The Decision, Part III. LeBron James is once again a free agent, for the third time in the past eight years, and once again he holds the league at his fingertips, tipping the scales of power to the team to which he takes his talents. Unlike in 2010 and 2014, when there were many teams who thought themselves to be in the running for James’ signature and a further few who were waiting to see where he went to move on to other targets with their cap space, it seems as though it’s been narrowed down to three options before free agency even opens: the Los Angeles Lakers, the Philadelphia 76ers, and his incumbent Cleveland Cavaliers. The Lakers have a young team that’s clearly not ready to be a Finals contender but can bring in another max star with James, though progression on that front has been slower than many had hoped in Lakerland. The 76ers are the best basketball fit, but this decision is about more than just what happens on the court. The Cavaliers have been home for 11 years (in two stints) and have all the advantages of his full Bird rights, but also retain a roster full of aging veterans on bloated contracts. Those three teams will wait with bated breath for his final decision.
The Cavaliers have three unique paths in front of them, depending on the result of James’ choice. If he returns, they’re immediately back in the hunt for a fifth consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals. If he leaves, they can regroup with a free agent signing or two to attempt to be competitive, or they can tear things down to the best of their ability and start over.
Should he choose to remain in Cleveland, the Cavaliers would be cash-strapped to add talent around him, with just the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception available and a repeater tax bill ahead of them, essentially creating nearly $5 in extra tax payments for ever dollar they give a free agent. While there are names that would make sense for the Cavaliers at the $5.3 million mini mid-level, are any of those players worth more than $30 million of Dan Gilbert’s money? That would be the question the Cavaliers’ owner would have to answer and he’s the only one who knows just how far into the tax he’s willing to go. On the one hand, basketball logic states you do whatever you have to do to build a contender around perhaps the greatest player of all time, but that’s easy to say when it’s not your $30 million going out the door for Joe Harris, James Ennis, Aron Baynes, or Mike Scott.
A more likely path to building a James-led contender is to find a trade with the pieces they have on the roster. There aren’t many players on the roster with positive-value contracts, but Kevin Love stands out as the best of the bunch and could fetch a decent return on the open market. Past that, it falls to the bottom of the roster, where guys like recent draftee Collin Sexton, sophomore Cedi Osman, and Larry Nance have the most trade value. Perhaps the Cavaliers’ most agonizing result of James’ decision would be a 1+1 with the Cavaliers, as they’d once again have to weigh mortgaging the future to please James, in fear of him leaving again in 2019. Already out a protected first-round pick used to bring in Kyle Korver, the Cavaliers don’t have a ton of assets with which to work and quite a few players making too much money at the top of the roster.
Remaining competitive in a post-James world would be the middle ground that ends poorly for everybody involved. That protected first has top-10 protection the next two years, at which point it becomes two second-rounders—a team built around Love and whomever the Cavaliers could get with their newly-available non-taxpayer mid-level exception would likely compete in the playoff picture, which would be just good enough to give away that pick to the Atlanta Hawks without really being a strong contender at the top of the East, especially if James chooses Philadelphia and Boston continues to loom as the next great team to take the mantle from Golden State. There would be players available to them with their mid-level exception: shooters Doug McDermott and Will Barton and playmakers Tyreke Evans and Rajon Rondo would fit well enough, plus Rodney Hood could be retained in restricted free agency. It’s by far the ugliest path for the Cavaliers, who would do well to sell off what they can and bottom out if James doesn’t return.
The important aspect of the Cavaliers’ fire sale would be to ensure they got rid of as many players as possible. Their attention would immediately turn to retaining that top-10 protected pick the next two years and developing their young players. The playmaking reins would go to Sexton, surrounded by Osman, Nance, and Ante Zizic. Any young players they received in a trade for their top-end talent would be in serious consideration for playing time, but the point remains—if James leaves, being as bad as possible is the best path for the Cavaliers’ long-term health. Love would absolutely generate a positive return in a trade, though it’s not clear whether George Hill, J.R. Smith, and Kyle Korver fall on the positive or negative side of Cleveland’s ledger. All three are partially- or non-guaranteed for 2019-20, essentially turning them into expiring contracts for a team acquiring them for the upcoming season. Hill is a capable playmaker and defender, but his inconsistencies and lack of upside as a full-time ball handler limit his value to a team without a primary creator on the wing. His theoretical fit with James was perfect—he could focus his efforts on spot-up shooting, occasional secondary playmaking, and strong point-of-attack defense—but there aren’t many situations like that around the league. Smith, despite his Game 1 gaffe, is still a strong three-point shooter and bucket-getter but is certainly overpaid at nearly $15 million for 2018-19. Korver brings his gravity and spacing to any offense, but there are fair questions being asked about a potential decline in his already limited athleticism and how that would affect his ability to get open on the perimeter. Any Finals contender also has to think about his performances against the Golden State Warriors, who haven’t let him get loose in more than three years against both Atlanta and Cleveland.
Whichever direction the Cavaliers go, watch for Smith to be traded around this time next year, rather than prior to the 2019 trade deadline. One of the few remaining contracts with non-guaranteed years signed before the 2017 CBA took effect, he’ll count for his full $15.7 million in trade math next summer, but any receiving team could immediately cut him with no additional money owed on top of his $3.9 million guarantee. Hill and Korver, on the other hand, will only count for their guaranteed amounts in trades, so it would be to Cleveland’s advantage to search out trades for them before the 2019 deadline if that’s the path they choose to take.
There are many permutations of the Cavaliers’ offseason, which will begin with hopes of another Finals run with LeBron James at the helm and could end with Collin Sexton and Cleveland’s other young players ta(n)king the team into the top ten of the 2019 draft, with anything in between deemed a failure.