It’s not pretty in Cleveland. It never is when a team bottoms out after multiple Finals runs and a championship. Of course, the Cavaliers are happy to pay this price for their 2016 triumph, but their future-facing outlook is still relatively ugly, at least for one more season. The remnants of the LeBron James era are evident up and down the roster, as the team is currently projected to be into the luxury tax despite being one of the worst teams in the league next season. By the end of the regular season (when the tax is calculated), there’s almost no chance they’ll still be in the tax, but it’s going to take multiple moves to get under the projected $132 million threshold.
The first is most obvious – J.R. Smith’s contract is guaranteed for $3.87 million if he’s waived before June 30. Whether it’s Cleveland or another team, Smith will not make it through that deadline with his contract intact. His deal is grandfathered in under the 2011 CBA and represents an interesting opportunity for the Cavaliers to make a trade with a team looking to cut salary to pick up another asset, but Cleveland’s proximity to the luxury tax makes a move dubious. There were some rumblings from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Smith might be moved during the draft, but no such move came about and there have been no further reports of discussions between the Cavaliers and other teams surrounding Smith’s contract.
Cleveland, after massive spending throughout the James era, is staring down the barrel of the repeater tax if they’re over the tax threshold this season, which makes it all the more important for them to get out from under it. Cutting Smith themselves leaves them just a projected $814,122 above the tax line, though that also leaves them with just 13 players on the roster and includes no money for restricted free agent David Nwaba. Trading Smith for a player making somewhere in the $15 million range would make things very, very difficult on general manager Koby Altman to get out of the tax, even if he has until the trade deadline to do so. Add in a $4 million salary for Nwaba and, say, the salary for Charlotte’s Bismack Biyombo, who would be a perfect trade target for the Cavaliers if they’re willing to take on the extra expense, and the Cavaliers are nearly $18 million over the tax threshold – the only way out of that would be to trade multiple players for no returning salary or find a new home for Kevin Love.
Love’s play against his contract really stretches the theory that a player can be so good his contract essentially doesn’t matter, a line of thought I’ve written about extensively in the last few weeks with respect to Mike Conley, who fetched a very positive return in a trade to Utah despite likely being a slight negative on his contract in a vacuum. Love is in a similar situation; he’s a very, very good player who’s slightly overpaid at $30 million a season, but it’s the length on his contract that makes him a difficult player to trade. With four years and $120.4 million owed to him on an extension signed last offseason and already coming up on his age-31 season, the gulf between what another team is willing to give up for him and how Cleveland views him and his contract may be too wide to bridge at this point. Is there a team out there willing to give up a Conley-like package for Love: a pair of first-round picks, a young guy, and whatever salary filler is necessary? Portland could have considered that during the draft before taking Nassir Little at No. 25, though having Little fall into their laps there when he was projected to go in the lottery makes that pick much harder to trade in the moment. Love’s value should be lower than Conley’s, considering the extra two years on his contract, his injury history, and the general theme that a primary ball handler like Conley is consistently more valuable than a power forward like Love.
As much as it seems like a squandered opportunity for Cleveland, the likely path for them is to cut Smith before the June 30 deadline, then find another small move to get out from under the tax around the deadline, though the four second-rounders they sent to Detroit for Kevin Porter Jr. may make that a little bit more difficult. They still have six seconds to send out over the next seven drafts, though none are available before 2022.
One positive for the Cavaliers is that their roster, even without Smith, is relatively well-balanced. As things stand, they have five guards, four wings (including Nwaba), and four bigs, leaving them with two roster spots to grab at least one more wing, preferably someone who can swing between the 3 and 4 at the Forward spot. The last spot is up in the air – they don’t have to fill it if they would like to cut down on their salary expenditures and make ducking the tax easier, or they can go for a guard or wing who can create for his teammates.
The two largest holes, from a talent perspective, on the Cleveland roster are playmaking and defense. How many above-average passers do the Cavaliers have? Love and Nance can make plays from the elbow and are solid playmakers for their position, which makes them very useful offensively in the modern NBA. The rest of the roster, however, is completely barren in this department – all three of their draft picks are below-average passers and very few of their projected rotation players are good or even willing passers. Garland and Collin Sexton are their projected starters at the guard positions, and while each player can space the floor while the other creates, neither are good passers at this stage in their NBA careers. Of the reserve guards (Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson, Matthew Dellavedova), only Dellavedova is a half-decent passer, though he comes with all sorts of other offensive liabilities. On the wing, neither Windler nor Porter Jr. project to be good playmakers any time soon. Cedi Osman is fine, but certainly not a primary creator.
Perhaps they have enough secondary playmaking and shooting to make it work. John Beilein’s offensive system relies on multiple ball handlers and playmaking across the board but doesn’t necessarily need one primary playmaker to orchestrate the offense. They may be able to get enough elbow playmaking from Love and Nance to make it work, but the overall lack of playmaking on the roster is a concern.
Wing defense is going to be an issue for the Cavaliers in 2019-20, as their wings are relatively undersized. Osman is playing up a position at the 3 and none of the Windler/Porter/Nwaba trio profile as wing stoppers. Nwaba is probably the best defender on the team, but doesn’t have the requisite size to guard the best wings in the league; and nearly every good team has a very good, big wing these days.
Getting better is going to be a slow process for the Cavaliers. They’re very early in their rebuild and they should have three goals for the 2019-20 season – develop the young guys, be bad enough to not risk giving up their top-ten protected first-rounder to the New Orleans Pelicans, and duck the tax at some point before the trade deadline. Whether they win 20 games or 25 games or 30 games doesn’t really matter, as long as they can develop and evaluate their core to figure out just who is going to be a part of their long-term future.