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Kevin Porter Jr. and the casualties of a rebuild

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NBA: Utah Jazz at Cleveland Cavaliers
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Tough to swallow, but not uncommon.

Not every NBA rebuild is the same. There may be a rough skeleton of what it should look like, but there are twists and turns that make each one unique. The Sixers and “The Process” are perhaps the most famous one — tank and tank some more until the lottery ping pong balls fall the way you need. The Cavaliers, not lucky enough in the lottery during this second post-LeBron rebuild, have stocked up on buy-low free agents and second-round picks to slowly get back to competitiveness. Some like the Nets simply strike gold at the right moment by having a culture that sways stars like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to come.

One commonality in all rebuilds, it seems, is the inevitable hard decision of what to do with a troubled prospect. Whether it be troubled off-court issues, raw talent and little structure, poor fit, you name it. Every rebuild seemingly has this type of prospect — one with the talent, but something in the way.

The Cavaliers faced that decision with Kevin Porter Jr., a troubled but talented wing that appeared to be a steal with the 30th overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft. He had a checkered history at USC with several off the court issues and injuries, but the talent was there. Cleveland ended up cashing in a slew of second-round picks (and money) to get back into the first round and take Porter, a low-risk high-reward type of player that could be a crown jewel in a general manager’s resume.

Porter’s rookie year was the lone bright spot in an otherwise demoralizing season, but that came crumbling down over the summer with more off the court issues, a weird lack of information from the Cavs on Porter’s status moving forward, and a strange absence from the team. Everything came to a head when The Athletic reported a locker room blowup that sent the Cavs scrambling to the trade wire to move Porter.

Understandably it hurts to see a pillar of a rebuild get shipped off, especially for so little. Why move Porter, who is still obscenely young, instead of trying to make things work? The Cavs, so asset-barren after the scorched earth LeBron years, surely could not afford to give up so early on a blue-chip prospect, right? Well, it turns they can — and they did. Porter falls under the “troubled but talented” cohort of prospects. Koby Altman and co. picked culture and stability over trying to weather a storm that could pick and slow down at any moment.

Many rebuilding teams, both currently and previously, are faced with similar decisions. Sekou Doumbouya with Detroit, who was considered a steal with the 14th pick in the same draft, is arguably on his way out. The progression and effort are not there for the 20-year-old Frenchman, even with Blake Griffin out of the fold and freeing up playing time. The culture is not harmed by keeping Doumbouya, but if he is lagging behind it could stunt growth a bit.

Markelle Fultz is perhaps a more famous example, a talented player marred by a bizarre case of the yips that we do not fully know about to this day. Philadelphia invested and moved up for Fultz as the number one overall pick but ended up flipped him for pennies on the dollar. The hubbub surrounding Fultz and his injury were clear distractions for the players, the coaching staff, and the front office. The trade was inevitable and necessary.

D’Angelo Russell has been this player twice, once with the Lakers to get off the Timofey Mozgov Godzilla contract and again in Brooklyn to facilitate the Kevin Durant move. The Lakers cleared cap space that ultimately helped put together the LeBron James-Anthony Davis pairing. The Nets are currently one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA with Durant. Russell has been in the crossfire each time, neither instance because he was an off-court issue or bad player. He was just the lamb for slaughter.

Going full on into the recency bias, the KPJ-trade already looks like a sizeable loss for the Cavs. Porter has blossomed with the Rockets G League team, averaging 24.1 points 6.4 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game. He has looked the part of future star as one of the most impressive players in the G League bubble, and Houston should be very happy with what they are seeing. After all, they only gave up a heavily protected second round pick.

But they are also in a different part of the rebuild than the Cavaliers are — a few steps behind it actually. The Rockets can afford to take some swings because they are in the infancy stages of their restructuring. They will need to establish a culture with whatever core they decide upon, and more than half of their roster is not it. The Cavaliers had to make a decision now, and they had to make it fast.

Teams give up on players early all the time, but they also often stick with them far too long. Maybe the player will change, or a new coach will unlock them. That is certainly a possible outcome, but there comes a point where the pattern is too clear to ignore, and an organization exhausts a certain number of resources to where it is not feasible to continue. The Cavaliers provided second, third, and fourth chances to Porter and the organization felt that was enough. Eventually, the Cavs would receive diminished returns by not getting out what they put in. Maybe they already reached that point internally. T

Establishing a culture is important. Good teams have a culture that fosters teamwork and growth, while also having accountability. It creates an internal and external identity. The “Spurs Way”, a culture of open-mindedness, and the Heat’s “la familia” perpetuating the brotherhood mantra come to mind as prime examples. These organizations are built from the ground up, and they all handle internal strife quickly and often quietly. Cleveland’s culture the past three seasons has been subpar at best from coaching changes, slug-gate, ornery vets, to the ageism legal action taken by Jim Boylen. Those things are bad internally, but impact things externally when trying to sign players or coaches. Culture needs to be the foundation of an organization, not an afterthought.

The Cavaliers have a young core established, and that group now needs an environment to grow. The off-court issues and antics are a distraction during a critical juncture for the rebuild in Cleveland. Collin Sexton is going to be due for a contract extension. Jarrett Allen will be a restricted free agent. Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro are still feeling their way around. The Cavaliers have enough questions surrounding them.

Moving Porter Jr. is a response to one of the offseason’s questions — what do the Cavs have in him? The answer is a painful one, but it seemed necessary for both sides.

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