There is no turning back for the Cleveland Cavaliers this off-season. With LeBron James now a Laker, the team must make moves to either contend for a playoff spot, or to improve their position in next year’s draft.
Like in 2010, the remnants of the roster don’t make a ton of sense without James as the catalyst. However, unlike 2010, the team is actually in a far better position to make a turnaround.
The one plus one deals that LeBron signed with the team made it necessary for the franchise to have contingency plans in place. From the contracts they signed, to the protections on future picks, both David Griffin and Koby Altman insulated the team from another potential exit.
So with that in mind, here are some steps and decisions the Cavs will have to make this off-season.
Figure out what’s best for Kevin Love
Imagine if someone told you in 2014 that Kevin Love was going to outlast both Kyrie Irving and LeBron James in Cleveland. The Kevin Love era may not make it to the start of preseason, but we are firmly in it now.
Love has shown tremendous professionalism and a willingness to adapt throughout his time with the Cavs. He currently has two-years left on his contract, but has a player option for the 2019-20 season.
Many teams are scrambling to create cap space next season and some will be left without any big names in the first few days of free agency. This could present an opportunity for Love to go out and secure one last payday, especially if he builds off one of the most efficient years of his career.
While at this point it’s clear Love can’t be your best player on a contender, that won’t stop some teams from making him their marquee signing. Some markets just want to get over the hump and get into the playoffs, or would value a player of his caliber to help along their development.
The Cavs position of weakness probably hurts his trade value, but on the open market he could be in the position Amare Stoudimire was in during the 2010 summer, where he was the Knicks marquee signing after missing out on bigger names.
But it’s possible that Love may not want to go through all of the hoopla of free agency. He was content during his time in Minnesota before ownership made it clear that they didn’t value his contributions. With his trade value likely low around the league, the Cavs may want to see if he would have any interest in an extension.
The stability and security of an extension may have some appeal to Love, but it would be important for the team to be upfront about what comes next. At this point, there are no good options available in free agency even if the team managed to clear space. Plus if the Cavs move the players with partial to non-guaranteed deals in 2019-20, it’ll hurt the team’s ability to compete even further.
Which brings me to my next step. If Love is unwilling to sign an extension, the Cavs might be forced to move on from him. Whether it be during the summer or at the deadline, you can’t afford to lose him for absolutely nothing.
But whether or not he’s part of the plan, the next step with this team is clear. J.R. Smith, George Hill, and Kyle Korver all have partially guaranteed contracts in 2019-20. The way their contracts are structured makes them an attractive chip for teams that are looking to create space for next summer.
Smith in particular is an interesting trade piece because his current salary was signed prior to the new CBA. What that means is that his non-guaranteed salary still able to be used in salary matching in a trade.
The Cavs have an opportunity to take on some long-term money in exchange for a fee of young players or draft picks. Ideally the long-term contracts wouldn’t be as large as the outgoing players and the difference would be made up by additional young players, or short contracts. Either way, it would help restock the cupboard alongside the young assets in Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood and Ante Zizic.
If Love is part of your plans, you make it clear that you will manage his minutes throughout this season and that his role is to help mentor the young talent. Should he deal with any injuries, you shut him down and exercise extreme caution.
We saw with the Memphis Grizzlies last season that you can still be incredibly bad with an All-Star big man if you don’t surround them with veterans. Allowing Sexton, Osman and the other young players make mistakes but not asking them too much by playing with Love as a workhorse could pay-off with long-term benefits.
As it currently stands, the Cavs only have $43,193,773 million in guaranteed salary for the 2019-20 season. That number doesn’t reflect the rookie contract of Sexton, the likely Rodney Hood contract, or the player option on Love’s contract. But the point is that the Cavs aren’t far from being out of salary cap hell and have the flexibility to make moves.
If the team can successfully pitch a developmental year to Love, the franchise can return to competitiveness in the near future. Taking a step back and evaluating the position the team is in can’t lead to any conclusion other than the inevitability of a development year.
Even if Dan Gilbert wants to make the playoffs, the Cavs only have two assets that could potentially net a talent that will impact the win total. Sexton, who is clearly part of the team’s future and unlikely to be put in trade talks. The other piece would be Love, who would not net someone that is equally talented, forget elevate the team beyond where they would be with him.
The best possible move for the Cavs would be to negotiate an extension for Love, move their non-guaranteed deals and try to find a new home for Jordan Clarkson. From there the team can try to form an offense around Love, where the young players are allowed to make mistakes within a system.
As long as the team finishes within the bottom six, the team will have between a 9-14 percent chance to win the draft lottery. With many of the bottom feeders from last season looking like they are on the come up, it shouldn’t be difficult for the Cavs to keep their top 10 protected pick and finish with a good chance at winning the lottery.
From there the Cavs can add another young talent to play with Sexton and Love, and hopefully be a minor player in free agency to help build a strong supporting cast around them. Not to mention any additional assets acquired by moving Hill, Smith, and Korver.
Unless they hit the lotto with the 2019 pick, this likely won’t be a path back to contention. But it would show stability and be the first steps to developing a team culture and identity outside of LeBron James.
With Love, the Cavs can try to be like last year’s Brooklyn Nets who were lean on talent, but ran cohesive sets and prioritized developing their talent properly. As a partner in the high pick and roll, Love could allow Sexton to have room to operate and not put him in a situation where he has to take bad shots out of necessity.
It’s an opportunity for the team to present long-term stability to it’s remaining All-Star and do right by him with an extension. Should he want to leave, the team should obviously accommodate him. But to not explore an extension and simply look to tear everything down would be repeating the mistakes of the past. It’s time for the Cavaliers to establish some roots and why not start with Love?