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Koby Altman counting on Cavaliers' continuity, growth from within

Koby Altman counting on Cavaliers' continuity, growth from within

Cleveland Cavaliers president Koby Altman is typically one of the NBA's busiest executives when the trade deadline comes around. In fact, since taking over for David Griffin as the Cavs' general manager in July 2017, there hadn’t been a single deadline where he stood pat.

On Thursday, that changed, as the Cavaliers decided not to make a trade.

“My guys over there, they said, 'Koby I'm proud of you,' for not [making a move],” Altman said with a grin at Cleveland Clinic Courts in his first media appearance this season. “Because you could make deals. You can. There's things you can land the plane on. Don't just do something to do something. Let's be very, very intentional with what we're doing. It's different when you're in asset collection mode. It's different when you're trying to accumulate picks. That becomes a different motivation. I think where we are now is being very, very intentional [with] how you're going to help this young core grow and set them up for success. And if the move wasn't there to do it, don't do it. I guess we sat this one out.

“I think there's value in continuity. I think there's value in giving this group a runway. And sometimes as a GM, you just say to yourself, 'Don't mess this up.' And I think that was a big key for us this deadline. [That's] not easy for me; you guys know I'm volume-heavy. But to take a step back and realize the growth we've seen already, mixed with the results... I didn't see anything that was appreciably gonna make us better and put us over the top. And so, I'm really happy with where we are and where we're going.”

We all know the NBA community abides by a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately code, but remember Donovan Mitchell? The 26-year-old first-time All-Star starter who’s already stamped his name in the Cavs history books and helped lead Cleveland to a torrid start? One of the best shooting guards in the league who’s already won two Player of the Week awards and has brought 39 games worth of playoff experience with him to the team? The dude who dropped 71 freaking points in one night?

Lest we forget that Altman already launched his full-court heave on the first day of September, prior to the frenzy that was this past week.

“I'm really glad we did what we did in the summer, to bring in a Donovan Mitchell, because it's so competitive — hyper-competitive in the trade market, hyper-competitive in the standings. And so, that was our big move to really lift our ceiling,” Altman said. “I knew that we weren't going to top that move come trade deadline (laughs). I think it's been a seamless fit. I think it's been some really exciting basketball... I think we had a great future without Donovan, and I can't imagine not having him right now.

“We don't need to take swings. We don't need to take these ‘find this incredible talent that you have to build around’ (approaches). I think we've found that, which is the hardest part. And now, does it work within the group and does it make the team better?”

Altman’s reasoning behind this approach is logical in short-term and long-term lenses. First and foremost, he brought up the delicate nature of a rare, connected locker room. That’s why, though he’ll leave open the idea of scouring the buyout market with an open roster spot available, everything will be about fit and skill set when it comes to any addition.

The Cavs are in a position that they haven’t been in during his tenure. They boast the fifth-best record in the NBA while employing the second-youngest starting five (average age of 23.2 years old) in the league, and a majority of that core still has yet to experience postseason basketball.

“There's no trade I could've accomplished that was going to account for Darius Garland playing in his first playoff series, Evan Mobley playing in his first playoff series, Isaac Okoro playing in his first playoff series. We have to go through that as a team,” Altman said. “We're gonna have to go down the stretch here and battle for our position. We're gonna have to go in, hopefully, knock on wood, to a playoff series and see what that feels like, and I'm excited about that. 

“And that's the growth, that's the maturation that I wanna see from this group down the stretch, and really take a step back and let them experience this kinda basketball that's very, very new for us, and give them the runway to achieve, have setbacks and grow from those experiences. But it's a really, really exciting place to be... Give this group what they deserve [with] what they've already accomplished.”

Given his expiring contract situation, there were a lot of questions surrounding Caris LeVert, a hot name on the trade front. Multiple teams inquired about his status with the Cavs and what it’d take for the franchise to part ways with him. Altman instead revealed that “there’s a lot of interest to keep him here,” and explained his rationale behind sticking with LeVert.

“We acquired Caris last year in vastly different circumstances. If you remember, we had Darius Garland and no other ball-handlers; Ricky [Rubio] was out for the year, we had lost Collin [Sexton] for the year. And so, we brought Caris in under vastly different pretenses. I think what he's done this year is try to adapt his game to two ball-dominant, all-world guards," Altman said. "He's gotten better at his spot-up shooting; he's at a career-high this year at 37% in terms of shooting, and that's not even his real piece. He's just a really good basketball player, and I think he's embraced the challenge of being a defensive stopper.

“The thing that really speaks to me too is, and I'm a softy for this, but guys that really want to be here. Guys that show up every day to work, that have a great attitude, that whatever their role is — and he had to take a substantial step back, be a sixth-man type when he could be starting in the NBA on a lot of different teams — and being like, 'I want to make this work. I want to be here.' That's meaningful to me, that's meaningful to this organization and it's a big reason why he's here. The other thing too is, let's be honest, we're not playing guys 82 games a year anymore. And to be able to spot start Caris at times is an absolute luxury. We learned that last year we can't have enough ball-handlers. We'll see in the playoffs. I know it's been a few years now, [but] to break your man off the dribble when everything else breaks down and your set play is not working, you're gonna need guys to go get some stuff for you and manufacture some runs. He remains a very important part of what we're doing. He's just a really good basketball player. I know he's thrilled to still be here, and we're happy that he's here as well.”

As per usual, Kevin Love’s name surfaced in rumblings for another year. This time around, it made sense because he’s recorded five straight DNP-CDs and missed action in the three previous games due to a bothersome thumb injury. Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff stated Wednesday night that the veteran big man is healthy and available, but wants to see what this new, healthy iteration of the team can do. 

Asked about Love, Altman responded by saying that he’s never had conversations with him or his representation about a buyout and doesn’t anticipate it happening. He did however share that he and the 35-year-old have talked about making a sacrifice and staying ready when his chance to play comes again. Altman feels he’ll have that opportunity at some point this season.

After striking a rhythm over the last week, Altman is pleased with what he’s seen from this current Cavs rotation that’s added some bodies off the injured list. Ricky Rubio — whom he considers midseason acquisition-like — came back in the fold less than a month ago and is rounding into form with the bench bunch, and Dean Wade has been getting his legs back under him since returning on Jan. 21, providing meaningful spacing and defensive chops.

When the franchise pulled the trigger on the Mitchell blockbuster, it created a significant void left by now-Utah-Jazz-All-Star forward Lauri Markkanen. For much of the season, the wing has been anything but consistent and a point of contention around town. A whopping 18 different starting lineups is an obvious indication of that, which has included starts at small forward from LeVert, Okoro, Wade and Lamar Stevens. (That’s due to injury and mixing and matching.)

However, to Altman’s point of internal additions, Cleveland has seen a fresh version of Okoro emerge since the turn of the new year. From Jan. 4 and on — when “Ice” reentered the starting five — the burly third-year swingman over 19 games has averaged 9.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.8 rebounds and 1.1 steals per contest on 58.5% from the field, including a scorching 49.0% clip beyond the arc. 

Coupling his already-stout defense with the threat of knocking down triples in the corner — and playmaking for teammates off the catch when closed out on — has helped Okoro earn the Cavs’ trust.

“I’m so happy for Isaac, who puts the most work in that now he deserves that sorta 3-and-D position that we drafted him as, that can guard 1-through-4, that really puts pressure on the defense,” Altman said. “I think what you're seeing from us and from Isaac specifically is a dude that, right away, you feel that defense as soon as you get across half-court, or you want to take a shooter out and he's making you catch 40 feet out. That sets the tone for your defense, and he does that remarkably well. And now, he's hitting the three-ball and giving space to our guards, which we really need.”

It also played a factor in Altman avoiding a potential disruption in Okoro’s rhythm.

“Obviously, everybody wants more shooting. It's something I looked at. But I also know... where are those minutes gonna go to?” Altman argued. “And that starting five, which has been really good with Isaac Okoro, who are you taking off the floor there when that group as a starting five is a plus-7.3 net rating with a substantial size now? Who are you taking off the floor there, right?

“Between him, Dean, Cedi [Osman], we always wanted to hopefully have that be internal and not use more assets to go outside and hope it works. That's the other part too is, at the deadline, you're making these deals and hoping that it fits. You're ingratiating a new person into this system, everybody has to adapt around this person, you have to change the way you play a little bit to accentuate their positives. Keeping the continuity and letting the internal growth happen, I think, was a big part of (standing pat). And seeing those signs certainly gave us pause to... Isaac's only 22 years old, and he's getting better every single day. Let's let that play out.”

Flexibility is still present in Cleveland’s books despite being over the salary cap. Altman noted how Mobley still being on his rookie-scale deal will allow the Cavs to re-sign LeVert and Love and use their mid-level exception if they choose. There are also second-round picks at their disposal, and if Thursday taught us anything, it’s that they can be quite valuable.

Mitchell and Garland are meshing well with one another as the games pass, Mobley and Jarrett Allen have not shown signs of slowing down and Okoro is coming into his own. Rubio, LeVert, Wade and Osman have had their moments individually and are looking to put it all together to bolster the bench production. As long as the team can stay away from the injury bug, with a softer schedule in the second half of the season, there’s no reason to expect any kind of decline.
 
The overlying theme of the Cavs' strategy at this point? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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