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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — You never win by losing on purpose. That’s the message Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue delivered to the masses on media day Monday.
“No tanking,” Lue insisted.
Really? None? But didn’t LeBron James walk away to the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, leaving the Cavs and their championship dreams in the dust?
And won’t the Cavs have to build around the likes of Kevin Love, George Hill, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and rookie point guard Collin Sexton?
How far can a team like that actually go?
Well, maybe kind of far, Lue suggested.
“We haven’t lost yet, have we? We’ll see,” Lue said. “There are a lot of expectations.”
Technically speaking, Lue speaks the truth. Until someone actually unseats the Cavs on the court, they are the four-time defending Eastern Conference champions.
Lue is back from that run. So is Love. So are Thompson, Smith, Kyle Korver, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson.
“Being a playoff team is our goal,” Lue said.
But losing on purpose? Nah. That apparently has no place in this particular post-LeBron era.
“The culture is still the same,” Lue said. “We want to continue to win games while developing players. Most development comes from playing meaningful games.”
Developing younger players does indeed seem to be a real part of the plan. Along with Sexton, the Cavs return promising second-year wing Cedi Osman, as well as intriguing big man Ante Zizic. They also added relative unknowns such as forward Sam Dekker and shooting guard David Nwaba, players the Cavs believe have an upside that’s worth examining.
As an added bonus, Osman worked out with James, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant and Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard during the offseason. Lue made it clear he expects Osman to be a factor this year.
“He has great potential, and you could see that when he had a chance to play consistent minutes,” Lue said. “He’s ready for it, and we’re ready to see what he can do.”
Meanwhile, the Cavs drafted Sexton with the eighth overall pick in June. He too will likely get every opportunity early.
“My first chance seeing Collin Sexton, he played on Chris Paul’s AAU team,” Lue said. “I talked with (North Carolina coach) Roy Williams and told him, ‘That’s the best player right there.’ When the game was over, he said, ‘You know what, you might be right.'”
Lue continued with his praise of Sexton, a 6-foot-2 point guard who spent one season at Alabama.
“His toughness, his work ethic … he’s a gamer,” Lue said. “He’s going to do something right to win a game, because he’s a winner. He’s about winning first and I’m excited to have him here.”
As for the veterans, Lue said Love is “excited about his first season in Cleveland as the No. 1 option.”
The Cavs coach also talked of the importance of the other older players — including returning big man Channing Frye.
“He’s a guy you want on the team until he’s 50-years old,” Lue said of Frye, who’s 35. “He’s going to preach the right message. Just having a guy like him is huge.”
The Cavs intend to compete by playing as a team first, second and last, forever and ever, amen. But even that may not always be enough. For Lue, the real key is that the Cavaliers believe in themselves and believe that yes, they can still win.
He cited the Cavs’ biggest challenge as “just the belief, knowing every game we can come in and compete.”
The Cavs finished 50-32 before advancing to the Finals, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors for the second consecutive season. They beat the Warriors and won it all in 2016.
Lue conceded this year will be much different without James. But with the right system and right approach, they can still be a success.
“It’s not about wins and losses; it’s about wins and lessons,” he said. “We are all excited about the challenge.”