Give and Go: The fallout of LeBron James' return to Cleveland
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
1. LeBron James' decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers is ________.
Ben Golliver: Karma-restoring. Full credit to James and his agent, Rich Paul, for brilliantly constructing the yang to The Decision's yin this summer. Four years ago, James was criticized by media and fans as a selfish, immature, egotistical, ring-chasing traitor. His sequel, though, somehow manages to make him look selfless, mature, community-minded, realistic and loyal, all at the same time. He thoroughly re-wrote about seven or eight different negative narratives with one move. Not only that, but the interest generated by his silence throughout the free agency process only enhanced his already massive global profile. From a marketing and brand management standpoint, this was a stroke of genius.
James went outside the box by choosing to rebuild the Cavaliers and Ohio rather than simply choosing the best place to win a title in 2015. Something tells me that sacrifice will be paid in full -- with team success and off-court fulfillment -- by the time James decides to retire.
Rob Mahoney: Unsettling, in terms of the Eastern Conference power structure. Were James to re-sign in Miami, the Heat would again be the likely favorites in the conference. I'm not quite willing to go that far with the LeBron-infused Cavaliers, though, given just how many unknowns (a young team, a new coach, a shaky frontcourt, etc.) are built into Cleveland's current situation. As it stands, the East looks wide open: Cleveland will be in the running, Chicago is still making moves, Indiana could gain ground by standing still, Toronto will build through continuity, Washington is looking to return its core, Brooklyn will have a healthy Brook Lopez and teams like Charlotte and Atlanta still have cap room to play with. The entire power structure of the East will be rewritten with this summer's movement, an upheaval that bodes well for the intrigue of the regular season.
Mahoney: Were I Cavs GM David Griffin, I would keep a close eye on the veteran minimum market for frontcourt players who can either shoot or protect the rim. It remains to be seen whether any players fitting the former criterion will even be available at Cleveland's price point, though the most likely candidates are Al Harrington, Anthony Tolliver and Jason Smith. None are inspiring, though each could be situationally helpful. The former two are a bit more practical in their ability to stretch all the way to the three-point line, though even Smith's mid-range chuck could help open things up for James and Kyrie Irving in spot minutes.
As far as rim protection goes, the first name that jumps out is Emeka Okafor. The 31-year-old center is a long shot worth chasing for the Cavs; Okafor will undoubtedly have more lucrative offers to consider, though he may be willing to sign a one-year deal to prove his health after missing all of last season with a neck injury. Would he commit to a multi-year deal in a depressed market wary of his injury? Or might he sign with a good team on a cheap deal to show how much of a difference he can make when healthy? I suspect Okafor will be well outside Cleveland's price range, though his free agent value is so unanchored that the Cavs would do well to inquire. More plausibly, players like Ekpe Udoh and Bernard James could reasonably be in the mix. Both are disastrous offensive players who would bungle beautiful set-up passes from LeBron, though perhaps they might be useful enough as bargain-bin defenders to justify a roster spot.
Golliver: I think Miami's roster-filling model -- shooters and stiff big men -- applies in Cleveland as well. The real emphasis should probably be placed inside, especially after the departures of Spencer Hawes (signed with the Clippers) and Tyler Zeller (traded to the Celtics). Anderson Varejao might be one of James' favorite teammates, as he wrote in his essay with Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, but he's dealt with a series of injuries in recent years and a Varejao/Brendan Haywood pairing isn't exactly going to hold down the fort. Okafor and Udoh are both really good ideas. Cleveland should also pursue Chris "Birdman" Andersen. ,Former Ohio State Buckeye Greg Oden might be worth checking on to see where things stand with his various health issues.
3. At the end of its term, how will Chris Bosh's five-year, $118 million look in retrospect?
Golliver: As I wrote in giving the Bosh deal an A- grade, I think this summer's market proved he was worth the starting price tag, and I think he will age well through most of the contract. He's been durable throughout his career and he's definitely capable of doing more offensively than he's been asked to do since 2010. The fifth year on such a large contract is definitely cause to be a little squeamish, but it's nothing compared to the prospect of a 2014-15 roster with Dwyane Wade as its solo centerpiece, with whatever outside free agents can be mustered up around him.
I do think the answer to this question will depend somewhat on how much money Dwyane Wade receives. Two bad contracts on the same books can often produce a synergistic reaction, like mixing booze with painkillers. Just ask the Nets, who are stuck paying Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, or the Knicks, who are shelling out major money to both Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani. One regrettably huge contract can take a team out of championship contention; two regrettably huge contracts can handcuff a roster completely and turn an organization into a punchline. The good news is that Miami can only offer Wade a four-year contract due to his age.
There is also danger in assuming that Bosh will spend all five years of the deal in Miami. I would guess that he will remain a desirable trade piece for at least the next two seasons, and probably longer.
Mahoney: A bit rich, but the right move. The final two seasons of Bosh's deal will pay him upwards of $25 million apiece, which at that point will be a lofty salary for a once-mobile big in decline. So much of Bosh's value is drawn from his ability to cover space quickly as a defender, a quality that unfortunately doesn't tend to hold at a max-salary level until age 35. Still, Bosh should still be a capable shooter at that point, able to complement most any offense by pulling opposing bigs out of the paint and chipping in baskets from the outside.
In a broader, team-building context, too, I think Miami's choice to keep Bosh will ultimately prove positive. The Heat had a chance to completely bottom out once James decided to move on, as their only standing commitments were those to Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger, Norris Cole and Shabazz Napier. That could have been the starting point for a descent into the lottery, as Miami's first round pick (which is technically owned by Cleveland as an artifact of LeBron's 2010 sign-and-trade) is protected so long as it falls within the top 10. That outcome was very plausible were all three of James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade to sign elsewhere, cruel as that outcome would have been to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. By bringing back Bosh, though, Miami should be able to secure Wade's recommit and free up the cap room necessary to sign another long-term piece. That in itself might not be the start of a championship-worthy mix, though in retaining pieces of value the Heat could at least position themselves to redeem something of worth from what could have been a basketball implosion.
There's also motivation for the Heat to convey that top-10 protected pick as quickly as possible, if only so Miami can again have access to its full slate of future first rounders for trade reasons. An outstanding pick with rolling protection essentially puts a hold on which picks a team is able to trade by rule, as it's illegal to deal away future first-round picks in consecutive seasons. By remaining competent with Bosh, Wade and a free agent to be named later, the Heat can fork over the pick owed to the Cavs as soon as possible and look to move on from there. This isn't a superteam anymore, but Miami isn't lost in the Eastern Conference and Bosh's deal will still be tradeable down the line if the Heat eventually need to move on. That, in many ways, is better than seeing the entire core of this team dissolved.
4. Which remaining free agent would be the best fit in Miami alongside Bosh and Dwyane Wade (who is presumed to re-sign)?
Mahoney: Of those upper-middle-class options being discussed, Trevor Ariza likely made the most sense, but he's reportedly headed to Houston. With James and Shane Battier both gone, the Heat very much need a player who can capably guard elite perimeter players. Ariza, while not exactly in the top tier of defensive stoppers, would have fit the bill; he's athletic enough to give chase around screens and lanky enough to bother smaller ball handlers if need be, a versatility in coverage that Miami very much needs. If his 40-percent shooting last season could be in any way sustained, Ariza would also have helped space the floor for the Heat in a way that Luol Deng (a free agent small forward of comparable standing) could not. That would have been crucial in playing opposite Wade on the wing, particularly now that James won't be around to contort defenses through other means.
Another thought: What about Greg Monroe? Miami still needs to work out deals to make both Wade and Udonis Haslem whole, but if the numbers work out just right the Heat could have enough room to make a near-max offer to Monroe. The deterrent here is that the Pistons would likely match (it just doesn't behoove Detroit to let Monroe walk), and in the process could tie up the cap space of a needy Heat team for three days. That latter reason alone likely rules out a Miami team that is now in full scramble mode, though the thought of adding Monroe – a fairly traditional interior center – to form a three-man core with Wade and Bosh is enticing enough under the circumstances to at least consider.
Golliver: Eric Bledsoe. Miami is going to look a lot less dynamic next season without James -- duh -- and Bledsoe is the only remaining available free agent that can meaningfully address that drop-off. A Bledsoe/Wade backcourt would give Miami multiple threats off the dribble, and he's capable of drawing the type of extra attention necessary to set up Bosh for his specialty mid-range jumpers. Honestly, this really boils down to a "Best Player Available" argument. Assuming Carmelo Anthony returns to New York and Wade returns to Miami as expected, the Suns guard is the top available free agent left unclaimed.
As with Monroe, though, the likelihood of a Bledsoe move to Miami is virtually nil. Bledsoe should receive a max or near-max offer in restricted free agency, and Phoenix has made every indication that it plans to match all offers. The Jazz took a similar public relations approach with Gordon Hayward, and they stuck to their word even when he received a four-year max offer sheet from the Hornets. I expect Suns GM Ryan McDonough will pay whatever it takes to keep the highest-upside player on his roster in town. Given that Ariza is off the board and Monroe and Bledsoe are stretches, I think Heat president Pat Riley would consider himself lucky to land Deng, whose defensive mentality and experience would surely appeal to coach Erik Spoelstra.
5. What was the most surprising move of the post-LeBron free agent frenzy?
Golliver: Chris Bosh re-signing with the Heat. This was a possibility that, while logical, was overlooked by many, myself included. Reading the tea leaves on this one was really tricky for a few reasons: Bosh was willing to wait on James, Bosh was reportedly willing to take a paycut to play with James, Bosh was offered max money by a Rockets team on the verge of contention, Bosh fits so nicely in theory alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden in Houston, the Rockets agreed to trade both Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin in separate deals to open cap space, and Miami was not linked to the pursuit of any third stars once James bolted. All of those indicators suggested that Bosh would seriously consider leaving once James announced his decision.
Overlooked, though, was Miami's advantages in being able to offer him more money over a longer-term deal and Bosh's own on-the-record comments about his happiness in South Beach. Bosh's life will change -- he'll be asked to do more and he will win less -- but he will continue to cash gigantic checks and live in a tropical paradise. It's possible to get too deep into the rumors and free-agency chatter that you can lose sight of a sensible play, and I confess that's what happened to me here.
Mahoney: I'm still a bit shocked that the Suns managed to land Isaiah Thomas at such a reasonable price, especially when guards several tiers inferior have been going for annual salaries of $4-5 million. Thomas is a player – flawed, certainly, as a defender and limited by his size, but just a monster in terms of offensive production and influence. This is the player Phoenix just acquired for four years at just $27 million. I fully understand that Thomas wasn't in Sacramento's plans moving forward, as was made clear when the Kings reportedly assured the Darren Collison that he'd get a shot to the starting point guard spot. Given that, it's good that Sacramento managed to create a handy $7.2 million trade exception and nab an asset out of the deal (the rights to 2013 second rounder Alex Oriakhi), however minor. I'm just stunned that there wasn't any more robust a market for Thomas' services than this, not to mention confused as to what the Kings expect to get from Collison that they couldn't in greater volume and at superior efficiency from Thomas.
On Friday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated NBA writer Ben Golliver discusses where Cleveland's roster will go from here and if the Cavaliers are now title contenders.