The Cleveland Cavaliers could end up being the NBA’s biggest losers of the offseason. Losing LeBron James in free agency would turn this perennial title contender into a mediocre team that could struggle to make the eighth seed in the East.
James is coming off of one of the greatest playoff runs in NBA history. He averaged 34 points per-game with nine assists and nine rebounds per-contest. He led an otherwise struggling Cleveland team into the Finals for the fourth consecutive year. He also scored 51 points in a losing effort in Game 1 of the Finals.
James will have a lot of options to choose from this summer, and the Cavs don’t appear to be the most appealing. The most prominent reason why is because they will have a difficult time improving their roster that got swept by Golden State.
The Cavaliers paid well over the salary cap this season and are scheduled to still be over the cap in 2018-2019, regardless of whether James re-signs or not.
This is because the Cavs owe Kevin Love over $24 million next year, they owe George Hill $19 million, Tristan Thompson will get $17.5 million, J.R. Smith will get over $14 million and Jordan Clarkson will earn $12.5 million.
The Salary cap sits at $99 million, and those five players will make $87.8 million combined. Another $14 million is owed to four others. There is no money to work with for General Manager Koby Altman, which is a problem since the talent surrounding James this past season proved lackluster in the playoffs.
The most exciting thing they can do this offseason with the roster they have, besides possibly bringing back James, is drafting the eighth overall pick that they received from the Kyrie Irving trade.
Adding one young player most likely won’t be substantial enough to bring back James. The best chance Cleveland has is to try their best to trade some of their big contracts and create cap room.
This could prove tough. Hill is now 32-years-old and had his worst statistical season since 2012.
Thompson also experienced the worst year scoring wise of his career, and his rebounds-per-game were the lowest since his rookie campaign.
Also, there are cheaper options for teams to sign at shooting guard than J.R. Smith, so many teams will likely pass on him unless given draft compensation. Marco Belinelli, same age and position as Smith, scored more points and shot more efficiently for Atlanta this past season. He made half as much money as Smith last season, and he is a current free agent.
Lou Williams was just re-signed by the Clippers for $8 million per year. He scored 22 points-per-game while leading the Clippers in assists this season, and he will be paid just over half as much as Smith next year.
Now, if James leaves, then the Cavs will need their eighth overall pick. Historically, players like four-time All-Star Tom Chambers, three-time All-Star Detlef Schrempf and three-time Sixth-Man of the Year Jamal Crawford have been selected there, so a high quality young player could fall to them.
Trading future picks could also prove dangerous because if James leaves, then those picks get higher and more valuable.
But, in order to keep “The King,” they will need to deal some of their picks away with some of their big contracts. A rebuilding team could possibly be willing to eat up Thompson or Smith’s deal if that means they get a future pick.
They could use their picks to trade for a star talent to pair with James possibly. Perhaps the Charlotte Hornets would give up 2018 All-Star point guard Kemba Walker for the eighth overall selection, perhaps a second rounder and then a contract like Thompson’s.
Walker is no Kyrie Irving, but he a talented guard on a team who could be willing to sell. He averaged 22.1 points-per-game this past season and shoots well from three.
Or, perhaps the Cavs could try to trade their picks and contracts for cheap role players and create cap to go after free agents that James may like to play with. But, that would require a lot of maneuvering, and maybe force Cleveland to deal more picks than they are comfortable with.
Altman and the Cleveland front office have a critical summer ahead of them, and they’ll need to be active from the start in order to have a chance to keep LeBron James.