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LeBron James’s Cleveland Return, Rise and Future

Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports

Despite being crazy undermanned by the end of it all, the Cleveland Cavaliers still managed an impressive finish to their season, somehow pulling off a pair of wins in the NBA Finals against the heavily favored Golden State Warriors. It’s even more impressive when you consider how this team started the season, how quickly everything eventually came together and how it fell apart in half the time.

For most teams, a legitimate shot at a championship–-shoot, even a surprise Finals appearance, a la LeBron James’s 2007 Cavaliers––takes years to build. But when the best player in the world decides to join your team in his prime, team-building becomes a “now-or-nothing” proposition.

Luck helped Cleveland GM David Griffin last offseason when he won the draft lottery prior to James arriving, giving him the necessary assets (Andrew Wiggins) to pull off the Kevin Love trade. But even after betting wrong on some of the Cavs’ incumbent players as sufficient supporting cast members for James to start the season, Griffin was able to make the right personnel corrections to help turn around what could’ve become a disaster for everyone involved.

Not only did he throw together a roster that was competitive, complementary and resilient by boldly pulling off a couple big-time in-season trades, but he was able to do so without taking on any additional bad contracts, leaving the Cavs with a chance to keep the core together beyond this year.

Now Griffin has to deliver on that opportunity. Based on the moves he’s made since the start of the year, he appears to be ready for the job.

Last summer, James famously signed a one-year contract with a player option for next season to return to Cleveland, and given the inexperience of both the Cavs’ roster and then-first-time NBA head coach David Blatt, there was concern about how everyone would mesh. Those wound up being valid.

During the first month of the season, James didn’t look like himself physically and was struggling to put up his usual numbers. He was also allegedly not getting along with anyone, not his coach––whom he low-key sonned as simply “Blatt” to the media early in the season, more on that later––not Irving, not Love and especially not Dion Waiters, who was refusing to adapt to become more team-oriented even after being demoted to the bench. The Cavs were struggling both offensively and defensively to play up to their potential and were just 17-11 after a loss on Christmas Day.

That was when adversity really hit, and it was announced that Anderson Varejao, the team’s longest-tenured player and only rim protector, was ruled out for the season after having ruptured his Achilles against the Timberwolves two days prior. That was also when everything changed for this team.

A few days later, James announced he’d be taking some time off to rest his knees and back and get right physically. About a week after that, in the midst of struggling without James, Griffin made a pair of in-season trades that saved the Cavs’ season, sending Waiters far away to welcome Iman Shumpert and accept the Knicks’ dumping of J.R. Smith, while also sending away a pair of first-round draft picks for Timofey Mozgov.

JAN 25 Thunder at Cavaliers

When James returned, the team looked completely different, with improved defense, more spacing and clearer roles. Griffin told Zach Lowe of Grantland that “role delineation” was something he learned a great deal about this season, which makes sense given the two deals.

Shumpert and Smith gave the Cavs a much-needed pair of wing players who could score and defend. They provided James and Irving with the type of spacing Waiters was often too stubborn to allow or too terrible to command, as well as the willingness to simply be spot-up shooters, another thing Waiters was unwilling to do.

Meanwhile, Mozgov broke out in Cleveland, embracing his role as a rim protector to the point that he surpassed Varejao’s abilities. On offense, he proved to have some nifty moves both in pick-and-roll and off the ball while also developing a good chemistry with LeBron.

Following a breaking-in period and a six-game losing streak that left them at 19-20, the Cavs figured it out and finished 34-9, capitalizing on James’s renewed health as well as an improved offensive hierarchy to finish as the second seed in the East. Aside from occasional rumbling about rocky relationships behind the scenes, LeBron and the Cavaliers were humming and looked like the team people expected them to be.

You know the story from that point. As it goes, Cleveland ran into some bad luck during the postseason, and after injuries to Love and Irving hurt their championship chances along the way, fatigue during the Finals sealed their fate for this season, coming up just two wins short of a title.

The Cavs clearly are still in good shape, which is part of why they’re already the Vegas favorite to win next year’s NBA title. The hard part will be keeping this group intact, as several key rotation players are set to become free agents this offseason, threatening to undo all of the work that Griffin has done assembling this team. That group includes James, Love, Smith, Shumpert, Tristan Thompson, Mike Miller, James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova this offseason––basically everyone but Irving and Mozgov.

The good news is the Cavs can keep everyone; the bad news is it will cost a lot. Owner Dan Gilbert has indicated he’s willing to spend to bring home a title, but how much? Since the Cavs will be spending well into the luxury tax, that could affect who comes back, depending on everyone’s price. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Gilbert’s luxury taxes could be “more than $75 million in luxury tax payments and bring the team near the record $193 million in taxes and salaries the Brooklyn Nets spent in 2013-14.”

JUN 11 Finals - Warriors at Cavaliers - Game 4

James will be back next season. His player option is for his own flexibility, and he’ll almost certainly re-up on a similar deal in order to cash in on next summer’s gold rush. It’ll be interesting to see how much LeBron involves himself with the Cavs’ free-agent pursuits this offseason, since Windhorst also mentions that has been telling of his investments in his current franchises during the past.

One person James definitely wants around is Thompson, who broke out during the playoffs filling in for the injured Love. He and James not only share an agent, Rich Paul, but a strong trust as well. James even went out of his way to express hope for Thompson’s long-term future in Cleveland during the Eastern Conference Finals.

Thompson, meanwhile, is rumored to be seeking a max deal, or something close to it, a distinction that could be vital for Cleveland moving forward, given how max contracts are based on cap percentages, and the salary cap is set to spike in 2016.

Considering his relationship with LeBron, the Cavs can’t afford to let Thompson get away, but paying him the max would be a high price. He offers some serious skills like offensive rebounding and defensive versatility, but Thompson is a spacing killer who can’t shoot or make plays off the dribble and struggles against double teams. While Cleveland would love to keep him around at less than the max, that could be a problem since Thompson rejected the Cavaliers’ reported 4-year, $52 million offer last offseason.

Thompson can always take the one-year qualifying offer like Greg Monroe did last summer, which would be about $7.1 million, then try to hit unrestricted free agency next summer instead. That would be a worst-case scenario for both sides.

This complicates the Love situation a bit. Despite Thompson’s emergence, his lack of rapport with James and a dislike for his role on the team, Love seems likely to remain in Cleveland for at least another season. He’s one of the three most important players on a team that just finished runner-up in the Finals, and after spending the last few years in Minnesota groaning about not winning, bolting on this team now wouldn’t be a great look.

Cleveland also needs him. Even if he didn’t “fit in” with this year’s Cavs, there aren’t many other guys who can give you the type of scoring and rebounding that Love can. They also traded two No. 1 overall picks for him less than a year ago, so there’s that at play.

MAR 06 Cavaliers at Hawks

Griffin said Thursday in his end-of-season press conference that he expects Love to opt out of his deal, but also expects him to remain with the Cavaliers, since they’ll surely offer him a max contract somewhere in the realm of five years and $110 million.

On the perimeter, Smith has indicated that he won’t exercise his $6.4 million player option and will test free agency, which is kind of baffling after his performance during the NBA Finals. If some team wants to extend Smith a better contract offer, which is seemingly unlikely, the Cavaliers might be willing to let him walk, depending on the word of James, who gave his encouragement on the initial trade to bring the streaky shooter aboard.

Shumpert, a restricted free agent, will be the bigger priority to keep around. He’s the younger player and a better defender with a similar offensive skill set. If the Cavs hope to construct a team with a core of James, Love and Irving, they’re going to need some extra defense at the other positions, and Shumpert gives them a good start.

Dellavedova, also a restricted free agent, would help on defense as well, but the Warriors exposed him badly on offense during the Finals, and the Cavs might want a more competent option behind Irving. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they let Delly walk, especially if another team showed enough interest to raise his price.

If LeBron and Love opt out and get new deals for next season, and Smith, Shumpert and Thompson re-sign for somewhere in upwards of $30 million combined, the Cavaliers will already be exceeding a $100 million payroll for eight players, not including Dellavedova, Joe Harris’s minimum deal or Brendan Haywood’s monster $10.5 million non-guaranteed contract for next season. By the time they’ve filled out their roster, they could be paying nearly that much in luxury taxes as well.

That’s where Gilbert’s spending proclamation comes into play, but hopefully he ponies up to retain what the Cavs have going with this roster, especially since he’ll only have to do it for one season before the cap rises in 2016. Still, that doesn’t leave them with a ton of cap flexibility.

The Haywood contract is one area where Cleveland will try to get creative, potentially using it as a salary-matching trade chip in trying to cut a deal for one or more role players. Windhorst is already reporting this as an option, with the No. 24 pick being used as an incentive for another team to make a deal. If a trade can’t be made, Haywood can simply be cut without penalty before his contract becomes guaranteed.

Another area the Cavs could try to get creative is the timing of re-signing Love, Smith, Thompson and Shumpert, since they own the Bird rights for all four, but even in that situation, it would require James to sign first, since they don’t own his Bird rights, meaning Cleveland would have a little less than $3 million to try to squeeze someone onto their payroll before they re-sign Love or Smith and before another team could extend an offer sheet to Thompson or Shumpert. This one seems unlikely.

None of these options are easy or straightforward, but without the benefit of some cheap rookie contracts, the Cavaliers are a top-heavy team that found both their rotation and style of play severely limited by their lack of depth by the time the Finals rolled around. They have to get creative to find the right guys at the right price.

It’s fair to wonder then, as Lowe did in his piece mentioned earlier, if the Cavs would be better served moving a guy like Love for B-plus-level role players who can shoot the ball, play defense and take additional pressure off James. Even that route seems implausible at the moment, given Love’s present serious shoulder injury, as well as back issues that have nagged him since Minnesota.

Obviously in a tough spot, the Cavs have to work with what they’ve got: Haywood’s contract, draft picks, a pipe dream of contract-signing timing and the taxpayer mid-level exception of about $3.4 million to locate some outside help.

This is where an involved James would do wonders for the Cavaliers. Players seem to want to play with him, and given his leverage in Cleveland, any information about the franchise would mean more coming from him, especially regarding the perpetually embattled Blatt, who we are finally circling back to.

APR 19 First Round - Game 1 - Celtics at Cavaliers

Blatt’s situation, thanks to an article from ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, has become an issue once again, as Stein asserted that the relationship between Blatt and his star player became as strained as ever during the Finals and painted a picture of James outright ignoring his coach. Of course, both Blatt and Griffin came out in defense of the head coach, and Blatt said he “absolutely” plans to be back next season.

That pair can talk as much as they want, but everyone knows that James and Gilbert ultimately hold all the power, and if those two are truly divided on Blatt, as Stein suggests, it could be an issue. This is why it would be a huge deal if James became earnestly involved in the Cavaliers’ offseason operations, especially for the perceived state of the franchise to outsiders.

There’s no real reason to think James would vacate Cleveland, at least not this year. The Cavaliers still have a strong roster core, with James, Irving, Love, Thompson, Mozgov, Varejao, Shumpert and Smith, assuming all of them are back. That’s observedly a championship-caliber group, although they’d still love to add a couple pieces. Depending on what kind of cap magic they can work, and whether or not LeBron gets involved, they might be able to, which would make this a really scary bunch.

Around James, the Cavs don’t need a bunch of ball handlers or creators, they need shooters and finishers who can space the floor and capitalize on the opportunities he creates, then ideally play defense at the other end. Given their cap situation, their options will be somewhat slim, although they’ll probably look at value veteran signings who understand filling roles.

Jared Dudley, who has a $4.25 million player option, did some interesting things as a stretch 4 type for Milwaukee last season, and Mike Dunleavy played well against the Cavaliers for the Chicago Bulls during the playoffs. Those aren’t super exciting options, but in this price range, not many are: C.J. Watson, Marcus Thornton, maybe Marco Belinelli. Depending on what kind of cap magic they can work, and whether or not LeBron gets involved, the caliber of player they land could vary.

No question, Griffin has done the bulk of the work, but he’s got a daunting challenge in front of him, with his team in need of more shooting and defense, two skills that typically cost more than they have.

JUN 16 Finals - Warriors at Cavaliers - Game 6

The pressure is high to make it happen now, though. James will be 31 next season, and he knows he’s in the back half of his career, trying to maximize his chances at championships. No matter how much he loves Cleveland, if they can’t make it happen, he really could leave again.

That’s the good and the bad of having James: he makes it that much easier to build a champion, but he brings that additional pressure to build it quickly. For Cleveland right now, the pressure is already peaking, given its roster situation and how close the Cavs missed winning a championship. The first step in bringing one home next year will be winning this offseason.

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