Free Agents: Kendrick Perkins (Unrestricted), James Jones (U), Iman Shumpert (Restricted), Matthew Dellavedova (R), Tristan Thompson (R), Mike Miller (Player Option), JR Smith (PO), Kevin Love (PO), LeBron James (PO)
The Cavaliers have returned to elite form, and in a major way. The additions of LeBron James and Kevin Love managed to vault one of the worst teams in the league all the way to being just two wins away from an NBA championship. The scary part is, they’re probably going to be even better next season.
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love managed to prove their worth on a contending team after an underwhelming 20-20 start to the season, which included an injured LeBron as well as calls for the head of rookie coach David Blatt, who made stellar adjustments later in the season, especially in the playoffs. Tristan Thompson elevated his game to another level after Love was lost to injury, and Timofey Mozgov was the defensive anchor the Cavs so desperately needed at the time they traded for him. Even Knicks castaways JR Smith and Iman Shumpert had their moments, and Dellavedova was briefly a hero. But not all is well in Cleveland, who must face the issues of trying to balance their expiring contracts.
Between LeBron, Love, Smith, and Mike Miller, only Miller exercised his player option to stay with the team next season. While James Jones is practically a lock to receive the veteran minimum (and hence be retained), the Cavs are likely going to say goodbye to Perkins and perhaps Dellavedova, who could be overpaid based on his Finals performance. They will also have to run the very minor risk of Love bolting for Los Angeles, Boston, or maybe even Portland (should Aldridge leave), among other teams. Tristan Thompson will command an eight figure salary per year after proving his enhanced proficiency at inside finishing, offensive rebounding, and providing adequate defense throughout the season. Shumpert could also receive an inflated deal due to the nature of Restricted Free Agency, especially because a variety of teams (Mavericks, Bucks, Lakers) are reported to have an interest in him. JR Smith is asking for a salary that would pay him about 8 million per year, which is actually fair market value for his services – hence, the Cavaliers are likely to strike a deal. Going back to Love, the Cavaliers are expected to offer him a max contract that deals out $110 million over the course of five years. Although this sounds steep, if Love were to take a one year contract with a player option, and opt out after next season, he would be owed significantly more money based on the spike in the salary cap. The odds that Love accepts this contract are great for the Cavaliers, seeing as how he has professed a desire to stay with the team long-term for the entirety of last season. Finally, LeBron could ask for the mega-deal he finally deserves, but is likely to stay with Cleveland on a one-year max contract with a player option. From there, this allows him to opt out after next season, and the Cavaliers could extend full Bird Rights in their next contract negotiation. A five-year max deal with the new salary cap would pay out over $200 million to LeBron, and he would make an average of $43 million per year based upon the current projections of the salary cap.
In order to free up some cap space and make subtle upgrades to their bench, the Cavaliers have made some very shrewd choices. During the draft, they traded the #24 pick (which ended up being Tyus Jones) to Minnesota in exchange for the #31 and #36 picks, which landed in the second round. This is significant because second round picks have no cap holds that count against the team, and their minimum salaries on the rookie scale are practically negligible when they are signed. The Cavaliers made the most out of their picks, too, selecting 20 year old Cedi Osman out of Turkey. Osman is a versatile point-forward who not only has size to play numerous positions (he’s 6’8”), but the athleticism to last in the NBA. According to GM David Griffin, it will probably take Osman at least two years to be freed of his contractual obligations in Turkey, but that will give him the necessary time to develop. Although Osman isn’t the most skilled shooter, he has a remarkable motor and is willing to do the all the dirty work a team needs, which fits in well with the other role players on the team. This is very similar in comparison to the 36th pick, Rakeem Christmas. Christmas is a senior out of Syracuse who was labeled with NBA-level potential, but only really came into stride in his final season at college. He is physically similar to Tristan Thompson, with both earning the label of being an undersized power forward/center who gets by on athletic ability. Christmas might have recorded an average vertical, but he also had the second longest wingspan of all measured prospects, ranking just below Robert Upshaw. Weighing in at over 240 pounds, Christmas has an NBA-ready body and could find minutes right away. It is fair, however, to question his upside; he turns 24 later this year. Also, despite making strides in his game, Christmas still shows questionable effort at times, and will have to learn an entirely new method of defense after playing four straight years defending in a 2-3 zone. It will take him some time to truly make an impact, and his ability to guard the giants who man the center position in the league are doubtful at the moment. Finally, with the 53rd pick, Cleveland selected junior Sir’Dominic Pointer out of St. John’s. Pointer is a quick player who can run the floor for easy transition baskets, and also frequently passes to teammates. However, he isn’t the best at scoring in the half-court setting, nor can he shoot from long range, which makes his value limited on that end. He shines defensively, where his aggressive brand of play allows him to guard multiple positions despite his average wingspan, and is the catalyst towards the respectable rate at which he collects defensive rebounds. Still, don’t expect Pointer to receive anything more than spot minutes in the rotation, if at all, until he learns how to fit within the offense.
The Cavaliers also have the contract of Brendan Haywood as a trade chip, being able to take back around $10.5 million in salary. A potential trade target is San Antonio, who could offer a combination of Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter, and Boris Diaw in exchange for Haywood’s non-guaranteed deal. These players could make Cleveland a seriously deep and versatile team, and further their chances at contention. Of course, other deals could be pursued, or the Cavaliers could simply end up waiving Haywood themselves if they are unable to find any takers. For now, however, he is their true weapon for building in free agency.
Prediction: The Cavaliers will retain everyone except for Perkins,and the Haywood contract will be used to bring in new blood. With a deeper team, the core of LeBron/Kyrie/Love won’t have to be pushed as hard next season, and they can be better-rested for the playoffs. With another year to build some experience playing together, the Cavs are a very real candidate to win 60+ games, as well as the first seed in the Eastern Conference. Although Atlanta and Chicago could still pose a threat to them, I would pencil in Cleveland for a reappearance in the finals as of this moment. The question is – can they make the final push to win?
This piece is part 6 of the 30 Team Offseason Preview Series by Fazal Ahmed.