The NBA’s free agency period has actually been pretty sensible so far, especially compared to last year’s cash bonanza, when GMs were handing out cap-crippling deals to Evan Turner-types (get your money, Evan!). The 2017 off-season has seen more responsible spending from the team side. Even some of the bigger money given to older players—Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Paul Millsap—has been offset by the limited number of years on those contracts (none longer than three.) I’m all for players earning as much money as possible, but it can also be frustrating to watch teams unable to improve due to cap constraints (even if that’s the team’s own fault.)
Case in point: the Cleveland Cavaliers. If there’s been one truly awful free-agent signing so far, it’s been the Cavs picking up Jose Calderon to be their backup point guard. Sure, it’s only a one-year deal for the vet minimum, but what does this do for Cleveland exactly? Calderon is old, not much of a defender, and he’ll be an enormous liability against talented teams in the playoffs. It’s the same problem the Cavs had last season with Deron Williams, who was mostly fine in the regular season, but couldn’t contribute when the team needed him most. In the NBA’s “Weapons Race Era,” Calderon is the equivalent of a half-broken squirt gun.
Calderon’s signing is not a good look for Cleveland’s player development skills. Look at what the Warriors did with guys like Patrick McCaw and Ian Clark. The Cavs haven’t been able to find a role player among any of the young guys they’ve tried out, yo-yoing with Kay Felder and DeAndre Liggins before they eventually fell by the wayside.
The issue here, though, is not that the Cavs think Jose Calderon is the answer to their issues. Even a team with no general manager is probably smart enough to know that isn't true. For Cleveland, their problem has no easy solution. The Cavs are a capped out, top heavy team with massive contracts for role players who have a limited ceiling against their No. 1 competition.
Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert will make a combined $40 million this season. Thompson and Smith are also signed for two more years after this one. To an extent, Cleveland didn’t have much of a choice when it handed out those deals. Dan Gilbert couldn’t afford to look cheap when it came to keeping his championship core together, and then-GM David Griffin was also in a place where he had to assure LeBron James was happy. With James publicly calling for the team to bring back Thompson and Smith—and we know James cares about players getting paid—the Cavs did what they had to do.
But now Cleveland has to live with the results. Even before adding Calderon and bringing back Kyle Korver, the Cavs had over $120 million committed to nine players. Once you’re in that position, there are no good ways to fill out the roster. You either have to pray a David West-type will take a minimum deal to chase a ring or some unsuspecting team wants one of your bad assets (Shumpert!). But what often happens is you’re left scraping the barrel to sign over-the-hill vets like Calderon, or re-signing your own guys even when they’re flawed.
The Cavs simply have no good options to improving their roster right now. They can trade Kevin Love, but it would be very difficult to get equal value in return, particularly with Paul George now off the market. Cleveland does have its taxpayer mid-level exception, but as basically the team’s only bullet, it has to be used wisely.
As much as the Calderon signing fails to move the needle for Cleveland, the Cavs can’t do much else. As the NBA’s arms race reaches preposterous heights to take down the Warriors, Cleveland is going to have to fight mostly with the weapons they already have.