The Cleveland Cavaliers are in a summer of transition. Once LeBron James announced his decision to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cavs began the process of learning to live without him once again. After four years of LeBron-led Eastern Conference dominance, the Cavaliers have returned to normalcy.
While LeBron made his decision weeks ago, the Cavs still have their own to make. Instead of building a championship contender around the King, Cleveland has to figure out how to forge one without him. Rather than hold on to the memories of 2016, Cleveland needs to embrace the rebuild and start creating a brighter future around the talent they already have.
Over the past four years, every decision Cleveland has made - barring the choice to keep the pick that became Collin Sexton - has been to maximize their immediate chances at a championship. In order to make the most of LeBron's championship window, Cleveland signed several long-term contracts to put themselves in the best possible position that season.
In 2015 they signed Tristan Thompson to a five-year, $82 million extension. That next summer they brought back JR Smith on a four-year, $57 million deal. This past February, as the Isaiah Thomas situation was quickly headed downhill, Cleveland traded nearly half their roster and brought in several key pieces including George Hill and Jordan Clarkson. While the Cavaliers ultimately fell short of evening up their Finals record with the Warriors, all four players had key roles in Cleveland's fourth straight Eastern Conference title.
Now, Cleveland can look to the future. Thompson, Smith, Hill and Clarkson are all signed through the 2019-20 season. So are Kevin Love and Kyle Korver. As it stands, Cleveland will be over the salary cap for each of the next two seasons without a way to add meaningful talent to the currently constructed roster.
|Projected Salary Cap||$101,000,000||$108,000,000||$112,000,000|
|Projected Cap Room||- $16,500,000||- $7,600,000||+ $103,100,000|
Should Cleveland completely stand pat and just wait it out until the summer of 2020, they would find themselves with roughly $100 million in cap room. That won't happen for any number of reasons, but the possibility does illuminate just how flexible they can become in a couple seasons. They can't wait until 2020 to start their post-LeBron rebuild, though. They have to start now.
The two most valuable veterans Cleveland has on their roster are Kevin Love and Kyle Korver. With nearly all of the impact free agents already signed, Cleveland could grab a stranglehold over the All-Star market if they make Love available.
At 29-years-old, Love is still in his prime and - health and conference permitting - will be an East All-Star next season. If a team in need of a stretch-4 wanted to make a splash and trade for a big name, Cleveland could massively accelerate their rebuild by swapping Love for a collection of picks and prospects. While the return for Korver would be less impactful, there will always be a contender or two willing to flip a future pick in exchange for a player with his shooting ability.
Cleveland having trepidations about trading Love and Korver is understandable. Losing Kyrie Irving, LeBron and then Love just 25 months after the only title in franchise history would be an extremely painful step for the franchise. In the long run, it would be for the best. The one immediate relief to what could be a difficult rebuild, though, is the potential of some of the young players already on the roster.
Eighth overall pick Collin Sexton is the blue chipper on the team and will get to immediately learn and grow on the job, much like Irving did seven years ago. It may take a couple years before Sexton is comfortable leading an NBA offence, but his size and athleticism will translate quickly and we've already seen some flashes from him at Summer League.
Collin Sexton with the handles to get to the rim! #NBASummer pic.twitter.com/ABVeAiu4BY- NBA (@NBA) July 9, 2018
Ante Zizic and emerging cult hero Cedi Osman have each shown some improvement this summer. Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson are both still relatively young, enticing and had moments for Cleveland last season. However, neither has carved out a defined role on the team going forward and both have to work to become more consistent.
While Rodney Hood fell out of the playoff rotation last season and remains a free agent, he would fit in perfectly as Sexton's backcourt partner of the future if brought back. Throw in any players and picks brought in from trading Love and Korver and potentially Cleveland's own 2019 pick (owed to Atlanta if outside top-10) and you have an intriguing foundation. If everything goes to plan, Cleveland's young core could be emerging right as they become one of the only teams with significant cap space in the summer of 2020.
While his decision to go to LA didn't create nearly as much vitriol as his capital-D Decision to go to Miami did in 2010, LeBron has once against left Cleveland in flux. Fearing a return to pre- (and between-) LeBron irrelevancy, Cleveland is facing an understandable temptation to prove to the world they can win without him.
Winning 40-45 games and losing in the first round might show the league (and themselves) that they can be at least marginally successful in a post-LeBron world, but it would only delay the inevitable. The rebuild is coming and there are far more incentives to ripping the Band-Aid off now rather than waiting a couple years floating in mediocrity while losing assets in the process.