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What’s the Plan, Cleveland Cavaliers?

Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports

What’s the Plan? is a weekly series where we usually look at the long-term outlooks for teams that aren’t immediately contending for a championship. This week, however, I wanted to take a look at the long-term future of one of the title favorites this year: The Cleveland Cavaliers.

This upcoming season is looking pretty good for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’re the best team in the East, and as long as they stay healthy, they should once again make it to the NBA Finals out of the Eastern Conference. It’s the years to come though that could be a little more concerning to Cleveland fans.

If Tristan Thompson ends up signing the qualifying offer, the Cavaliers will have a payroll just north of $100 million (and a good amount above if he comes to terms on a new deal), plus all the taxes on top of that. Cleveland fans are probably saying, “Who cares? Writing the checks is Dan Gilbert’s problem, not mine.” And you guys are right, you don’t have to pay the bills, but even Gilbert can’t spend the entire Quicken Loans fortune on the Cavs; the CBA won’t let him.

Next season, the Cavaliers are currently committed to pay roughly $58 million dollars, and that’s before they re-sign LeBron James and Timofey Mozgov. James will sign for whatever the new max is, which will likely start at around $30 million annually for him. As for Mozgov, he’ll be in line for a big raise from the $4.95 million he’s going to make this upcoming season.

The cap, of course, is set to go way up next summer, with current projections putting it close to $90 million. However, the Cavaliers should expect their cap figure to come in at over $100 million again next season, likely leaving only the mini mid-level exception and the minimum to sign new players. Another problem is that the $100 million-plus they’ll be paying only buys them eight players: LeBron, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert, Mozgov, J.R. Smith (he could opt out and look for even more money), Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams (he can opt out as well). They’d still need to fill out their roster and could only do so with their exception or by re-signing their other players.

Re-signing players already on the team would put the Cavaliers further into trouble with their cap flexibility and luxury tax burden. While it could just be negotiating bluster, the Tristan Thompson situation stands like this at the moment: he’s leaving if he doesn’t get the max. If the supposed Toronto Raptors’ max offer is out there for him next season, he might be gone even with a matching max offer from Cleveland. Signing Thompson to the max now, Matthew Dellavedova next season for anything and adding a player with an exception puts the Cavaliers even further over the tax line, and at some point those tax bills are going to get exorbitant.

One way for Cleveland to find some salary relief would be by trading Varejao. His contract is guaranteed for 2015-16 and mostly guaranteed for 2016-17, but the third year is $10 million non-guaranteed. He’ll essentially be an expiring contract next offseason, and if the Cavaliers find a suitor, that’d create a bit more flexibility.

Ultimately, the Cavaliers have to go all-in for the here and now. LeBron’s prime won’t last forever, and Cleveland needs to maximize its chances to win championships while he’s still at the top of his game. The post-LeBron days will come again, and they may not be pretty, but that’s something to worry about later. They’re mostly stuck with the team they have now, but that’s still likely a legitimate title contender for several years to come.

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