In the post haze of a brilliant playoff run before running into the uber-talented Warriors the Cleveland Cavaliers must be left to ponder the question of how do they unseat the newly crowned NBA champions.
That is easier said than done. Encumbered by the restraints of the NBA salary cap rules the Cavaliers are left with few outlets with which to improve the overall depth of their roster. Following a year in which owner Dan Gilbert wrote the checks for the highest payroll in the history of the National Basketball Association, the Cavs now must figure out how to reload.
With 8 players signed on for the 2017-2018 season with guaranteed contracts, not including the partially guaranteed contract of 2016 2nd round draft pick, the diminutive Kay Felder (Felder is due approximately $1.3 million if he makes the team, and $465,000 if he doesn’t), the Cavaliers are already poised to blow passed not only the league salary cap, but also the tax paying threshold.
As it stands, to bring back the band will cost about $126 million dollars, and that accounts for only about 3/5ths of a legal NBA roster. The good news is that the 8 guys signed on are capable of making another run through the Eastern Conference and a chance to square off with the Warriors. The bad news is, based upon the Finals series just witnessed, it doesn’t appear capable of bringing the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Northeast Ohio, barring injuries or Kevin Durant and Steph Curry getting marooned on Gilligan’s Island.
Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love are a more than solid start when figuring out a roster. But combined the trio will account for $74.7 million in cap space this upcoming season. Paying an average of $25 million a player for that trio is more than fiscally responsible, its a bargain by today’s salary structure standards.
The issue rears its ugly head when examining the middle class of Cleveland’s roster. Tristan Thompson ($16.4), J.R. Smith ($13.8), and Iman Shumpert ($10.3) combine to make about $40.5 million. While I think the Cavaliers would happily pay Thompson that much again, if given the choice, they’d certainly like a re-do with Smith and Shumpert. Certainly both are quality role players, but if they shopped both players around the league on their current contracts the teams they’d possibly be shipped too, would be looking at the deal as a salary dump.
That brings us to the next issue. Generally when teams are looking at a salary dump, they’re throwing in an enticing asset in order for you to take a salary off the books they don’t want. An example being, when the Cavs were last looking to clear their books in order to bring King James back home, they sent a future 1st rounder to Boston in order for the Celtics to take on Tyler Zeller’s guaranteed contract.
The Cavaliers don’t have any non player assets to use. The next first round draft pick they can offer teams is their 2021 pick as league rules prevent teams from not having a first round pick in consecutive years and the 2017, and 2019 picks have already been sent out in previous trades (2017 is going to Portland, and 2019 to Atlanta).
So as you’re looking to how can the Cavs add to their roster, they have a few tools. The do have bird rights (the ability to re-sign a player while going over the salary cap) to re-sign Kyle Korver. While that certainly makes sense in terms of 2017-2018 when their options are limited, Kyle Korver is 36 and absolutely closer to the end of his NBA career than the beginning.
They retain the draft rights to 2015 draft and stash small forward Cedric Osman, an option that seems to be the most appealing as it provides the best chance to add youth to what is largely an aging bench. This is especially helpful, as barring Dan Gilbert buying a draft pick (which he absolutely ought to try, this roster drastically needs an infusion of youth to maintain a viably sustainable salary structure), the Cavs do not have a selection to use in next Thursday entry draft.
They could explore the option of a trade. The issue is, to whom do they make overtures, and what are they willing to give up. There has been a lot of talk about moving Kevin Love. But if you trade Love aren’t you just replacing your current Big 3 triumvirate with another version? A trade package of J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, and Kay Felder for Carmelo Anthony would work financially, and I have to imagine Melo would be willing to waive his no trade clause to pursue a ring with Lebron by his side. With a sane person running the show in New York I would say that Smith and Shumpert headed back to the big apple doesn’t get a deal done for Carmelo Anthony, but this is Phil Jackson and James Dolan, so that’s not a worry.
That would leave the Cavs with a roster more top heavy than its current version, with literally 6 players on the roster and still over the luxury tax threshold. Though admittedly a starting line up of Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, and Kyrie Irving with Richard Jefferson as 6th man would make for fun times watching Ty Lue trying to make that work.
That stills leaves 2 more tools at the Cavs disposal for forming their squad, the Tax Payers Mid-Level Exception. Under this loophole of the CBA, a team, over the salary cap, and over the tax threshold can sign a player for up to a 3 year deal with a maximum 1st year salary of $5.192 million, and a maximum 4.5% increase each season. That figure can be split up over multiple players, but the total salary of those players cannot exceed the $5.192 million figure. Some possible targets from this year’s free agent pool that may interest Cleveland and that would be realistic players for this salary range include guys like Marreese Speights, Jeff Green, Tony Allen, Jodie Meeks, and Darren Collison. All solid players capable of contributing to an NBA playoff squad, but with the exception of Speights, all are getting a bit long in the tooth, relative to being a competitive professional athlete.
The last option, and one that Cleveland has used before to acquire guys like Deron Williams, and Andrew Bogut is the veterans minimum salary contract. The team can sign as many of these players as they’d like while being over the salary cap. Generally when you’re a championship contender like the Cavaliers you can find one or two guys who’ve already made their money and now just want a shot at a ring. Possible examples this year that may still have something in the tank include Tiago Splitter, Anthony Tolliver, Brandon Rush, Anthony Morrow, Gerald Green, Luke Babbitt, Randy Foye, Aaron Brooks, Raymond Felton, and former Lebron teammate Norris Cole.
So overall for the Cavaliers, its a good news/bad news situation. The good news being that they currently have the best player in the NBA, and have been to the NBA Finals the last 3 years, and are poised to go again next season. The bad news is that there doesn’t appear any viable outlet for improving the team through roster acquisitions. They’ve forsaken developing younger players in favor of going all in with veteran re-treads like Deron Williams, and Richard Jefferson. Ignoring the attempts at balance that Golden State has attempted by working in Patrick McCaw, or that San Antonio has successfully done by developing undrafted guys or 2nd round picks such as Patty Mills, or Jonathan Simmons.
And in case anyone thought, oh well, theres always next off season. The Cavs already have $81.9 million guaranteed dollars on the books for 2018-2019, and that doesn’t include a contract for Lebron James who is a free agent after next season, meaning that with his cap hold applied to the salary cap figure, the Cavs are in the same exact boat next summer being over the cap, but without Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson. And while I don’t tend to put much stock into the recent rumors about Lebron possibly making the decision to leave again for sunnier locales, as it stands right now, it would be very easy for the Clippers to clear out room for 3 maximum salary slots in the summer of 2018. But he wouldn’t want to take his talents to SoCal and put together his own team of superstars, right?