So LeBron is gone – bummer. It was a good run, mostly. Maybe not as good as it could’ve been, but still more than anyone could have expected after LeBron bolted to Miami the first time around.
Clearly, Cleveland has to blow their roster up. Any attempt to compete with 2018 Kevin Love as your first option is going to fail miserably. Cleveland doesn’t have much flexibility in free agency due to the contracts they were forced to sign to keep LeBron happy and because of the restrictions of being over the soft salary cap during their eventual run to the Cavaliers’ first NBA Title in 2016. Cavs fans will certainly tell you it was worth it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t have the smallest feeling of sour grapes when I saw he was giving LA a 4 year deal instead of his typical 1 year + a player option deal that he used to keep Cleveland in line, possibly to the team’s detriment.
Still, there’s no doubt the positives of having LeBron far outweigh the baggage that comes with him, and I’ll surely miss rooting for him in a way that won’t be possible as he puts on a Lakers uniform. That being said, the Cavaliers could be in a lot worse spot assuming that you know they will be tanking. They have some assets, some good expiring contracts, and they are a year ahead of the game, as normally a team in their position would only have the #29 pick instead of #8 pick Collin Sexton.
There are a thousand different ways to skin this rabbit, but I’d like to lay out my preferred plan as it comes into my head in the first hours of a new era in Cleveland.
- Keep Kevin Love, for now. In the NBA playing and putting up numbers as a second fiddle to LeBron James in high pressure moments is a whole different ballgame than putting up those same numbers on a bad team. Nobody has a more perfect career path to demonstrate that than Love. For really no cost outside his $24.1M salary the Cavs can make him the #1 option and showcase that he does have value on a team that doesn’t have LeBron calling the shots. Love also has another year on his deal, so any team trading for him would have control of him through June 2020, meaning he could return considerable value to the Cavs. Cleveland could also double up by getting a return on Love’s value and at the same time taking on a bad contract for extra assets.
- Set a deadline, obtain bad contracts for assets. With the 2020 draft set to be extremely talented as the “One and done” rule is eliminated and essentially allows two classes of blue chip prospects into one class, and with the odds of winning top picks flattening out as the NBA changes the percentages for the worst teams, obtaining as many lottery picks in that draft should be CLE’s #1 goal. After Love, their #1 asset is going to be their willingness to acquire bad contracts in exchange for future assets from teams trying to compete right now. Luckily, that have some attractive deals.
For example: a team looking to open up money for a max slot to sign Kahwi Leonard next summer could trade over $15M in salary to Cleveland for JR Smith, and attach a 1st round pick to facilitate it. That team could then cut JR for only $3.87M and open up over $11M in cap space immediately. This is valuable because most contracts are fully guaranteed. But that’s not even CLE’s most tradeable contract. George Hill is set to earn $18M in 2019/20 with only $1M guaranteed. Cleveland should be able to easily get a first round pick out of each of those deals, and if they play their cards right they could get a pick from a team hopeful to sign a big free agent, only to strike out, increasing the value of the pick they traded away.
As long as Cleveland maintains flexibility entering the 2020/21 season, if that is their target, there is essentially no cost to these moves. Cleveland has only $3.8M committed for 2020/21, so they have an enormous amount of cap flexibility even outside of Hill and Smith’s contracts to absorb bad deals for profit. Tristan Thompson and Jordan Clarkson’s contracts expire leading into that year and would again be very tradeable as teams look to open slots for stars in free agency.
- Trust The Process. Koby Altman needs to channel his inner Sam Hinkie and not be afraid to be bad and to make a lot of deals. Playing young players like Collin Sexton, Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Larry Nance Jr can not only help them develop but also show the league that they have assets with real value.
If Cleveland has the stones to be bad and to be ruthless in the way Hinkie was as he traded and bartered his way to the biggest war chest in the NBA, they can flip Love and four or five bad contract acquisitions into a handful of first round picks along with their own two firsts which should be in the top 5, and Collin Sexton who now becomes the first piece in a total roster rebuild. If done right Cleveland only needs to be a bottom feeder for two years, and even then there is no lost year like the last time LeBron left, leaving the Cavs with no lotto pick and the longest losing streak in NBA history at the time. As long as Cleveland commits to a real rebuild, this attempted turnaround should be much less painful than in the past. And if not, who knows, LeBron James Jr is draft eligible in 2026.