Let’s be clear: It will be difficult, and perhaps impossible, for the Cavs to get back to the heights they reached in the past four years. Players like LeBron James come along, at best, once in a generation and even more rarely are born in, or near, the right city.
Cleveland, though, has to move on and it has a choice to make this summer and in the years to come. Its goal is likely the same: to at some point contend again and prove it can do so without LeBron. And that is much easier said than done.
Broadly speaking, there are two paths for the Cavs to take. Option A is to try and play the middle ground, to make the best out of the roster as it is now and try to be a playoff team while still, as owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman put it, getting into the player development business. Option B is to tear it down as fast as possible, flipping players like Kevin Love and Kyle Korver and Tristan Thompson and the rest to bottom out and build with youth. There is a way to mix the two, but there is no avoiding leaning into one option or the other.
Option A — which if reports of the Cavs’ desire to keep Kevin Love are to be believed — would seem to be what Cleveland is more likely to do. It’s hard to know exactly what’s next until the Cavs make any free agent moves. Their summer has been entirely quiet post-LeBron, but it seems like the path the organization is prime to take, at least in the short term.
For one, Cleveland is getting a renovated arena, and even if Gilbert isn’t the one paying for all of it, he’d surely like to make money off of it. A 2018-19 Cavs team that brings Love, Smith, Tristan Thompson, George Hill and perhaps Korver to play alongside Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr. and Ante Zizic is a group that a front office could talk itself into being a fringe playoff team if things break right in the weaker Eastern Conference. It’s not a guarantee by any means, and much of the Cavs’ success would hinge on the development of their young pieces, but it’s possible. It also would require the flaws LeBron James covered up — like a lack of other efficient perimeter scorers, cerebral decision makers and the general lack of elite talent — for it to be more manageable than previously thought. There is no way to know if that is 100 percent true until the games are actually played.
The Cavs also have the advantage of knowing that trying to make it work for one year is not a long-term death blow to the their books or rebuilding hopes. Love can opt out of his deal after next season with hopes of landing one last big contract in a summer where a number of teams will have available cap space. Hill, Smith and Korver are both non-guaranteed for 2019-20, so if they stick around for all of next season, it’d be easy to shed their salary and wipe their hands clean with Dan Gilbert’s pocket book a bit lighter, but no one worse for wear.
Thompson and Jordan Clarkson are fully guaranteed through 2020, but aside from their deals, the only current Cavs with guaranteed money on their books after 2020 are Nance Jr. if he signs an extension that both he and the organization are reportedly interested in working out this summer, Rodney Hood if he re-ups with the Cavs on a deal for more than two years, Sexton and Zizic if their team options are picked up and Osman if he comes back to the Cavs after hitting restricted free agency in 2020. That is all likely to be manageable salary and the Cavs should ultimately have a lot of cap space to play with. Which is good, but it’s not likely Cleveland will be able to use that space to incubate a superteam via free agency.
But if Cleveland is good enough to be a playoff team — or even just misses the playoffs — in 2019 or 2020, there is a downside. In acquiring Korver from the Hawks, the Cavs gave up a future first-round pick that is top-10 protected in 2019 and 2020. If it does not covey then, it turns into a second round pick in 2021 and 2022. Not having a pick in either one of those years, even in 2019 when the draft class is expected to be weaker, makes it harder to add a young impact player. And even if Sexton, Osman and Zizic all work out perfectly, it seems unlikely the Cavs’ next star is among that group. High draft picks are the best way to find that type of player and having multiple cracks at picking at the top of the draft is even better.
Ensuring they keep that pick may alone be a good enough reason for the Cavs to pursue option B and pursue their own version of The Process, even if it’s less extreme. Cleveland also owes a second-round pick next year to the Magic, Kings, Knicks or Clippers — it’s complicated — and its 2020 second-round pick to the Hornets. In some way, even if the Cavs keep their first round pick in the next two years, they are going to lose assets. Unless they make moves to acquire more, they are working from a weak position in trying to have as many chances as possible to land good players in the draft. And if the Cavs have an organizational edict to try and win, does that mean Tyronn Lue will have a shorter leash for players like Sexton and Osman when they are likely better served getting live game reps?
If Cleveland does decide to sell, Korver would seem to be the easiest piece to move. Good teams need shooting, and he is a good locker room presence and has a manageable salary for next season. Even if it’s only a few second round picks, that’s good value for a player who is not best used on a team in the Cavs’ current position.
The rest of the roster, though, is more complicated. Finding a trade partner for Love might be tricky enough at his salary and game, but does he have much value on the trade market when there’s a good chance he’d be a rental? Hill might have value to a good team, but he’s making $19 million next season and matching salary could be tricky, especially if the Cavs (rightly) do not want to tie up their future books with bad contracts. Ditto for Smith, who most teams would seem to not want anything to do with. Thompson and Clarkson may be on deals that are untradeable without attaching assets to, and there is no scenario where that would be worth it to the Cavs. Even when it comes to two-way contracts, which the Cavs used on a player not on the roster anymore and a 29-year-old guard, it should be about higher-upside pieces that could be rotation pieces in a year or two; that is at least one way to mitigate the potential losses of multiple second-round picks in a row.
Koby Altman’s best option, if he gets Dan Gilbert’s blessing to actively bottom out, would be to find teams that want to flip contracts in the next year and are willing to take send out assets to do so. Maybe the Cavs and Nuggets could work something out where the Cavs take back Kenneth Faried and a pick. Maybe the Thunder would want to add Love to their core in exchange for Carmelo Anthony, with the understanding the Cavs would buy out Melo once the deal is complete. Maybe Altman wants to go all-in on assets and could get the Grizzlies to do a Love-Chandler Parsons swap where Cleveland gets multiple picks back in return.
These are all hypotheticals, but they are ways the Cavs would have to restock their war chest. Unlike the Bulls or Hawks or Kings, they do not have the requisite cap space to absorb bad contracts in exchange for picks. And if it also nets the Cavs high lottery picks in the next two years, that’s even better.
For Cleveland, this is also a chance to do things differently than the last time LeBron left, when it took several lucky lottery trips (and LeBron coming back) for the franchise to become relevant again. This time around, with James closer to the end of his career than the beginning, there is no guarantee he comes back and no guarantee that his return would elevate the franchise in the same way it did in 2014. For the Cavs to have even a shot of hitting heights it has never seen without LeBron, or even getting close, it has to build the right way. The first step is choosing the path they feel is best.
Correction: A previously version of this article indicated that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert was not paying for any of the renovations; he is in fact paying for approximately $80 million.