- LeBron James could leave the Cleveland Cavaliers in free agency this summer.
- The Cavaliers went all-in around James, signing important players to big contracts to keep together a championship contender.
- If James leaves, the Cavs will be stuck with those contracts and will likely have to wait out a slow rebuild.
The Cleveland Cavaliers season is all but finished, as they trail 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals – a lead that has never been overcome in NBA history.
The Cavs are now on the clock for what could be a franchise-altering summer, as LeBron James hits free agency and could leave Cleveland for the second time in his career.
The Cavs have known James leaving again was a possibility all along, so they tried to build the best team around him for the past four years. It’s tough to build a team ready to win now but also prepared for the future, and James has caused some of this problem. James has continually taken one-year deals, both as a means to maximise his earnings and keep the pressure on the team to keep them from getting content.
But if James leaves this summer, the situation is particularly bleak for Cleveland because of the way they built the team around James.
With a few high-salary stars – James, Kevin Love, and previously Kyrie Irving – teams like the Cavs have little choice but to re-sign valuable role players because they have few methods of replacing them. In the case of the Cavs, that meant handing out large contracts to players who played important complementary roles to their stars.
Four years, $US82 million to Tristan Thompson. Four years, $US57 million to J.R. Smith. They had previously re-signed Iman Shumpert to a $US40 million contract, though he was traded to the Sacramento Kings this season.
The Cavs’ trade-deadline-blowup brought back several high-salary players as well. George Hill signed a three-year, $US57 million contract last summer. Jordan Clarkson signed a four-year, $US50 million contract in 2016.
The Cavs have swallowed the tax penalties for carrying such salaries because James has proven to be a walking Finals appearance. But what happens if the league’s most dominant player walks away? The Cavs will be left with a stack of salaries, a middling team, and few ways out of the mess other than just waiting.
If James departs this offseason, the Cavs may look to trade Love. Love is due another $US50 million over the next two years and may not be a good enough individual talent to bring the Cavs much more than a low playoff seed. Love is perhaps the only player on the roster for which the Cavs could receive value in a trade.
Likewise, the Cavs would have an incentive to be bad if James leaves. Their 2019 draft pick is top-10 protected but goes to the Atlanta Hawks if it falls outside of the top 10. If James goes to another team, the Cavs will want that pick to land in the top 10 to kickstart a rebuild.
Ridding themselves of James and Love’s salaries would clear up nearly $US60 million for this offseason (though it would depend on who the Cavs got in return in a Love trade), but the Cavs wouldn’t be in any position to be much of a free agent market. It would be difficult to trade the contracts of Hill, Thompson, and Smith without giving up something like a future pick, a move no team facing a rebuild should ever do.
In the end, the Cavs will have almost no choice but to be patient and wait out some of these contracts. Salary-cap relief could finally come in 2020, but that would essentially be the start of the rebuild – the point at which the Cavs can rid themselves of some of those deals, and build around players they have drafted while making free-agent signings.
It’s a harsh reality for a team that has ruled a conference for four years, but few perennial championship contenders have ever had a smooth fall from grace.
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