The Cleveland Cavaliers’ swift collapse has been the opposite of inexplicable. Once LeBron James bolted for Los Angeles, the overwhelming consensus was the Cavs were moderately to severely screwed going forward. As it turns out, the most dire of those predictions were also the most accurate. Kevin Love isn’t a franchise-carrying superstar anymore. Ty Lue isn’t a transformative coach. The vets are either washed up (George Hill), checked out (Tristan Thompson), or both (J.R. Smith). Collin Sexton is extremely raw. Sam Dekker is starting games. The team is 1-and-9, and with Love out injured for at least the next few weeks, that record doesn’t figure to improve.
This is what happens when a dull, grouchy, broadly incompetent squad held together solely by the genius of the greatest player of his generation loses its crucial bonding agent. Reality is at once painful and otherworldly, and nothing makes sense anymore. The Cavs are Jeffrey Beaumont getting pummeled to Roy Orbison; they’re coughing up a late-game lead in Orlando. There’s blame to go around, but that’s not really the important thing. Without LeBron, the project was always going to break bad. If you’re not living in Northeast Ohio, and even if you are, you have permission to stop caring about the Cavs until next year’s draft, or at least until some Woj-sourced Kevin Love trade rumors start cropping up.
But before we plastic wrap Cleveland and shove them into the back of the freezer for the rest of the season, there’s one player on their roster who deserves some recognition, and depending on how things go for him this year, perhaps some sympathy. Cedi Osman barely played in the Cavs final LeBron Era playoff run, which was strange given that he had, over the course of the regular season, grown into a serviceable bench contributor and a minor cult figure among Cleveland fans. He certainly would have held up better under the mental strain of big games than Rodney Hood did, and he wouldn’t have been as actively self-destructive as Jordan Clarkson. There wasn’t much the Cavs could have done to prevent the Warriors from sweeping them in the Finals, but it was a niggling source of annoyance that Ty Lue didn’t seem to understand that Osman was one of the more skilled players on a skill-deficient squad.
For better and for worse, the Turkish forward is getting his chances now, playing 33 minutes per game and at times operating as something like Cleveland’s offense focal point. Something like because the Cavs don’t seem to have much of a plan on offense these days. They intend, like basically every other team in the league, to push the pace and move the ball, but a lot of their players are old and, after playing in a spread pick-and-roll system with LeBron, struggling to change their approach. The result is a lot of meek drive-and-kicks, a lot of ineffectual swinging of the ball around the perimeter. They settle for a troubling number of pull-up 19-footers. It’s a severely broke-assed version of what the Warriors do. It is, as of this writing, the 20th-best offense in the league by offensive rating. Having watched half their games, I can tell you the numbers flatter the Cavs.
The same isn’t true for Cedi, who is shooting 37.4 percent on 12.3 shots per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio is less than one. Things aren’t going well for him, in large part because he’s often playing point forward, a role he fills for the Turkish national team that he absolutely cannot pull off at the NBA level. This isn’t to denigrate his talents but rather to define them more narrowly. He’s 6-foot-8 and moves fluidly. He shoots pretty well from behind the arc. He works hard defensively. He can handle the ball a little bit, find a diving big for a lob or a fading screener for a three. He’s 23, only in his second year in the league. The sky’s not exactly the limit for him, but he’s on his way to becoming a drunk impressionist’s rendering of Gordon Hayward—in other words, a useful player.
But only in the right context. He’s struggling at the moment, and probably will continue to for the foreseeable future, because he’s being asked to do too much on a terrible team. We often speak of young players developing as if it were an inevitable phenomenon. The calendar ticks along, experience accrues, and everything sharpens. That’s obviously not the case. To get better at something, you have to have a target in mind. You want to feel more comfortable finishing at the rim with your weaker hand; you want to make sounder decisions defending the pick and roll. You can only focus on so many aspects of your game at a given time. Trying to do everything at once doesn’t serve you. That’s what Osman is doing currently. The Cavs are operating with a LeBron-sized donut hole punched through the middle of them, and more than perhaps any other player in the squad, Cedi is straining to fill that empty space. He’s aspiring well beyond his limitations, and predictably, it’s not working out. It’s difficult to say that he’s learning anything either. Mostly, he’s just missing shots and giving the ball away.
Which is a shame, because Cedi’s a likeable dude. He spent last season adorably following LeBron around like a duckling and was always the first body up off the bench to chest bump or high five his hero when a teammate hit a big shot. And he handled himself well when he got the chance to play. He would do well in, say, Oklahoma City as a three-and-D guy, or in Milwaukee, zipping around in Mike Budenholzer’s uptempo scheme. Instead he’s in Cleveland, where he’s desperately needed but also entirely insufficient, demonstrating each night what it looks like when you lean on a role player too hard. The most painful thing about the worst teams in the league is somebody has to play for them. You wish they could field 15 Dwight Howards, so you wouldn’t have to feel sorry for anybody. Maybe Cedi Osman will turn a corner; maybe he’ll sink into the mud. At any rate, it will be a minor thing unfolding at the margins of an NBA discourse justifiably ready to leave the Cavs behind. Of course, Osman can’t do that. He has to make the best of a dismal situation, even as the situation itself threatens to eat him alive.