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What's next for Cavs after playoff exit?

NBA teams rarely lose games intentionally, but it would be hard to find a better explanation for how the Cleveland Cavaliers handled their regular-season finale against the Charlotte Hornets. A win could have vaulted the Cavaliers as high as No. 2 in the Eastern Conference. A loss guaranteed the No. 4 seed. Cleveland sat basically its entire guard rotation due to injury in that season finale against the moribund Hornets. The Cavaliers still managed to build a 13-point lead. So in the fourth quarter, they stuck their thumb on the scale.

Not only did they close the game with five reserves, but those five reserves were all 6-foot-8 or taller. Second-round picks Emoni Bates and Isaiah Mobley played the entire fourth quarter. So did undrafted free agent Pete Nance and journeyman center Damian Jones. Veteran Tristan Thompson joined them for the stretch run, replacing Max Strus, because the stakes were apparently too high for even a single, proven perimeter player to be on the floor down the stretch. Charlotte predictably won the fourth quarter 32-14 and walked away with the 120-110 victory to end their season. The Cavaliers got their wish: the No. 4 seed.

The logic behind this chicanery was seemingly to rig the bracket to set up what looked, on paper, to be an easier first-round matchup. Though the bottom half of the bracket wasn't set on the last day of the season either, the likeliest outcome was that the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic would hold seeds No. 5 and No. 6 while the older and star-heavier Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers would duke it out for No. 7 in the Play-In stage. The prospect of facing Jimmy Butler or Joel Embiid scared Cleveland so much that it willingly ceded ground to the superior teams in their range on the bracket.

To most teams, home-court advantage in the second round would be enough of a motivator to play that finale to win. If that alone wasn't enough, the prospect of avoiding the 64-win Celtics until the Eastern Conference finals might have meant something to a team with real championship aspirations. It's hard to believe, based on the way they handled that season finale, that the Cavaliers ever held real championship aspirations, at least for this spring. They tried to set themselves up to win a single round. They made everything that would have come after that meaningfully harder.

That is, of course, how things played out. To be fair, injuries on both sides impacted the way it played out, but Cleveland, through great struggle, did ultimately manage to win its single round before going out fairly quietly in a five-game loss to the Boston juggernaut. It was a defeat riddled with more "what if's?" than it appears. It's not hard to imagine Cleveland advancing past the depleted Knicks or the young Pacers in a second-round series if the bracket had been shuffled a bit. A run to the Eastern Conference finals alone would have meant something, and though they likely would have lost to Boston in the end anyway, perhaps an extra round to get healthier might have made the series a bit more competitive. Instead, we got what we got. Cleveland swung for a single and got on base. It hardly matters that the inning ended without them scoring. Their ambition didn't extend that far, which is ironic given how this team was built.

There was a time not too long ago when the Cavaliers were among the most aggressive teams in the NBA. That's the attitude it took to trade the bulk of their long-term draft capital for Donovan Mitchell, a player who, by all accounts, longed for the bright lights of New York. It is exceedingly rare for markets like Cleveland to give up that much for 25-year-old stars because 25-year-old stars so rarely want to commit their primes to markets like Cleveland unless those markets promise the opportunity to contend for championships immediately. The Cavaliers didn't care. They were coming off of a surprise run to the Play-In Tournament with an incredibly promising young core and felt that Mitchell's presence would be enough to vault them into the championship picture before they needed to broach the topic of a contract extension.

Well, two of the three years left on his contract when Cleveland traded for him are now gone. The Cavaliers will presumably offer Mitchell a contract extension this offseason. He has refused to broach the topic publicly, even after team owner Dan Gilbert said that he thinks Mitchell will re-sign. If Mitchell doesn't extend this offseason, Cleveland has practically no choice but to trade him. The risk of losing him for nothing, as the Cavaliers did twice with LeBron James, is simply too great. That is especially true since there is a New York-based team, this time, the Brooklyn Nets, positioned for max cap space in 2025 that has Mitchell's name written all over it.

We can't dismiss the possibility of an extension entirely, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone other than Gilbert who expects one. Even if market wasn't an issue, winning certainly is. "My goal is to make the conference finals and get to the NBA Finals, you know what I mean? That's what I'm judged on," Mitchell told Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor in April. Cleveland punted its best chance at reaching the conference finals with that loss to Charlotte. It barely made it past Orlando in the first round, and needed 89 points in Games 6 and 7 out of Mitchell to do so. His roster offered him little support. The Cavaliers did nothing to show Mitchell they're capable of building a long-term winner around him.

That's part of what made the move to duck to No. 4 so odd. What would winning a single round have even accomplished? Cleveland had two playoff runs to prove to Mitchell that it could provide him with a viable championship contender. The first went up in a haze of Mitchell Robinson offensive rebounds. The second, at times, looked like it could be more promising. This Cavaliers team that made it five games into the second round was the same group that won 18 of 20 games earlier in the season. The perimeter depth issues that plagued Cleveland in the Knicks series a year ago may not have been solved, but they have at least been addressed. Strus is no star, but he's a proven, playoff-caliber wing. Isaac Okoro has grown from an complete offensive liability to a passable rotation player. There were points this season in which Cleveland looked as if it was capable of giving Mitchell the winner he seemingly craves. The Charlotte game hinted that by April, even they didn't think that was happening this spring.

And that's what's so terrifying about the future that awaits Cleveland without Mitchell. The likeliest outcome in most star trades is that the team giving the player away does so for a package primarily built around draft picks and bad matching salary. If the Cavaliers are as conservative in their roster-building as they were with their end-of-season strategy, there's a good chance they simply sit back and allow those picks to convey with time.

Which would be a shame because there was a reason this team decided to take the risk it took to acquire Mitchell in the first place. The spine of a very good team exists here. Darius Garland has been an All-Star. So has Jarrett Allen. Evan Mobley was Defensive Player of the Year finalist in his second season. There are obvious fit issues here. Garland, whose best trait aside from his shooting is probably his comfort in running an offense and setting up teammates, probably has to be a primary ball-handler to have his value maximized long-term. Mobley and Allen may need to split as well, as neither of them are reliable shooters and offenses simply can't abide two non-spacers anymore. The Garland-Mobley pairing, unhindered by their timeshare arrangements with Mitchell and Allen, respectively, played well in Games 4 and 5 of the Boston series. That's a template worth exploring.

There is talent here, and that talent remains, at least for the time being, young and relatively affordable. There are worlds in which Cleveland empowers Garland as their point guard, trades one of the big men and then flips all of its extra capital from the Mitchell trade into a high-end wing or two and actually lives up to the promise they saw in themselves two summers ago. Trading for Mitchell hasn't quite worked out, but it was the right idea. If the Cavaliers embrace that aggressive style of roster-building with the lessons they've learned over the past two years, they can build a team they're confident enough in to send into the first round against any opponent.

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