Despite stealing the 2016 NBA championship from the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, the Cleveland Cavaliers were exposed by this year’s iteration. With Kevin Durant in tow, the Warriors blitzed the entire NBA with defense-shifting three-point shooting, positionless versatility on defensive, and selfless shot-creation. The Cavaliers once conquered the Warriors, but this year’s Warriors were a different animal. Now, LeBron James finds himself in the twilight of his career and approaching free agency in 2018. The Cavaliers must compete for championships in order to ensure James stays. Here are three ways they can do just that this off-season.
- Run it back.The Cavaliers will open the summer with $144,867,745 committed to the roster for next season, which is $42,867,745 over the salary cap and $22,867,745 over the luxury tax. This figure includes free agent cap holds for Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, Derrick Williams and Dahntay Jones as well as the non-guaranteed deals for rookie Kay Felder and Edy Tavares.
Of their free agents, the Cavaliers only own Bird Rights for Kyle Korver, meaning they can go above the salary cap to sign him without using one of their salary cap exceptions. Speaking of salary cap exceptions, the Cavaliers will have only be able to add players to the roster by using the Taxpayer Mid-Level Salary exception of $5,192,000 and the Minimum Player Salary exception.
All of this is to say that the Cavaliers have a huge need to improve, but are strapped when it comes to their means to do so. They need a backup point guard, and can go look on the scrap heap for one or wait until March 1st to claim one off of waivers. If they want to use their Taxpayer Mid-Level on someone from this free agent class, they may be better off pursuing defensive wings like Tony Allen, Luc Mbah a Moute, or Thabo Sefolosha.
The Cavaliers may determine that those small upgrades to positions of weakness may be enough to challenge the Warriors. However, they may not clearly swing the championship needle toward the Cavaliers while still triggering crippling taxpayer repeater penalties.
- Trade Love.An admittedly flashier option would be the Cavaliers finally pulling the trigger on the Kevin Love trade rumored to be forthcoming literally right up until the Cavaliers pulled out a championship last June. The Cavaliers may say to themselves that they cannot compete with the Warriors unless they have another elite-level perimeter defender and scorer. Perhaps they call up the Indiana Pacers, who are struggling with the impending free agency of Paul George, and offer Love in exchange for the embattled star.
The move would give the Pacers an excellent complement to Myles Turner down low as well as an All-Star caliber player to keep them in the playoff picture. The Cavaliers would downsize to a smaller starting five of Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, Paul George, LeBron James, and Tristan Thompson. In a potential Finals rematch with the Warriors they could stick Paul George on Kevin Durant and free James to roam off of Draymond Green. While his move is no magic elixir and still subjects the Cavaliers to Paul George’s 2018 free agency, the same year LeBron James is a free agent, it makes matching up against the Warriors less complicated. George, when engaged, gives the Cavaliers an elite-level perimeter defender, a good stand still shooter and an excellent one-on-one player who may yearn for the relevancy playing with the Cavaliers would bring him.
- Trade Kevin Love AND Tristan Thompson
This one is undoubtedly more stupid, but much more fun to think about. The Cavaliers could execute the same trade listed above, but also turn to the New York Knicks and offer Tristan Thompson (making $16,400,000 next season) for Carmelo Anthony (making $26,243,760). Due to their cap situation, the Cavaliers would have to throw in extra salary to make the deal work. Channing Frye’s $7,420,912 salary does the trick.
The swap would allow the Knicks to move on from the Carmelo Anthony era and move forward with Tristan Thompson, a peculiar fit in the Triangle Offense but theoretically a nice partner as a bruiser alongside the lankier, thinner Kristaps Porzingis. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, would be able to go small and fill the last big man spot just as the Warriors did last year by using one of their exceptions on a free agent big man. Say they sign Nene to the Taxpayer Mid-Level and trot out a starting five of Irving, George, James, Anthony and Nene. These moves allow the Cavaliers to keep Shumpert, Smith, and maybe Korver as wings off the bench, while Anthony would basically occupy the role he had gunning for the U.S. Olympic team. Come June, this made up Cavaliers team that would totally never happen could run and gun right with the Warriors.