The Cleveland Cavaliers are a team with seemingly unlimited finances, the best player on the planet, an All NBA Point Guard, and over 55 million dollars in contracts that will probably be coming off of their books in the next week or two. They sound like a free agent oasis, promising groundswells of money and the notoriety that comes alongside playing with LeBron James. The reality of the situation is a mirage, a private bank open for the most part to only those already associated with the team. Here is why.
Spoiler: There isn't any. None. No way, no kind, no how, that doesn't leave this team mostly screwed. One of the questions I most regularly receive is if the Cavs can let any of Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, Kevin Love, or J.R. Smith walk to spend that money elsewhere.
The answer, frankly, is no. As the chart below shows, the Cavs are so far past the salary cap that I'm not sure anyone in the front office even has reason to know what the Cap number for this season is.
The luxury tax for this season will rest between 81 and 84 million, most likely, and the apron is exactly $4 million above that. Any hope of "letting ____ go and using that money elsewhere" is just not going to happen. The Cavs are pot-committed to this group. That's not really a bad thing, as the Cavs kind of destroyed everyone when they were healthy.
Let's talk exceptions
The NBA Salary cap landscape is a bit of a mess. It's a cap, but you can go over it, but sometimes you can't, but usually you can, etc. etc. etc. As we covered above, the Cavs are a uh.... "healthy" margin over the tax. By the time everyone gets their raises, it will be a cap bloodbath. The general means of bringing in anyone above a veterans minimum deal are a series of cap exceptions, pictured below:
As the Cavs are over both the Cap and apron, the chart shows the options are rather limited. I included the sign and trade in here because while it's not truly an exception, it is something that cannot be done when over the apron. The Cavs will be able to send a player out via sign and trade, but receiving someone is off limits to them.
The use of either Mid-Level or Bi-Annual exception activates the apron, a hard cap. Being that the Cavs are past that, go ahead and scratch those off. This leaves us with the Mini-Mid-Level, aka The Tax Payer's exception. The Cavs will be armed with that - it offers them a chance to sign a player with roughly $3.5 million - and anyone who will take a veterans minimum deal are their methods of signing free agents.
What does this all mean, then?
Basically, the Cavs you saw finish the season are the Cavs you should be seeing next season. If Love and/or Smith decide to ply their trade elsewhere, the Cavs would be in a pretty tough spot. As it currently stands, taking their two contracts off the books would generate maybe just enough room to use the mid-level, but then Thompson and Shumpert get paid, and that idea quickly flies out the window. There is work to be done in the margins, as far as finding a backup point guard and a rotational big, but the core of the team was bought and paid for last season as the plan moving through at last this next one. It's built as a cohesive unit, and while the youth and expiring contracts give the hint of a field of options, it's really one big inter-connected co-dependent mess of math, and if you remove one cog, there is really slim hope of finding another that fits right in. Sorry, LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, and Dwyane Wade hopefuls!
Good news then, that the Cavs "mess" was near unstoppable for three months of last season. The books aren't pretty, the luxury tax is gonna hit like a ton of bricks, but the Cavs will be better for it. Just make sure you don't have any free agents that want real money on your list, because you're going to be very disappointed.