King moves kingdoms, again
For the second time in franchise history, LeBron James has left the Cavaliers, choosing to don the purple and gold of the Los Angeles Lakers in a seismic move that shifts the centre of the NBA world to L.A.
James joins the Lakers on a 4-year max contract worth $153 million after shunning offers from Philadelphia and Cleveland, the latter being able to offer a five-year max deal that would have paid James $207 million.
Despite fulfilling his promise when he returned to the Cavs in 2014 of winning the franchise a title, James’ departure leaves Cleveland in a state of limbo with no clear path to what the next move should be.
As it currently stands, the 2016 NBA champions are already over the salary cap limit thanks in large part to players LeBron wanted the organisation to re-sign two years ago. Tristan Thompson has a $17.5 million cap hit in 2018/19 while J.R. Smith’s cap hit sits at a gaudy $14.7 million.
Kevin Love’s name has been floated in trade talks, talks which should intensify given James’ decision but so far, the Cavaliers have stated they have no desire to trade the All-Star big man.
What the Cavs do with Love should signal what their plans for the upcoming season are. Love is now far and away Cleveland’s best player and if he stays, the Cavs will look to compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
If he is traded, it’s unlikely that Cleveland will stop there and could look to trade role players like Thompson, Smith and George Hill, who is due $19 million this season.
Should the Cavaliers remain unchanged in their current iteration, they’ll likely be fighting for the seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference at best. Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Milwaukee, Indiana, Washington and Miami are all currently better than the Cavs, with that hierarchy likely to remain as the offseason progresses.
While a full rebuild is arguably Cleveland’s best option given they’re in the dreaded NBA purgatory; not being good enough to compete for a title but not bad enough to get a high draft pick, it remains to be seen what they will do.
The Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs play their home games, is set to go under renovations and it has been rumoured the Cavaliers want to keep Love in order to attract fans (the renos will cost at least $140 million according to ESPN).
The team are set to extend guard Rodney Hood a qualifying offer ($3.4 million), giving them the opportunity to match any offers he receives as a restricted free agent.
Several Cavaliers reporters have indicated that the side will also look to re-sign Jeff Green, a move that would signify the reigning Eastern Conference champions will look to compete for a spot in the playoffs.
The development of young players such as Collin Sexton, the number eight pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and Cedi Osman will be a priority for the Cavs.
Sexton will likely be the key piece that the Cavs choose to build around given he was picked in the top ten, the first time Cleveland had a pick that high since selecting Andrew Wiggins first overall in 2014 (he was then traded to Minnesota as the focal point in a trade for Love).
Osman showed flashes of ability throughout the 2017/18 season and seemed to be a favourite of coach Tyronn Lue. His defence and work rate were nearly unmatched on a Cavs roster that was filled with older veterans, and in a recent FIBA World Cup qualifier, he showed significant improvement on his shot, nailing three triples and recording 20 points in Turkey’s 80-66 win against Ukraine.
The next two weeks will be critical to the Cavs’ immediate and long-term future. Will they, or won’t they? Will Love, Thompson and Smith, the only three remaining players from Cleveland’s 2016 championship team, be around next season to guide the team through its next phase? Or will they be shipped off for a combination of draft picks and young talent?
Whatever owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman decide next, what is known is that the franchise’s best player ever, the man who led the Cavaliers to its only NBA title, won’t be around to see that transition.