OAKLAND — The Warriors and Cavaliers have lorded over the NBA for three seasons, trading trash talk and titles while building the best rivalry of the post-Michael Jordan era. But the nature of Golden State’s Finals victory—not just the result—proves that the balance between the NBA’s two superpowers is far enough out of whack that Cleveland must consider drastic action this summer.
There are many good reasons for the Cavaliers to seek major roster improvements in the coming weeks, but none more pressing than this: They don’t have an answer for Kevin Durant.
To be clear, LeBron James is still the superior player. If James and Durant switched teams, James’s Warriors would sweep Durant’s Cavaliers. If they squared off in a seven-game series with equal talent and depth, James’s team would likely prevail in six or seven. But those hypotheticals are irrelevant given the Warriors’ reality: Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all in their primes and they’re all in position to remain with Golden State for the foreseeable future. If James wants a fourth ring—or if he simply wants a more competitive Finals matchup in 201—he can’t be the only defensive option to handle Durant.
While James is used to dealing with unfair burdens, the last two weeks proved that Golden State has all the necessary components to exhaust and outlast him. The Warriors can cycle as many as four elite different defenders on James, they can switch virtually everything with their smaller lineups thanks to their roster’s versatility, and they have sufficient depth to ensure that their stars are fresh late in games. The Cavaliers, by contrast, were left using Iman Shumpert (too small) and Richard Jefferson (too old) on Durant at times, they constantly found themselves in unfavorable mismatches after switches, and the 32-year-old James appeared to be out of gas in multiple late-game situations.
For Cleveland, then, the top off-season priority is clear: Acquire an elite perimeter defender who can improve the Cavaliers’ defensive versatility, credibly defend Durant and lighten James’s load. With limited cap flexibility and monster salary commitments already on the books, Cleveland has no choice but to eye the trade market to address its biggest weakness. The Cavaliers also have no choice but to consider busting up their “Big 3” of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love due to their weak portfolio of complementary trade assets and the fact that they must send out multiple future first-round picks in previous trade obligations.
Love is, and has been, the most expendable of Cleveland’s three stars. This isn’t a “Trade Love because he sucks!” decision, but rather a “Trade Love because matching up with Durant’s Warriors demands it” decision. Indeed, Love was excellent throughout the 2017 playoffs—shooting the ball well, hitting the glass and playing passable defense at both the four and five—and much improved in the 2017 Finals compared to last year. But the Cavaliers have learned over the last two weeks that they can’t beat the Warriors in an up-and-down shootout and that they must improve their defensive personnel. Sacrificing Love’s spread offense and rebounding is the price Cleveland must pay to improve its defense and interchangeability.
The list of potential difference-making wing targets isn’t that long: Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are both untouchable, Carmelo Anthony definitely doesn’t fit the bill, and Gordon Hayward is a max-level free agent. That leaves Chicago’s Jimmy Butler and Indiana’s Paul George, two big names that have circulated in rumors over the past 12 months. It’s impossible to tell whether the Bulls are coming or going, but Butler is under contract through 2018-19 and stands as a tent post talent while Gar Forman, John Paxson and Fred Hoiberg figure it out. Chicago, treading water with plenty of time still left on Butler’s clock, shouldn’t be in a rush to detonate.
George, however, is a different story. His Pacers exited the playoffs in a first-round sweep against the Cavaliers, he refused to commit to Indiana when asked during his season-ending press conference, he was stuck with a new coach and a new point guard this season, and team president Larry Bird abruptly retired back in April. Meanwhile, rumors linking George, a 2018 free agent, to his home state Lakers have raged for months and he’s repeatedly said that he wants to get back to the type of winning he enjoyed earlier in his career, when the Pacers made back-to-back runs to the conference finals. On top of all that, George missed out on All-NBA honors this year, reducing (or at least delaying) the Pacers’ ability to blow away outside competitors when it comes to his next contract talks.
A trade built around Love-for-George looks like a win-win-win. While George is the superior player, Love carries no flight risk, as he’s under contract through at least 2019. Pairing Love with young center Myles Turner would give Indiana a modern, versatile frontline to build around. Importantly, moving George for Love would qualify as a retooling effort, allowing the Pacers to remain in the mix in the Eastern Conference rather than sliding back down into the lottery. Kevin Pritchard, Bird’s successor, said in May that he “doesn’t believe in tearing it down” and Love would give the Pacers a proven All-Star in his prime to market and build around. Is Love going to post 20/20 lines every night and carry the Pacers to 50 wins? Probably not, but George only carried Indiana to 42 wins this year so the bar isn’t that high. Plus, the Pacers’ roster is so loaded with veterans that a true rebuilding effort would likely take multiple off-seasons to play out.
From Cleveland’s standpoint, George would be a dream fit: He could handle primary defensive responsibilities, he could fit in as an over-qualified third scoring option to support James and Irving, and his presence would allow coach Tyronn Lue to play smaller lineups that could better match Golden State’s length and athleticism. A go-to five of Irving, J.R. Smith, George, James and Tristan Thompson should fare better defensively against the Warriors, as would a smaller look featuring Irving, Smith, Iman Shumpert, George and James.
Yes, George’s offensive numbers would take a step back. He’d be the small forward version of Chris Bosh or Love, sacrificing for the good of the team. In exchange, however, he’d receive his best shot yet to win a ring, he’d get to play meaningful ball in May and June, he’d be the beneficiary of countless assists from James, and he would get to enjoy the Durant-in-Golden-State lifestyle of fewer double-teams and easier looks. George also wouldn’t necessarily need to commit to Cleveland past next year: He could use the 2017-18 season as a test run before deciding where to plant his seeds.
If there’s an obvious snag here, it’s Love’s health. He underwent knee surgery and missed 22 games this season, and he hasn’t played 80 games in any of the last eight seasons. But George, who missed nearly all of the 2014-15 season with a broken leg, carries his own injury risks despite two quality bounce back seasons. The question for the Pacers is whether a 28-year-old All-Star with an injury history who can’t go anywhere is a better bet than a 27-year-old All-Star with an injury history who seems intent on leaving. Or, alternatively, whether biting the bullet and cashing in George for picks and prospects charts a better course to sustained success.
The Cavaliers are lucky that James signed a two-year contract last summer because they don’t need to worry about him bolting elsewhere angrily following this resounding defeat. Nevertheless, the clock is ticking and the rumor mill is already heating up. If Cleveland wants to keep James past next season, it will need to do everything in its power to surround him with better talent and to keep up with the Joneses. Trading Love, in that context, qualifies as an acceptable risk. So does trading for George knowing that he might decide to leave in a year.
The pressure to make full use of what remains of James’s prime never ceases, and the Cavaliers must respond to their humbling setback in the 2017 Finals by reimagining his supporting cast.