The James Harden Trade Solidifies the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Ascension

The Houston Rockets and Brooklyn Nets just about broke the internet and sports world after the trade of James Harden. Rightfully so, as Brooklyn acquires a top-10 NBA talent to join its other two All-Stars, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Yet, Houston and Brooklyn did not act alone in this trade. The Indiana Pacers will even generate buzz in the deal, managing to flip Victor Oladipo for Caris LeVert in a rather surprising move. However, the fourth team involved, the Cleveland Cavaliers, made a significant acquisition for their future while giving up very little. If Brooklyn stays competitive but doesn’t manage to win a ring in this window, we may look back and say the Cavaliers were the biggest winner in this trade. Cleveland’s ascension starts now.

How Exactly did the Cleveland Cavaliers get Better?

Andre Drummond, the current starting center for Cleveland, is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year. There’s been much debate over how much Drummond is truly worth on the open market. This could’ve put Cleveland in an uncomfortable spot, possibly re-signing and overpaying Drummond if no better options presented themselves. The acquisition of Jarrett Allen in this Harden trade drastically changes that. Allen currently makes just under $4 million this season, as opposed to Drummond’s $28 million. He is a restricted free agent at season’s end, whereas Drummond is unrestricted. Allen is 22-years-old, Drummond is 27.

Allen’s offensive game is nowhere near as dominating and prominent as Drummond’s is. However, his activity on the boards and as a rim protector is already turning heads. To pair Allen with the likes of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, who are only 22- and 20-years-old, respectively, establishes a young core for years to come.

The backcourt pairing has shown great strides this year, drawing comparisons to a younger version of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Add in 19-year-old, defensive phenom Isaac Okoro, and the Cavaliers have four ascending starters that will all be 23-years-old or younger and on team-friendly deals next season.

Will the Cleveland Cavaliers Ascend Immediately?

Almost certainly not. The Cavaliers’ ascension will take time. Cleveland currently stands at 5-7 and the 11th seed in the Eastern Conference. The Nets have further thrust themselves into championship contention, with Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia there as well. The Pacers and Heat remain tough outs, especially with the former acquiring LeVert in the trade. However, the Cleveland rebuild looks similar to how the Phoenix Suns have rebuilt over the last few years.

Phoenix has missed the playoffs for the last several years, allowing them to build a young core. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges all look to be cornerstones for the Suns for years to come. The 2020 bubble showcased the kind of potential Phoenix had. Ultimately, it made the team an attractive enough destination to the point where trading for Chris Paul was not a dream, but a reality. It is still early, but Phoenix looks like a playoff team this season, and will only get better. For Cleveland, they are at the “bubble” point of their upward trajectory.

What Should Cleveland do next?

This offseason has laid out a lot of important decisions already for the Cavs. In the Drummond situation, the best course of action is to probably just let him walk to the highest bidder. Finding more wing depth is another decision, as Taurean Prince will be an unrestricted free agent after the end of next season. Prince was the other player that Cleveland acquired in the Harden deal.

Finally, the Cavaliers should look into either developing or trading for a stretch-four. Kevin Love is currently injured, on the decline, and still has two more years left on his massive contract. Loyalty to your players is always nice, but the Love contract has the potential to be an albatross if they don’t move off of it.

There’s a legitimate possibility the Cavaliers could make the playoffs this season, or at least the play-in tournament. Another lottery pick would be great, but if their backcourt and future-star big can liven up the organization the way Booker did for Phoenix last year, that would be equally as beneficial. After just a couple of years since LeBron James‘s exit, Cleveland has a very bright future. The Cavaliers’ ascension is just beginning and could happen much quicker than many may think.

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