- The Cavaliers are in a unique, title-or-bust position. What can they do this off-season to make sure they're on equal footing with the Warriors?
With the NBA Finals completed, the 2017 off–season is rapidly approaching for many teams with massive decisions to make. CBA expert Danny Leroux breaks down the major challenges and opportunities for the Cleveland Cavaliers in The Crossover's NBA Summer Preview series.
After making the NBA Finals for the third consecutive season but falling to the Warriors for the second time, the Cavs have to do some soul searching. LeBron James was spectacular, averaging 33.6 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the series. Still, Cleveland fell to Golden State in five hard fought games, raising the question of what they need to do to give themselves the best chance of winning a second championship around James.
The front office itself is another source of intrigue, as general manager David Griffin’s contract expires this summer without any agreement on a new deal yet. Between his uncertainty, questions about how far into the luxury tax owner Dan Gilbert is willing to go and the incredibly high stakes, this will be a fascinating summer for Cleveland.
Here are three key storylines to watch for the Cavs this off-season:
Trade possibilities: The Cavs do not have many ways to substantially improve their team using cap space or exceptions, with only the Taxpayer Mid-Level exception (worth about $5.2 million) and a trade exception from the Mike Dunleavy deal (worth about $4.8 million) serving as the biggest ways for them to add talent without trading players under contract. As such, any big adjustments would require sending players away and likely key contributors since Cleveland is also low on future draft picks. Kevin Love makes the most sense as a trade chip but it will be hard to find the right trade partner and returning talent.
Kyle Korver: Cleveland gave up a first round pick for the 36-year old sharpshooter in January. Doing so means they have full Bird rights and can thus retain him without having to use their Mid-Level exception, though that opens the door for an even larger luxury tax bill this season and moving forward. While Korver can play wherever he wants as an unrestricted free agent, those dynamics should allow him to squeeze a nice contract out of the Cavs if he prefers to stick around.
Mid-Level exception: With so few teambuilding tools at their disposal, the front office has to make the most out of their Taxpayer MLE, which will be worth about $5,2 million this summer. Last year, they used part of it to give Richard Jefferson a larger salary than his minimum and a longer contract to second round pick Kay Felder but they will need to do more this year to stay competitive.
Potential Free Agents: Kyle Korver (Unrestricted), Deron Williams (Unrestricted), Derrick Williams (Unrestricted), Kay Felder (Partial Guarantee), James Jones (Unrestricted), Edy Tavares (Non-Guaranteed) and Dahntay Jones (Unrestricted)
Likely Summer of 2017 Cap Space: None
Realistic Maximum Summer of 2017 Cap Space (using $101M estimate): None
2017 Draft Assets: No picks. Owe first round selection to Portland to complete 2016 Anderson Varejão salary dump that was part of the Channing Frye trade.
Potential Targets: The Cavs have two significant needs: wing and point guard. Unless Felder is ready to take on the role in his second season, Cleveland will either need a backup point guard to take a pay cut all the way to their minimum or use part of their MLE on a superior player. Ideally, they would be able to concentrate that full $5.2 million on a single forward who can switch defensively and hit open shots, but that may not be possible. P.J. Tucker and James Johnson would be logical targets, though each will likely be looking for more money and playing time than the Cavs can offer. Another option is spending some of that sum on 2015 second-round pick Cedi Osman, a swingman who plays for Anadolu Efes in Turkey. Assuming Osman wants to come over but expects more than his minimum for two seasons or fewer, Cleveland will need to use some of the Taxpayer MLE to bring him over.
Pressure Scale: 9. LeBron James will not play at this level forever, so it is up to Cleveland’s front office and ownership to make sure they maximize that time as best they can. Simply making the NBA Finals and hoping the Warriors slip would be easy enough for another few seasons unless the Celtics have a huge summer, but taking down the new champs is a substantially more challenging undertaking.
The Cavs should seriously consider moving Love for a more versatile defensive player but the need for spacing around James means that person has to be able to shoot threes credibly as well. Finding the right fit is part of the challenge but acquiring them is even more daunting since the Cavs are broadly asset poor outside of their strong current roster. Their dreams of Paul George are justified because there may not be a better fit out there but making a deal that the Pacers will accept with or without a third team will be exceedingly difficult.
State of the Franchise: Maintaining and retooling. Since James returned in 2015, the Cavs have needed to make do with limited recourses, particularly after trading Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson all contributed to their 2016 championship and some of that quartet will continue to be factors moving forward. Unfortunately, Griffin reacted to the Warriors signing Durant by compiling older veterans who could not help James out on Golden State’s new star: Mike Dunleavy via sign-and-trade, re-signing Jefferson using part of last season’s MLE and trading for Korver using a first-round pick to also induce the Hawks to take on Dunleavy and Mo Williams’s contracts.
Cleveland needs to start this off-season with a clear understanding of what it will take to get to the mountaintop again, then work relentlessly and ruthlessly to get as close as they can. That requires squeezing the most out of the Taxpayer MLE, wooing talented veterans willing to play for their minimum and aggressively shopping players on roster to see if a game-changing trade is possible. It could very well turn out that those steps are not enough but they are still necessary with James turning 33 and entering the final year of his contract.