It’s safe to say the Cleveland Cavaliers have cooled after their decent start to the year.
They opened the 2019-2020 campaign with a surprising 4-5 record, but have only won once in the eleven games since. Any lofty hopes of this rebuild being well ahead of schedule can be shelved for the time being, which means GM Koby Altman can get back to working the phones in attempts to get his team more draft assets.
He has plenty of trade chips at his disposal, with six pending unrestricted free agents to offer teams looking for rentals this February. Two of them – Tristan Thompson and Jordan Clarkson – are reportedly already garnering interest from contending teams. At the same time, you could also argue each can still add value by staying in Cleveland.
As a result, deciding what to do with these two will be one of Altman’s toughest tasks of the season.
On paper, the decision seems obvious.
The Cavs, nowhere near contender status, are focused almost primarily on building through the draft. Expiring contracts represent the best way for them to acquire more draft picks. If other teams are offering this in exchange for Thompson and Clarkson, one would think Cleveland should pull the trigger on a move.
With these two, though, it’s a little more complicated.
In Clarkson and Thompson, Cleveland has two players in the middle of their prime. Despite the Cavs’ overall struggles, both are making major contributions.
Clarkson is coming off his best season, and continues to embrace his role as the team’s sixth man. Thompson is currently averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists per game. Thompson leads the team in minutes per game, while Clarkson is currently averaging 22.4 minutes off the bench.
Bottom line – these are two key pieces of the roster, and either being traded would serve as a big blow to a team trying to find its stride.
Again, though, is that what the Cavs should be worried about? Or should their focus remain solely on collecting draft picks, regardless of how they go about doing it?
The irony is the aforementioned stats can be used to effectively argue both sides of this debate.
With the seasons Clarkson and Thompson are having, it’s not lofty to assume there will be more than a few playoff teams who view them as potential missing pieces they can rent for their upcoming postseason run, and will therefore be willing to make a sizable offer for their services.
Likewise, removing the contributions these two are providing will ultimately hurt a Cleveland team still learning how to win consistently.
The added variable, of course, is how much each would command if the Cavs are serious about contract extensions.
Thompson is making $18.5 million this season, while Clarkson is pulling in $13.4 million. An extension for either will certainly take up a good chunk of Cleveland’s available cap space.
Knowing this, it leads you to believe the most likely scenario is still Thompson and Clarkson wearing different uniforms once this February’s trade deadline passes.
What Altman needs to consider before making that decision, though, is just how hard he wants to hit the reset button.
Cleveland’s goal is to, over time, build a roster that can consistently contend. While the bulk of assembly is coming via the draft, that doesn’t mean Altman should just be discarding every veteran the second their respective contract enters its final year. Retaining valuable experienced players is crucial, especially considering all the youth the Cavs are currently leaning on.
Which brings us back to Clarkson and Thompson. Both are key vets who are helping carry the load while the youngsters on the roster develop a rhythm. Yet, they’re also two of Cleveland’s most appealing trade assets.
If forced to guess, I believe the Cavs will ultimately keep one of the two, but not both, as that could cost them a combined $35 million a year at the very least. Clarkson being the team’s most reliable scorer off the bench, and the fact he’d be the cheaper of the two, leads me to think he’s the most likely candidate to stick around.
All that said, this is a decision I’m glad I don’t have to make. Altman will have the final call with both players, and with the trade deadline only a couple months away, the pressure is only going to ramp up from here.