To say the Cleveland Cavaliers have had a fortuitous last five years would be an understatement. Winning the NBA Draft Lottery in 2011 (via trade), 2013 and 2014 was somewhat mind-boggling at the time, and they were able to move key pieces to acquire players and build a championship roster thanks to that luck. If the Cavs didn’t win those top selections, would LeBron James have come back to the Cavaliers in 2014? Perhaps that’s a conversation for a different time. Regardless, the last five years have helped set up years of future success – as long as King James remains in his hometown.
The Cavs’ string of luck began in 2011 when they got the first pick thanks to a prior trade with the Clippers and selected point guard Kyrie Irving, a three-time All-Star who’s a building block for their future. Cleveland also selected big man Tristan Thompson with the fourth pick, regarded as a surprise at the time. Thompson has developed into a nice defensive player and elite offensive rebounder for the Cavs, attacking the rim with force and showing quickness defending the pick-and-roll.
It was most evident on the biggest stage last postseason after Kevin Love went down with injury and the Cavs turned into a defensive dynamo and LeBron-centric offense to trudge their way to the Finals. Now they face a big decision on what to pay Thompson after already accumulating a monster payroll for next season. Second-rounders Justin Harper and Milan Macvan haven’t had an impact on the NBA level.
Cleveland was in need of a small forward to replace LeBron, who left in the summer of 2010, but the Cavs took another ball-dominant guard in Dion Waiters at pick No. 4 in 2012. Many thought forward Harrison Barnes would be the pick, and Cleveland must be kicking themselves now after trading Waiters away this January in a three-way deal while acquiring Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith.
At the end of the first round, Cleveland traded athletic combo guard Jared Cunningham (who they resigned this offseason) for Tyler Zeller on draft day – also sending second-round picks 33 and 34 to Dallas. Zeller was a decent backup big for a few years before being traded to Boston in July 2014 so the Cavs could get more cap space to sign LeBron. This draft wasn’t pretty for the Cavs, although they turned the assets into LeBron and two solid swingmen in the long run.
The 2013 draft was a weak one at the top, and Cleveland selected forward Anthony Bennett – a stretch power forward with major question marks. Bennett’s weight and injury issues both were concerns for him leading up to the draft, but the bruising forward was arguably one of the most talented players in the draft. The Cavs leveraged Bennett’s potential as part of the big trade for Love last summer, and he’s yet to live up to that potential, although he looked good this summer for Team Canada.
The Cavs drafted Russian sharpshooter Sergey Karasev at pick 19, but he was traded to the Nets as part of the aforementioned Zeller deal. Cleveland took shooting guard Allen Crabbe 31st overall and traded him to Portland for two future seconds, which was a smart move for the Cavs. Their last pick of 2013 was swingman Carrick Felix, who was traded to the Utah Jazz last summer. Again, more smart moves to make way for LeBron and future implications like dealing for Love.
The 2014 draft might’ve been the luckiest for Cleveland, as they won the top overall slot for the third time in four years despite small odds. Andrew Wiggins was the selection, and he was the biggest piece (after a long wait) in the Love deal. This deal will be debated for years down the line, as the Cavs decided against a potential Scottie Pippen-esque sidekick for LeBron in favor of a proven stretch big man in Love.
Love has injury issues (as seen this past season) and Wiggins is off to a great start for the young Wolves. Re-signing Love helps the Cavs’ cause in making the trade a year ago, but maybe Love would’ve signed this summer of free agency regardless? It’s hard to say. Cleveland also took Joe Harris in the second round, and who knows how much he’s in their future plans despite providing perimeter depth at either wing spot.
In 2015, first-round pick Tyus Jones was drafted by the Cavs but traded to Minnesota for picks 31 and 36 plus a future second-rounder. They took Turkish swingman Cedi Osman and Syracuse big man Rakeem Christmas with those two picks, and then Sir’Dominic Pointer at pick 53, who’s spending this season in the D-League. The Cavs are waiting two years before bringing over Osman, which should give him time to add weight to his skinny frame. Christmas was traded to the Pacers for a 2019 second-round pick, which is basically a wash in term of value, as Christmas wasn’t breaking through in their stacked frontcourt.
The Cavaliers making their way to the Eastern Conference Finals last year was incredibly impressive, but not really surprising considering the luck they’ve had in the past five years. Although they’ve had successful drafts, Cleveland had to make the right decisions regarding personnel and draft trades, and they’ve done a heck of a job despite rolling the dice a few times. We’ll be monitoring the Wiggins-Love deal for the rest of their respective careers, but you can’t blame LeBron for wanting to chase a championship with a skilled veteran like Love the moment he stepped in Cleveland. The Cavs, albeit lucky, have managed their assets to near perfection the last five years.