It's unwise to read too much into a single preseason game, but if Sunday night was any indication, the Cavaliers are serious about using Tristan Thompson as their starting center. That would give Cleveland a lineup full of former top five picks. Understandably, everyone was excited to see all that talent share the floor against some real-life competition. At times, David Blatt's squad looked like a team that just started playing together a week and a half ago, but there were enough flashes of brilliance to whet the appetite of any basketball fan, Cavs-backer or not.
Acquiring stars makes team-building a much easier task, but in no way does the presence of so many high draft picks mean the front office can rest easy. Now that the core of the team is presumably locked in for the long haul, Cleveland's brain trust must concentrate on surrounding them with adequate role players. The problem, of course, is that three large salaries means the team will have to get creative in order to fill out the roster with useful players.
There's more than one way to do this, of course. When you've got stars, as the Cavs do, quality veteran role players may take less than market value in order to play for you. Mike Miller and Shawn Marion fit the bill, just as Ray Allen and Shane Battier did for LeBron's Heat teams. This is part of the package deal when someone like LeBron is employed by your franchise. His influence, his salesmanship, and the chance to chase a ring entice players to sacrifice money in the name of winning.
But those are often stopgap solutions. Marion will turn 37 in May, and Mike Miller will turn 35 in February. Even if both make it through the season healthy, who knows if they'll be willing (and effective enough) to return in 2015-16 or beyond. Of course, the Cavs could simply go bargain-hunting for quality role players next summer, and every summer after that. Anderson Varejao may be willing to take a below-market deal to return, in part because he's one of LeBron's favorites and a lifelong Cavalier, and in part because other teams may tread lightly in free agency due to his injury history. If you'll allow me to get way, way too far ahead of myself, Thad Young, Mike Dunleavy, Jared Dudley, Darrell Arthur and Amir Johnson could be intriguing free agency options to join Cleveland's hunt for a title.
With yesterday's breaking news that the NBA will sign a new nine year, $24 billion media rights deal, more than doubling the previous arrangement, some may conclude that throwing money at key role players will be good enough. The counterargument is that even if the salary cap rises substantially ($88 million is the guess that smart people have been throwing around), max contracts (like the ones coming to both LeBron and Love) will also begin with higher annual values.
Plus, the Cavs may also extend both Thompson and Waiters, who both likely covet (at least) market-level extensions following their rookie deals. Even if the cap rises, and contracts for veteran role players are even more feasible in the future than they've been in the past, flexibility never hurts. The best way to maintain cap flexibility, wherever the cap is set, is to find cheap talent.
There are two ways to find cheap role players when you're a good team- from the latter parts of the draft, and from undrafted free agents. Matthew Dellavedova and Alex Kirk are the latter. Dellavedova will back up Kyrie Irving, and given the fact that Irving's missed a double-digit amount of games in each of his first three seasons, it's not unreasonable to suspect the 24-year-old Aussie will start a few games at point guard this season. Given the spotty injury histories of backup bigs Varejao and Brendan Haywood, there's a chance Kirk will be asked to contribute at some point as well.
Their success or failure, provided they aren't asked to play huge minutes, won't make or break Cleveland's season. But if they are at least serviceable, it'll be a boon to the second unit, which is not an insignificant factor to team success.
The other method of acquiring cheap talent is via the latter part of the first or second round of the draft. Joe Harris, picked No. 33 overall in the 2014 Draft, probably won't factor into the wing rotation much this season because the Cavs' wings are, um, kind of deep. But down the road, if he's deemed worthy of a roster spot, he'll be asked to play meaningful minutes. Looking further ahead, what picks does Cleveland have coming down the pipe? Will they have many opportunities to find gems late in the first round of the draft?
The answer: not really, which puts the onus on David Griffin and the scouting department to make the picks they do have count. At first glance, their future pick credits/debits seems to feature many second-round picks coming in, but look closely at the protections. Philadelphia's 2015 second rounder is probably going to the Celtics rather than the Cavaliers. Sacramento (2015 and 2017) and Boston (2015) both owe future second rounders to Cleveland, but they're protected between picks 31 and 55, so the odds of those actually being conveyed are slim. On the Cavs' side, they've sent away their own 2015 second rounder to Utah, their entire 2016 draft and a 2017 second-round pick to Boston, and their 2018 second rounder to Philadelphia.
So what picks do the Cavs own? Their 2017 first round pick is the only one without protections or qualifiers attached to it. They'll get a late 2015 first rounder (the Bulls have the right to swap as part of the Luol Deng trade). They have a shot at the Clippers' 2016 second round pick (provided it doesn't fall within the 31-55 range). When they finally receive the Memphis pick they own (from the Speights/Ellington/Selby for Leuer trade in January, 2013) will depend entirely on whether or not the Grizzlies make the playoffs and stay out of the first 5 picks in the lottery. So while it may happen in 2015 or 2016, it's possible it won't come over until 2017, when the protections drop to simply the top five picks.
The past two paragraphs are a long way of saying that the Cavaliers, at this moment, may only have two total picks in the next two drafts (a late first and a very late second) and just five, total, in the next five drafts. Remember earlier, when I said I was getting way, way ahead of myself? I'm doing it again.
But the point I'm trying to make is that those picks have value. As much fun as it is to make fun of Mario Chalmers, the Cavaliers would be ecstatic if Dellavedova turned out to be his Australian doppelganger. The Heat have paid him $14.3 million, total, for his six years of service, and like him or not, he was the primary point guard for four straight Finals teams.
Almost every team in the league has a mixture of veteran free agents and late-round role players on their bench. It's clear that the Cavaliers will be able to attract the former; what remains to be seen is whether they can develop the latter.