No one knows what LeBron James will do this summer. Maybe he stays in Cleveland because that is home for him and his family, and the team runs it back after four straight trips to the Finals. Odds are on him leaving, though, so that leaves the Cavaliers in a precarious position. Here’s a look at just what kind of situation the team will be in if its franchise star departs, with an assist from Eric Pincus’ contract numbers.
The remaining members of the team with guaranteed contracts would consist of Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Cedi Osman, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and Ante Žižić. With the cap hold of the #8 pick factored in, they will still be over the projected $101 million salary cap by at least $6.6 million.
Given that this group won’t be contenders, it’s safe to assume that they’ll try to avoid the luxury tax at all costs, especially since the harsh repeater penalties loom again. Their cushion under that threshold will increase with Kendrick “locker room presence” Perkins’ $2.4 million team option likely to be declined. Okaro White’s non-guaranteed minimum contract probably isn’t safe either since he played zero minutes for them. Altogether, they can add about $15.4 million in salary while ducking the tax.
Their only ways of signing outside free agents above the minimum will be the Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions, which are projected to have starting salaries of around $8.6 million and $3.4 million, respectively. That could net reasonable options in what is expected to be a cold market with such few teams possessing cap room, but a large chunk of their spending power might go towards a Rodney Hood offer sheet as the trade deadline acquisition enters restricted free agency. Like much of his career, the sharp-shooting wing had an up and down showing with the Cavs. He went from starter level minutes to DNPs and garbage time outings.
Hood did get more opportunities late with 25 points over the last two games of the Finals, though, and he only turns 26 in October. I expect the team to at least extend his $3.5 million qualifying offer and then consider matching any reasonable contract since they’ll need all the young talent they can get as they transition to a new era.
With such a change possibly on the horizon, how they handle the draft will be fascinating since it comes before free agency. Do they go for the highest upside possible at #8? Or select a prospect who could possibly contribute right away, like Mikal Bridges or Trae Young, as part of their pitch to convince James to stay? Shabazz Napier didn’t exactly work out too well for Miami in a similar situation. Or do they trade the pick altogether for an instant impact veteran? They do have a $5.8 million trade exception from the Kyrie Irving deal that contributed to where they are now.
Perhaps the trade to make will involve Love since he’s about to turn 30 and can opt out of his contract next summer. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to get more in free agency than his $25.6 million player option, but there should be more cap space in the market a year from now. The Trail Blazers, Clippers, or Lakers could put together decent trade packages with the idea that Love would re-sign in areas that he grew up.
However, Cleveland can hold onto him and use his Bird rights to try to outbid anyone, and they could be players in free agency themselves a year from now. Depending on new contracts for Hood and Nance (extension eligible this summer before restricted free agency) and whether or not Love opts out, they could have anywhere between $21 to $59 million in cap space since the partial guarantees for Hill, Smith, and Korver combine for only $8.3 million.
Only Thompson, Clarkson, and Osman have fully guaranteed contracts for that 2019-2020 season, so there are a lot of moving parts here. Keeping an eye towards next summer could lead them to resist adding any large salaries that go multiple years, whether it be for Hood, one of their exceptions, or a trade. That could come into play if James ends up choosing a team that can’t sign him outright.
For example, the Rockets could try to make the addition by having him pick up his player option in order to facilitate a trade and maintain their flexibility like with Chris Paul last year instead of dumping salaries to create room. That would theoretically allow the Cavs to at least recoup some assets on his way out. But they would be wise not to just accept any bloated contracts (aka Ryan Anderson’s $41.7 million over the next two years) with them. Cleveland could try and force James’ hand, leading to either the other team having to strip itself or James signing with another choice that requires no trade, but in the end teams usually play ball. After all, once the comic sans mania died down, they agreed to a sign-and-trade that netted them four draft picks and allowed James to receive a larger contract with Miami in 2010 (and prevented any possible tampering charges).
One of those picks helped facilitate the Love trade in 2014, so it just goes to show that the big picture needs to be kept in mind. With future flexibility after an obvious step back this coming season, the Cavs have prepared for this better than the last time, even going as far as top-10 protecting their first round pick next year. A willingness to participate in a form of a sign-and-trade could lead to a less painful rebuild this time around.
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