas went fifth, Kemba Walker ninth, Klay Thompson 11th, Kawhi Leonard 15th, Nikola Vucevic 16th, Tobias Harris 19th, Jimmy Butler 30th. Thompson has been a solid player, but you need more out of the fourth pick.
The Cavs chose Dion Waiters fourth overall in 2012. Waiters, we know well, from the 2016 Thunder team. A good player, an interesting player, but not the fourth-best pick in a draft that also included Damian Lillard (sixth), Harrison Barnes (seventh) and Andre Drummond (ninth).
The recent Cav picks are too young to adequately gauge. Vibrant point guard Collin Sexton, picked eighth overall in 2018, scored 22 points against OKC. Second-year guard Darius Garland, fifth overall in 2019, had 21 points against the Thunder and looks promising. They combined to make 18 of their 36 shots. Rookie Isaac Okoro, fifth overall in 2020, is a work in progress.
But man, you’ve got to draft better than that with that kind of bounty. The Cavaliers dang near have drafted as well from the second round – Jae Crowder, Allen Crabbe, Joe Harris – as they have from the first round.
These Cavaliers are a microcosm of the way they played Sunday. Good start. Quick collapse.
The Thunder trailed 20-10 midway through the first quarter but outscored Cleveland 52-31 the rest of the half mostly maintained control thereafter. The Cavs never got within single digits the final 13 minutes.
It’s hard to remember, but the Cavs started this season 9-9. Since then, they’ve lost 12 of 13. Getting into the James Harden trade brought 22-year-old center Jarrett Allen to the Cavs, and he’s going to be good. Defense is his forte, yet he popped the Thunder for 26 points and 17 rebounds, while making all 11 of his shots.
So it’s not like Cleveland’s future is destitute. But the Cavaliers are in a constant state of rebuilding, unless LeBron rides to the rescue. That’s what happens when you draft poorly. May the Thunder avoid that fate.