Following the Cleveland Cavaliers 1-4 NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James told the media “I need to sit down and figure this thing out”.
The thing he’s referring to is how to beat the Warriors, of whom he said “They’re gonna be here for a while. Pretty much all their big name guys are in their 20s and they don’t show any signs of slowing down”.
Watching the full clip, it’s clear that LeBron senses the magnitude of the task ahead of him:
Interestingly, he goes on to say “There’s gonna be a lot of teams that’s trying to figure out ways to put personnel together to try and match that”, which pretty much sums up exactly how James will be spending his offseason. The problem is that the Cavaliers went all in on this team, completely unaware that the Warriors were going to tap up Kevin Durant. While this made sense at the time, this team hasn’t been constructed for sustainable success, just for the here and now – a here and now where KD’s still playing in OKC and James is going up against Harrison Barnes time and again in the Finals. The other problem is that their current cap situation means that they have very little wiggle-room to improve their roster ahead of next season.
Via Basketball Reference, Cleveland had the most expensive roster in the NBA in 2016/17, with a team payroll totaling $127,254,579:
As things stand, the Cavs are set to shave just a few million off that total heading into the 2017/18 campaign, as veterans Kyle Korver, James Jones and a lot of guys towards the bottom of this table slip off the payroll.
While this isn’t going to change the face of the roster dramatically, refreshing the bench can only be a good thing for Cleveland. Put simply, it’s old (unlike Golden State’s) and none of this year’s second-unit provided the kind of contribution they were supposed to – certainly not in the Finals. And besides, there will undoubtedly be a glut of ring-chasing veterans lining up to join this Cavaliers team next season, meaning this particular batch should be easily (and affordably) replaced.
Things get a little tricky further up the roster though, as the Cavs are set to pay an ageing Richard Jefferson $2.5 million next year, while Channing Frye (who averaged just 12.8 minutes this postseason and played just 11 in the Finals) is set to take home just under $7.5 million. Both these players were instrumental in Cleveland’s championship-winning 2015/16 campaign, but this year they just looked past it. And yet the real problem goes deeper than even these two contracts, as the Cavs are committed to paying James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in excess of $115 million next year alone. And it doesn’t end there, as Love, Irving, Thompson and Smith could all be on the payroll until the end of the 2019/20 campaign, earning a whopping $81,144,580 between them that year, assuming they all stick around. This is a tricky scenario for a team that just lost the NBA Finals in five games to an outfit that’s younger and better than it. That said, cleveland.com reported that Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert is still high on his team, as he said “I feel good about our talent, our personnel, coaching staff, everything” after the team’s Game 5 loss. “I think the franchise is strong, especially in the playoffs,” Gilbert continued. “We ran into a very good team. Little breaks here or there are different, different circumstances, we’re right there. It’s not one of those things where you think you’re not going to be able to compete against these guys. I think we have a great core and a great future”.
It’s hard to tell if he’s just fronting here, but in essence he has a point. Cleveland has the best active player in the game, the best team in the East, the second best core in the NBA, and may have succeeded in making more of this year’s Finals had they not given up that fourth quarter lead in Game 3. But reliving this scenario (waltzing through the East, before getting beaten by GSW in the Finals) over and over again isn’t going to cut it for a 32-year-old LeBron James, who’s desperate to enhance his legacy while he still has the legs to do so, something everyone’s been talking about this week:
The prospect of him abandoning the Cavs for a second time is no doubt unthinkable to those who wore his jersey with pride, burned his jersey in anguish and then went out and bought new jerseys when their idol came home in 2014. And yet this is a reality Cleveland has to face up to, especially as in the past few days rumours have begun to circulate about the possibility of James joining either the L.A. Lakers or Clippers when his player option comes into play next off-season:
— RealGM (@RealGM) June 8, 2017
We should also remember that James told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck that he’d love to team up with his buddies Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony before hanging them up for good back in 2016. Frankly, those and just about any other scenario imaginable is on the table when you’re the best player in the world. But whatever LeBron does next summer, he still has another year left on his contract in Cleveland and will no doubt want to use that year doing everything he can to catch the Warriors. And yet based on the Cavaliers current cap situation, it seems the only way they’re going to do that is by making a trade or two. As Smith and Shumpert offer little in the way of value to potential trade partners, it seems as if Cleveland will most likely explore deals involving Love and Thompson. While Love is undoubtedly a quality player who has the ability to put up a double-double on any given night, his defense is inconsistent and he lacks toughness on the floor. There’s no doubt that his game has evolved since joining the Cavs, but given Golden State’s offensive versatility, they would be better off courting another two-way player who can help LeBron guard Durant or even switch onto Klay Thompson when he gets hot.
Rumours are already emerging about a potential trade for Paul George, who would certainly be the most obvious candidate given his ability on both ends of the floor. But it’s hard to see how Cleveland can make such a move work. Packaging Love and Thompson together with, say, a future first round pick would probably be their best bet. But it’s hard to imagine them wanting to give up both players, especially as Thompson is the only Cav outside of LeBron who really plays any defense. They could try offering Love and, say, rookie point guard Kay Felder and maybe even Cedi Osman (who’s yet to make the switch to the NBA after getting drafted 31st overall out of Turkey in 2015), but whether this would be enough to tempt the Pacers is a matter for debate. George is, after all, one of the best players in the league (he averaged 28 points, 8.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 1.8 steals in the first round against the Cavs, whilst being guarded largely by none other than LeBron himself):
That said, Indiana’s front office is going to have to start considering offers for him soon, as George has made it perfectly clear that he wants to win (in Indiana or elsewhere) – something his current outfit probably won’t be able to offer him for a while yet. By pulling the trigger the Pacers would avoid the risk of him walking as a free agent and in return they’d be getting a All-Star caliber player they could build around immediately in Love, who is, let’s not forget, under contract for the next three seasons. Quite how he’d fit alongside Myles Turner and the collection of spare parts (Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis, Lance Stephenson et al) Indiana’s roster currently features is anyone’s guess. But he would certainly give the Pacers a chance to compose a speedy post-George rebuild, which has to be appealing to a team that came so close to dominating the East in recent years. The other option is to involve another team, sending Love to a franchise that’s closer to competing while ensuring the Pacers get the prospects and picks they need to kick-start their rebuild.
Either way the deal looks good for Cleveland, as if they were to pull this off they’d have two very solid defenders to throw at Durant and the ability to play LeBron largely at the four. They would, of course, still have just three stars compared to Golden State’s four, but by exchanging Love’s contract for George’s they’d also be generating an additional $5 million – the kind of space they could conceivably use to add veterans like, say, Tony Allen, or Vince Carter to their roster. Even this deal is unlikely to put the Cavaliers over the top, but it would give them an opportunity to go all-in for what could potentially be LeBron’s final year in a Cavaliers jersey. Outside of it though it’s hard to see how else Cleveland can edge forward given how tight things are looking for them financially.
Last season we heard a lot of talk about the Cavs trading for Carmelo Anthony, but his offensive game only works in the half court, he needs to the ball in hands a lot and is less effective on the defensive end than Kevin Love. Assuming James does have his heart set on retiring in Cleveland, one alternative would be for him to opt out of the player option he has awaiting him in 2018-19 and sign a much smaller deal instead, thus giving the Cavs more cap space to play with. If he could then convince Love and Irving to do the same thing in 2019-20 (which seems unlikely), Cleveland would conceivably be in a position to compete for years to come.
Another would be to stand pat and hope that the Warriors fail to work out their own cap conundrum (they currently have just $65,282,124 on the books for next year, including KD’s $27,734,405, which he will likely have to forego if they’re to have a shot at re-signing Steph Curry to the kind of deal he deserves, as well as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, assuming they want to). This is obviously a risky strategy though, especially as Durant has already said he’d be willing to take a pay-cut to make this thing work long-term.
With this in mind LeBron needs to be in a position to compete next year. And if he’s not and does opt to walk away at the end of the season the roster he’ll leave behind could be in a sorry state for years to come. This, of course, would be familiar territory for Cavs fans, as in 2010-11 (the year after LeBron walked away the first time) the wine and gold ended up paying Antawn Jamison and Baron Davis a combined $26 million, while their team of misfits notched just 19 wins (42 fewer than they got with James on the roster the year before). This was, of course, followed by three further years of hardship, during which the Cavs registered just 78 wins and drafted Irving and Thompson, before LeBron came home again.
But if he leaves once more we’re unlikely to see this again:
Unless Dan Gilbert and whoever turns out to be Cleveland’s GM next year can work some magic here they may conceivably be facing a scenario that sees the team forced to struggle on without its superstar until the contracts of its supporting cast expire several years down the line. And quite where this Cavs team would end up in the East without the talents of the best player in the world right now is anyone’s guess.
Still, we’re not there yet, and if anyone can “figure this thing out”, it’s the league’s most influential player/coach/GM: LeBron James.