Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. That’s the ethos of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ offseason as they wait with equal parts anticipation and fear for LeBron James’ free agency decision. That said, just because Koby Altman and his staff are mostly at the mercy of James’ decision in terms of where the team goes next year doesn’t mean that they’re sitting on their hands in the final days before James makes his next destination known. Preparations are being made for all possibilities, including the worst-case scenario, in which James leaves with no compensation and the Cavaliers are left with a host of overpaid, underachieving role players on their roster.
There’s a universe in which James chooses to leave and the Cavaliers blow things up, getting what they can for their 8-figure players and rebuilding around No. 8 pick Collin Sexton and sophomores Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic. It’s not a particularly pretty path and things would go south in a hurry for Cleveland’s record, but given that they owe a top-10 protected pick each of the next two years to Atlanta, that eventuality would probably be best in a post-LeBron world. However, the edict from on high might be that the team stay as competitive as possible, quickly pivoting to a team centered on Kevin Love’s offensive talents to remain in the hunt for the Eastern Conference playoffs. In that universe, the team would have a bit more financial flexibility to bring in a few free agents who fit well with Love:
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
Harris was drafted by Cleveland back in 2014 and played for a year and a half with the Cavaliers before being dumped to the Magic and waived by Orlando. Harris has since found a home in Brooklyn, where he’s flourished in Kenny Atkinson’s run-and-gun system. A 41 percent three-point shooter over the past two seasons on good volume, Harris will likely command somewhere in the $6-8 million range this offseason, which would fit very well in the Cavaliers’ newly-acquired mid-level exception (if James returns to the team, they’d be over the tax to the point that they’d lose the $8.6 million mid-level). While he wouldn’t fill the ball handling void left by James’ departure, he would bring strong outside shooting to a team that would need as much space around Love as possible.
Seth Curry, Dallas Mavericks
Curry has worked his way into being a solid offensive option who might be cheaper than expected this offseason due to missing the entire 2017-18 season with a leg injury. Cleveland could put Curry in the backcourt next to George Hill, who doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence as a full-time lead ball handler but would, in theory, make a good partner for Curry, as both players can play with and without the ball in their hands, split playmaking duties, and hit open shots when they arrive. Additionally, Curry would come cheaper than their full mid-level exception, allowing them to split it between him and one or two other players.
Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies
I promise it’s not an insult to say that Evans is a homeless man’s LeBron James. He far outplayed his one-year contract in Memphis last season, playing the do-it-all wing role James assumed in Cleveland, just at a much lower level. He was the Grizzlies’ primary creator for most of the season after point guard Mike Conley went down with a heel injury and averaged a very respectable 19-5-5. The team wouldn’t have to change that much on either end of the floor to integrate Evans – in terms of fitting a like-for-like swap for James at mid-level exception money, the Cavaliers won’t be able to do much better than Evans.
Rajon Rondo, New Orleans Pelicans
While Rondo doesn’t have the best reputation across the league at this point in his career, he showed that he’s still a high-level playmaker during his one year in New Orleans and would give Love a consistent pick-and-roll partner offensively. That combination wouldn’t be able to stop anybody, but Cleveland was awful on that end of the floor last year and it didn’t materially change their results in the playoffs. Rondo would benefit from the shooters around him in Cleveland, including Love in pick-and-pop situations, and would also do well next to Hill, who could defend point guards without having to be the team’s primary creator. While he’ll never be mistaken for a three-point shooter, Rondo’s usage from those areas has ticked up over the last few years while remaining roughly average or slightly below in that timeframe. Rondo, like Curry, would also likely come at a much cheaper number than the full mid-level, giving Altman room to sign another guy with the remainder.
As you can tell from some of the names on this list, losing James wouldn’t exactly give the Cavaliers a ton of room to fix that gaping hole, but there are some options out there on the mid-level exception market that would make sense and give them a chance to contend for a playoff berth in 2018-19, should that be the directive from owner Dan Gilbert to his front office.