CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers and the rest of the NBA watched as Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The Cavs look to the Nuggets as a potential model in the quest to find their own path to a championship.
Above all else, the Nuggets had drafted well and allowed that talent to develop. That mainly means Jokic, who has transformed from the 41st pick in the 2014 draft into a two-time MVP and a five-time All-Star.
But it wasn’t just Jokic. It was Jamal Murray in 2016. And it was Michael Porter Jr. in 2018. It’s actually a list that also includes Donovan Mitchell, who was quickly dealt to the Utah Jazz.
But while the Nuggets strengthened the roster through other trades and free agents, that core was allowed to develop. It certainly took longer than the Nuggets would have preferred. It’s also likely they don’t care anymore now that a championship is being celebrated in Denver.
That’s the general framework the Cavs are counting on in 2023-24. But they may not have the luxury of bearing that much patience. Mitchell has two guaranteed years remaining on his contract before a player option year. That potentially means the Cavs have a full season with Mitchell before they have to at least explore trading him before he can leave in free agency.
But for several core pieces on the roster, it also means the front office is banking on those draft picks continuing to flourish.
“I think we’ve always looked at Denver as a model, even before they won the championship, because it was five years ago, after LeBron’s departure, we did different studies around the league about rebuilds and what rebuilds were successful .” said Koby Altman, the Cavs’ president of basketball operations. “Obviously hitting the draft is the most important part, and that model of drafting well, developing players and staying patient was certainly driven by Denver’s success. And to see that happen in year eight for Jokic, I’m sure , that they are truly joyful.”
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The Cavs went to work this summer to add shooters, and pretty much accomplished that goal about as well as could reasonably be hoped for with the additions of Max Strus, Georges Niang and Ty Jerome (along with keeping Caris LeVert). But the Cavs are leaning heavily into the continued development of recent draft picks like Darius Garland and especially Evan Mobley.
The aggressive addition of Mitchell was a slight departure from the draft-and-build model. The Cavs have to hope they timed it right.
But within those goals, the Cavs have balanced making “splashes” with adding Mitchell (made possible by the draft of Collin Sexton) and letting the draftees develop in the belief that it can all adjust at the right time. That’s one of the reasons why Altman has been adamant that the Cavs have no plans to break up the “core 4” of Mitchell, Garland, Mobley and Jarrett Allen.
“I think we made our splash last summer with Donovan. Like I said, we didn’t want to make sweeping changes [this summer]”, Altman said. “I don’t think we’ve done anything weird this offseason, just smart, tactical moves. And like Calvin Booth did this year with Denver, really small, tactical moves that really helped Denver with KCP [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] signing and Bruce Brown, they were really integral to the core that they’ve built.
“They’ve had playoff failures, they’ve had setbacks, they’ve had injuries, and they’ve stayed the course. They’ve been really, really patient. Is that going to be our way? We’ll see. But I appreciate an ownership group that really buying into the core and giving them the patience to really grow and flourish.”
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It can be argued that no individual situation is more important to the Cavs’ success than Mobley’s potential development in his third year in the NBA. Last season, Mobley averaged 16.9 points and 9.4 rebounds on 55% shooting from the floor while leading the NBA with 4.8 defensive win shares.
The Cavs have seen Mobley as a budding superstar. They want to give him and others time to develop, just like the Nuggets did with Jokic, Murray and Porter.
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“Just looking at the comparables — and we’re not saying Evan is going to be Jokic at all; Jokic is the best player in the world right now — Evan is in year three, but what does Evan look like in year five? What does he look like in year eight?” Altman said. “I’m excited to find out. We just all have to have the patience to go through these years and have green years doing it and enjoy the process of doing it.
“And I think Denver is a great model for that.”
Ryan Lewis can be reached at rlew[email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.