The Cleveland Cavaliers can’t afford to squander any more seasons while players like Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are on rookie deals.
ESPN ran a story last week ranking the 25 NBA players under the age of 25 with the most potential. I don’t know that I would have checked this out under normal circumstances, but we’re all looking for validation that the Cavs are making progress, and having a player like Darius Garland or Collin Sexton on this list would fill the bill. Alas, none made the cut, which leaves us with the question: can a team with nobody on such a list possibly consider itself to be on the right track?
One way to answer that is to say the list is wrong. There were players on the bottom of the list that I might quibble with including ahead of Collin Sexton; we already had this argument at the All-Star Futures game, though. Most experts consider Sexton to be a solid prospect, but not a future star. If his career follows the path of, say, Jamal Crawford, who was also picked eighth overall in his draft, I suspect the Cavs would be thrilled. Just for context, the number eight picks in the three years prior to Sexton were Frank Nitilikina, Marquese Chriss, and Stanley Johnson. Feel better now?
If we had been considering such a list six months ago, though, we probably would have expected Darius Garland to be on it. There are valid reasons why Garland has struggled this season, but that’s the risk you take when you choose a guy with so little track record. NBA teams are fond of saying that younger players are a better investment than guys who played several years in college because they have more growth potential. The problem with that logic is that when a player spends two or three years in college, someone else is paying for his training. Darius Garland’s growing pains have already cost the Cavs a draft pick, a roster spot, and six million dollars, not to mention a handful of games.
None of that matters a great deal in a lost season like this one, but there are still real consequences. The Cavs are one year closer to having Sexton and Garland take up huge chunks of cap space when they are eligible for new contracts. Once that happens, they will have far less flexibility to add more talent. The natural inclination will be to give both players major money because the alternative would be to admit a mistake and start from scratch, but the NBA is full of players on max contracts whose teams would literally give them away if they could. The Cavs want to avoid that scenario, but it will be easier if they see something from Garland by then that convinces them he will indeed become a star.
Beyond that, the rookie contract is likely the only time in an NBA player’s career when his value to a team will be greater than the cap space he swallows. That has real consequences. The most vivid example of this is NFL quarterbacks. Why are the Browns and Ravens able to add elite free agents while the Steelers watch core players leave town? Because Cleveland and Baltimore have quarterbacks on rookie contracts, consuming a fraction of the cap space Pittsburgh allocates to Ben Roethlisberger. Once Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson sign huge extensions, the balance of power will likely shift again.
With a softer cap, it’s not quite as bad in the NBA, but teams still need to make wise use of the time before all the rookie contracts expire. The Cavs could not have made the Andre Drummond trade if Sexton and Garland were making twenty million per year, because they would not have had enough cap space to acquire the bad contracts last year that they flipped for Drummond. It remains to be seen whether that trade will reap big dividends, but it demonstrates that if the Cavs are still trying to fill major holes when their young players are due for new contracts, the job will get much tougher.