INDEPENDENCE — “No tanking,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue proclaimed on Monday.

It was not a vow of defiance, but rather the conclusion of a study the Cavs conducted of 10 NBA teams and how they proceeded after the free-agency loss or retirement of a superstar.

Some of the franchises the Cavs examined are still trying to claw their way back to contention. The departure of LeBron James for the Los Angeles Lakers means the Cavs will open the season Oct. 17 at Toronto without James for just the fifth time in the past 16 years. Owner Dan Gilbert knows the hell the previous four hath wrought.

In 2011, armed with the first and fourth picks after a 19-63 season without James, the Cavs drafted Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson and still finished 21-45.

“My first year, when me and Kyrie first came to the team, if you looked at the roster, the kind of guys that were borderline-still pros,” Thompson said Monday. “The team was kind of in the still-building mode.”

It remained in building mode, posting its best win total of 33 in 2013-14, until James returned. All the while, then-General Manager Chris Grant was stockpiling draft choices that his successor David Griffin would burn through to build the Cavs into the 2016 NBA champions.

Part of the Cavs’ plan this time around remains the same. General Manager Koby Altman will likely be in asset acquisition mode for two seasons. That means no blockbuster deal for Jimmy Butler and probably a spot on the sidelines during the heralded 2019 summer of NBA free agency. Instead, the Cavs will likely position themselves to acquire a big name when some of their younger players like eighth overall pick Collin Sexton gain more experience.

It’s possible the Cavs' roster will look different after the Feb. 7 trade deadline. Kyle Korver’s 3-point prowess could be attractive to a contender. J.R. Smith’s $15.68 million salary for 2019-20 includes only $3.87 million guaranteed. The same is true of George Hill, with only $1 million of his $18 million salary for 2019-20 guaranteed.

Yet inside Cleveland Clinic Courts, the Cavs are unified in their determination to make the playoffs. If they do, they will not be bothered by the loss of their first-round pick, which will be sent to the Atlanta Hawks if it’s not in the top 10. The 2019 draft is not perceived to be loaded with talent.

They believe they added building blocks for the future in February with trades that brought them Larry Nance Jr., 25, Rodney Hood, 25, and Jordan Clarkson, 26. Cedi Osman, 23, will be a key player going forward. They also saw improvement from Ante Zizic, 21, acquired from the Boston Celtics in the Irving trade.

The biggest anti-tanking statement came July 24 when Kevin Love signed a four-year, $120 million extension. He cannot be traded for six months. Gilbert is also transforming Quicken Loans Arena, with the $185 million project reportedly including a contribution of $115 million from Gilbert and the Cavs.

“A chance to make the playoffs, he’s very excited and motivated about that,” Lue said of Gilbert on Monday. “You know Dan — he’s going to spend and do whatever it takes to get that product on the floor. You just see the Q, building a new arena. He never stops. That’s what you love about Dan. He’s going to do whatever it takes to keep us a first-class organization and continue to put a product on the floor that can compete and win games.”

As admirable as that sounds, the Cavs will be trying to buck a trend. Both the Cavs and the Miami Heat know the struggles of the post-James era. In Miami, part of that was because of the health of Chris Bosh, who hasn’t played since Feb. 9, 2016, because of blood clots. But in the last four seasons without James, the Heat qualified for the playoffs twice and were eliminated in the first round last season. It’s more of a shock for franchises that had been to four consecutive NBA Finals.

Presumably the Cavs have more than they had after James’ Decision 1.0, their roster now more talented than the one stocked with “borderline-still pros.” But now Lue and Love, who had never been to the playoffs until he arrived in a 2014 trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, are charged with leading the team and keeping the Cavs out of an abyss Gilbert remembers all too well.

Korver, 37, realizes how close to the edge of that abyss the Cavs may be.

“We’re going to be creating a new culture in a lot of ways,” Korver said Monday. “As we’re trying to learn and grow and develop and teach, can we do it with a joyful attitude? Sometimes the growing and learning isn’t a lot of fun because you’re playing games every other day and there isn’t time for that. Really creating an atmosphere where guys want to be here, guys want to work hard, guys want to get better — you can’t really do that and stink. That’s not going to be fun, that’s not going to be a good season. There surely needs to be a little grace period.”

“No tanking” sounds laudable with the season opener 2½ weeks away. But if Korver’s fears about what the next few months could bring prove true, Gilbert and Altman may be forced to take a different and difficult course back to a destination not easily reached.

 

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.