It’s no secret that the Cleveland Cavaliers are not having the type of season they wanted in the post-LeBron James era. Kevin Love’s early injury combined with their protected obligation to the Atlanta Hawks changed the franchise’s trajectory significantly – younger players are getting more opportunity as the team forgoes wins over the next two years (at least) in an attempt to restock the cupboard moving forward. The Cavaliers are firmly in asset accumulation mode, as evidenced by their trades this season and the other moves that have yet to be made between now and the trade deadline Feb. 7. With that in mind, it’s always good to take stock of the assets the team already has under their control, which will help to shape their decision making over the next few years.
Tier 1 – Nearly Untradeable:
Nobody and nothing in the NBA is truly untradeable, though there are a handful of top-end players who are so close to that mark that they might as well be there. That said, when a team goes into a rebuilding phase, their highly-drafted young players and own future first-round picks are worth their weight in gold. Draft assets are the lifeblood of any rebuilding team and those opportunities to choose a player in the top-10 of a few drafts in a row become the fuel for their next great team. Cleveland’s particular rebuilding timetable becomes even more obvious when their obligation to Atlanta is taken into consideration: they’ll owe the Hawks their first-round pick if it’s outside the top ten in either 2019 or 2020, but that converts to two second-round picks if they’re inside the top ten both years.
Unless something goes horribly wrong with a whole bunch of the teams above them, their 2019 pick is safe, and they’ll likely go through a similar situation next year in order to salvage that 2020 pick as well. With that as the backdrop, the Cavaliers have three nearly untradeable assets: Their 2019 first-rounder, their 2020 first-rounder and Collin Sexton, who still has three years after this one left on his rookie scale contract before he hits restricted free agency.
While nothing is set in stone, Sexton looks to be the biggest part of their future among their current roster. That may change in the future as they continue through their rebuild, but for now, Sexton has to be included at the top.
Tier 2 – Clear Positives:
This tier is reserved for players and assets that are absolute positives but aren’t necessarily as untradeable as their most recent and upcoming first-round picks. On most teams, this grouping would be set aside for young players who aren’t necessarily part of the club’s long-term core, future draft picks that are more than a couple years out, and any veterans who are on good contracts. Unfortunately for Cleveland, they only have two of those three things, and only one youngster who qualifies as a clear positive asset. Cedi Osman has another year after this one at $2.9 million before he is eligible for restricted free agency, which should either keep the young Turk in a Cavaliers uniform through the mid-2020s or generate a good return in a trade.
Outside of Osman, however, there’s really nobody else on the roster would qualifies as a clearly positive asset; the rest of this tier is made up by their other owned first-round picks, which include all of their own from 2021 and beyond in addition to the protected first-rounder they picked up from the Milwaukee Bucks in their recent trade to acquire John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova.
Tier 3 – Slight Positives:
Not all of these players are able to be traded, but they’re still able to be categorized as positives based on where they would be if they were able to be moved. The largest tier by far, the Cavaliers have a host of slight positives, including Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Channing Frye, David Nwaba, Ante Zizic, Jalen Jones, Jared Blossomgame and all of their second-round picks, of which there are as many as 11, though it’s more likely that they have six, as a few of those are either top-55 protected or are tied up in other trades and aren’t likely to remain with the Cavaliers. Among the players, this group is a hodge-podge of lower-end young guys (Zizic, Nwaba), expiring veterans (Burks, Hood, Frye), and the two-way guys (Jones, Blossomgame). None of these players have a ton of value on the trade market due to their particular skill sets or the contracts they’re currently on, but none would have to be attached to an asset to move, either.
Of this tier, Burks is perhaps the most interesting because of what he can bring back in a trade. His $11.5 million expiring salary can be used by Cleveland to acquire a player (or players) making up to $16.5 million this season, but the key for the Cavaliers will be how much future money they’re willing to take. There are plenty of mid-tier contracts out there which run past the end of this season and there should be teams out there who are willing to part with an extra first-round pick to get off some 2019-20 money as they gear up for a free agency chase this summer.
None of Cleveland’s second-round picks are particularly juicy. Usually, a team near the bottom of the standings would have use of their own second-rounders, but the Cavaliers have long since moved those selections in prior trades. Their 2019 pick could go to any one of four different teams, but it won’t stay home no matter what at this point, while their 2020 pick will go to Charlotte. The 2019 pick dates back to their acquisition of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in 2015, while the 2020 pick was used as compensation to Orlando when they acquired Channing Frye in 2016. Should they complete their mission of retaining the protected first-rounder they owe Atlanta, the downside will be that these two second-rounders will also be within the top 40.
Tier 4 – Slight Negatives:
Now we’re getting into the bottom end of things, which is where a lot of Cleveland’s veterans reside. They had to spend the money in the James era to retain their veteran players, but when the club makes a jarring shift from title contender to bottom feeder, it does leave them with a lot of excess money on their books to players who are no longer part of their present or future. In this tier, we find a quartet of big men: Tristan Thompson, John Henson, Larry Nance and Kevin Love. Thompson and Henson are relatively straightforward; they’re both useful players on their contracts, but aren’t bringing enough to the table to create value in a trade. On the right team, Thompson would be a strong piece — one of my favorite pre-John Wall injury trades for Washington was Thompson for Ian Mahinmi and a first-round pick. Henson is in the same boat but makes far less money. (Editor’s note: The Fear the Sword Slack channel was not about this trade - CM)
Nance and Love being included here and not in the tier above is perhaps the most difficult decision on the board. Nance’s four-year, $45-million extension doesn’t kick in until next season, which means he’s subject to the Poison Pill Provision in trades. Cleveland counts him at his $2.3 million salary for 2018-19, but he counts at the average of his total committed money for a team trading for him, or $9.5 million. This difference makes it much more difficult to trade him, and that’s before you get into whether or not he’s actually worth the $45 million the Cavaliers (or another team) owes him moving forward. In a league that’s consistently going smaller and smaller and where centers are a dime a dozen, does Nance bring enough to the floor for a team to actively want to take on his salary? I’d say no, but it only takes one other team to fall in love with him.
Like Nance, Love is right on the tipping point between positive and negative. At his best, he’s an all-world offensive role player, capable of fitting in just about anywhere — he can post-up, pass, and be the fulcrum of a team’s offense for stretches and he can space to the three-point line and even hit shots on the move. There are few big men in the league with as versatile an offensive skill set, but he has to be healthy enough to be on the floor first. He’s played just four games this year and while he’s ramping his activity up to return (conveniently, a few weeks before the trade deadline), there are significant questions about his health and how much a team can rely on him at his inflated salary figure over the next four years. And that’s before you get into his defensive limitations, which are more easily exposed against the best teams in the later rounds of the playoffs. This makes the window for which teams would trade for Love relatively narrow – a contending team would need to have a hole at the power forward spot, enough defensive stability around him to compensate for his weaknesses, and the right matching salary and assets to make it worthwhile for Cleveland.
If that team is out there, then it’s likely Love will generate a positive return in a trade, but the scarcity of those teams pushes him further toward the negative side in my evaluation.
Tier 5 – Clear Negatives:
The remaining three players on the Cavaliers’ books lie here: J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson and Matthew Dellavedova. Once a key part of their run to the championship in 2016, Smith’s hardly played for the Cavaliers this season and there are questions around the league as to whether he still has it in him to be even a fringe rotation player at the NBA level. Heavily reliant on his three-point shooting and contested shotmaking, his athleticism isn’t what it used to be and teams are able to pick on him more defensively than they did just two or three years ago. The saving grace for Smith here is that his contract is only partially guaranteed for $3.87 million next season, so a team can trade for him and cut him loose in the summer before his full guarantee triggers.
Dellavedova was moved to Cleveland along with that protected first-rounder, and while he’s shown some flashes of competence in his return, nobody is banging down Koby Altman’s door looking to bring him in. Clarkson’s inclusion should surprise nobody, he’s making nearly $26 million over the next two years and is an actively horrid basketball player with very little future value. The combination of player and contract makes Clarkson quite easily the most destructive liability on Cleveland’s books.
There’s still quite a lot of time for players to move up and down the tiers as we move closer to the trade deadline. Thompson and Love in particular are two players who could see their value rise as the calendar flips to February and contending teams are more desperate for talent to capitalize on an upcoming playoff run. The Western Conference couldn’t be much tighter, with 14 of the 15 teams within reach of the playoffs. Should that trend continue, there may be a number of buyers in the West who would be willing to bid against one another for Cleveland’s players, despite the future cost.