It’s been said over and over again, but the changes the Cleveland Cavaliers have undergone in the past year plus have been drastic. There was a lot of movement and adjustment, a necessary evil of a needed roster overhaul.
Just four players – Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova – remain from the Cavs' lottery bound 2013-14 team. Gone are Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and Jarrett Jack, three players who were thought to be pieces for the Cavs as they transitioned from the league’s worst to something respectable. In are LeBron James, Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert and gluttony of useful veterans who know either know their role or have been there, done that, or some combination of the two.
Those changes were made, in NBA terms, permanent this summer. Love kicked things off by signing a five-year max deal to keep him in Cleveland and kill any narrative saying that Love was destined to bolt and leave the Cavs with nothing after trading future star Andrew Wiggins – and Anthony Bennett and a pick - for Love.
LeBron re-signed too – there’s really no likely way he can leave again – and so did Shumpert. Thompson hasn’t re-upped yet, but it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. Dellavedova and J.R. Smith will probably be back too and, when you add in Mo Williams, the Cavs have assembled a team that is probably the favorite to win the title next year. This a huge change, as the Cavs a year ago were far away from the playoffs, much less title contention. Now, the Cavs, once a symbol of how not to build a team because the roster didn't fit together and changed regularly, are both a power and Cleveland's only legitimate hope of bringing home a title in the near future.
The true value of this Cavs offseason, though, is that it doesn’t just set the Cavs up next year. In truth, it sets them up for at least the next five. As it stands, LeBron is the best player in the league and while perhaps not at his peak, is still in his prime. Irving is just 23 and not yet in his prime. Love, who turns 27 in September, is probably in his but he figures to age well.
LeBron, of course, is at the center of this. He’s the reason the Cavs turned it all around. But he will age soon – Father Time waits for no man, even a physical specimen like LeBron. When this happens – and remember, LeBron will turn 31 next season - the Cavs are equipped to handle it. Kyrie already handles a large amount of the Cavs’ ball handling duties and he can probably handle a bigger role, especially since the roster is vastly different than when he was last the Cavs’ alpha.
Love, too, can take on a bigger role that better resembles the one he had in Minnesota. And even when LeBron ages, he might lose a step but he still is more than skilled in a variety of facets to be amazing, just in a different way. He, after all, is LeBron and old man LeBron is probably still going to be a force.
This, of course, bets that the Cavs can keep the right roster around their ‘Big Three’ over the long haul. The good news is that Thompson and Shumpert – Cleveland’s two youngest and best role players – will be or are locked into deals that will keep them in Cleveland for the foreseeable future. A time will come when the Cavs will have to replace certain players – finding, and ideally developing, a creator and a shooter would be ideal – and hit on minimum contract payers. A decision on Timofey Mozgov’s future looms too; if he continues on his stout play from this past season into free agency next summer, he might command a salary that is out of the Cavs’ price range.
Even so, there are ways to keep Mozgov and even if the Cavs are already paying out huge salaries, the salary cap increase will help. And if the Cavs can lock up Mozgov to pair with Shumpert, Thompson, Love and Irving, Cleveland will have five core players on the right side of 30 locked up. That’s the hardest work to do and the Cavs already have it mostly completed.
However, it won’t be necessarily easy for the Cavs to take advantage of this window. The East is certainly the weaker conference, but Cleveland should expect some tests. Within the division, the Bucks and Bulls both look to be good for the next few years, with Milwaukee clearly on the up and up. Other teams like the Hawks, Wizards and Heat figure to possibly push the Cavs in some meaningful way.
If the Cavs make the Finals, bigger tests await. Next year alone, the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies and Rockets all have, to varying degrees, have legitimate hopes of making the Finals and winning it all. Every team on that – sans the Thunder, if Kevin Durant were to walk next summer – has a open window to win not next year, but over the next few.
The Warriors, in particular, look like a team – perhaps the team – that could keep the Cavs from taking full advantage of this opening. Except for Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala, the main pieces of the Warriors core are on the right side of the 30 and will probably still get better. Steph Curry is just entering his prime. The time will come when Golden State has to replace Bogut and Iguodala, but it’s not all that different from the Cavs having to replace Mozgov or another player. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where the Cavs and Warriors go head-to-head multiple times for the title over the next five-plus years. You could easily make a similar argument about the Clippers, Spurs and Thunder too.
Even so, you have to like the Cavs' chances of winning it all. They've spent the offseason building on what worked and adding depth where needed. And it's year two of LeBron's return. If last year - due to it being year one of the return and the Cavs' injuries in the playoffs - the Cavs got a pass, they probably won't get one this year. Anything less than a title would a disappointment for the franchise and the city.
This summer, barring something unforeseen, is unquestionably a victory for the Cavs. In re-signing James, Love, Thompson and Shumpert – plus Irving, whose extension kicks in this year – the Cavs have built something that is both good now and built to last. Now all there is left to do is win before that window is slammed shut. But for now, and for a few years more, that window is open.