Fresh off of being swept by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals Lebron James for the third time in his career faces free agency. He is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract with the Cavaliers and become an unrestricted free agent.
When James came back to the Cavaliers in 2014 he stated that he wanted to finish his career in Cleveland and did not have the energy to leave again. One of his main reasons for returning to Cleveland was to bring the city and the franchise it’s first NBA championship. He accomplished that feat in 2016 defeating the Warriors in seven games to win the title. Now two years later having accomplished his main goal in 2016 the city and franchise face the possibility of another exit by James from the Cavaliers.
After winning the championship in the 2015/2016 season the Cavaliers made their third straight NBA Finals appearance against the Warriors in 2016/2017 but lost in five games.
On June 19th, 2017 Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert announced he was parting ways with general manager David Griffin. The move came as a surprise to both fans and players. The man responsible for building the Cavaliers first championship team was leaving the organization due to a difference of opinion between Griffin and Gilbert in regards to the direction the franchise going forward. Lebron James who was fond of Griffin was not consulted about the change and was not notified until after Griffin had been let go. Gilbert named Koby Altman who worked under Griffin as his new general manager.
Not too soon after Griffin’s departure came the trade request by Kyrie Irving who decided he no longer wanted to play in the shadow of Lebron James and wanted the opportunity to be the go to superstar on a new team. On August 23rd, 2017 that wish was granted as Altman traded Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets 2018 first round draft pick.
Regular season turmoil
It was determined shortly after acquiring Isaiah Thomas that he would need extended rehab for his injured hip and would not be ready to play until January. The Cavaliers acquired two other point guards in Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon in free agency to fill the void until Thomas returned. They got off to a rocky start going 5-7 in their first 12 games. They then went on to win 13 games in a row and 18 of their next 19 games and seemed to be finding themselves and building chemistry with all of the new additions. Unfortunately the Cavs went 9-14 in their next 23 games. Isaiah Thomas who returned to action in early January was nowhere close to the player Cleveland thought they were receiving. In late January the Cavaliers held a team meeting after practice in which players lashed out at each other and accused Kevin Love of faking an injury to leave a game. It was becoming clear to the Cavaliers front office that this group of players were not going to get it together. On February 8th, 2018 Koby Altman made three trades moving six players from their roster and acquiring four new players. Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas were shipped to the Lakers along with the Cavs own 2018 first round pick in exchange for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Junior. In a three team deal the Cleveland sent Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose to Utah and Iman Shumpert to Sacramento. In this deal they acquired Rodney Hood from Utah and George Hill from the Kings. In a third deal the Cavaliers sent Dwyane Wade to the Miami Heat for a future second round draft pick. Head coach Tyronn Lue left a March 17th game against the Bulls at halftime due to an illness. He ended up taking a leave of absence from the team to address his health and did not return to coaching until April 5th. Head assistant coach Larry Drew filled in nicely as the Cavs went 8-1 with Drew at the helm. Cleveland finished the regular season with a 50-32 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Quite a feat considering everything that took place throughout the regular season.
Post season struggles
The Cavaliers faced the fifth seeded Indiana Pacers in round one of the playoffs. Indiana blew the Cavaliers out in game one and took Cleveland to seven games with the Cavaliers prevailing in game seven. James averaged 34.4 points and 41 minutes per game against the Pacers.
In round two the Cavaliers swept the Toronto Raptors in four games. James averaged 34 points and 42 minutes per game.
The Cavaliers faced a depleted Boston Celtics squad in the Eastern Conference Finals who were without their two best players in Gordon Hayward and former Cavalier Kyrie Irving. The scrappy Celtics squad pushed the Cavaliers to their limit taking them seven games with the Cavaliers prevailing in game 7. James averaged 33.6 points and 41 minutes per game against Boston.
After all of the off-season and in season turmoil James had led this Cavaliers team back to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season. Unfortunately the superior talented Golden State Warriors made quick work of Cleveland in a four game sweep. James averaged 34 points in 45 minutes per game. It was revealed after game four that James played the final three games with a badly injured right hand that he hurt when he punched a white board in the locker room after the controversial game one loss.
It was one of Lebron’s most impressive postseason performances as he averaged 34 points per game but also averaged 42 minutes per game.
There were many times throughout both the regular season and postseason where James was visibly frustrated with his teammates and coaching staff. None bigger than the game one gaffe in which J.R. Smith dribble out the final four seconds of a tie game after rebounding a missed free throw under the rim. The frustration then boiled over on the bench when James was told by coach Lue that they had a timeout available.
In his post game press conference after the game four loss to Golden State James mentioned the big talent difference between the Cavaliers and Warriors rosters. He also mentioned the Warriors high basketball IQ and his desire to play with those type of players. This could be viewed as subtle hints to Cleveland management. There is no doubt whether James stays or leaves that the Cavaliers roster is in for another big shakeup in the off season.
James mentioned the difference facing him in free agency this year as opposed to the first time he left Cleveland in 2010. His family will be a big influence this time around as his kids are now old enough to give their input as to where they would like to live. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman will need to show their willingness to continue to spend over the luxury tax and plans to get another scorer and play maker on this roster.
Cavaliers roster situation and assets
Cleveland will unfortunately be over the salary cap whether James stays or goes. The 2018/2019 NBA salary cap is expected to be around $102 million. As it stands right now including James $35.6 million dollar option and Rodney Hood’s $3.5 million dollar qualifying offer the Cavaliers 2018/2019 team salary stands at $139.5 million. If James and Hood both leave via free agency the Cavaliers team salary will still be $107 million. Here is the outlook for the Cavaliers off season.
Unrestricted free agents: Jeff Green, Jose Calderon, Kendrick Perkins
Restricted free agents: Rodney Hood ($3.5 million dollar qualifying offer)
Expiring two-way contracts: John Holland, London Perrantes
Non-guaranteed contracts: Okaro White ($1.5 million)
Draft picks: 2018 1st round (#8 overall)
Trade assets: 1st round draft pick (#8), Kevin Love ($24.1 million)
Trade exceptions: $5.8 million (expires 8/22/18), $2.5 million (expires 10/14/18), $1.3 million (expires 10/14/18), $1.5 million (expires 2/8/19)
Free agent assets: $5.3 million (tax payer mid-level exception)
Lebron James contenders
Just about every team in the NBA has an interest in adding Lebron James to their team. It appears there are only three legit candidates despite seven or eight teams being named as possible destinations. Let’s take a look at the top three candidates.
Many people around the NBA think that Houston could be the best destination for James in his attempt to take down the Golden State Warriors dynasty. The Rockets are making James their number one priority this off season but it will not be easy. Houston will have to clear major salary in order to fit James and his new max contract under the cap. They would need to find a taker for Ryan Anderson and his awful contract which will pay him over $41 million for the next two seasons. Houston also has to find a way to sign two of their own key free agents in Chris Paul and Clint Capela. The best option for Houston may be to work a sign and trade with Cleveland in which James picks up his 2018/2019 team option and is sent to Houston. A third team would need to be involved as the Cavaliers would be looking for young players and draft picks and would not be interested in taking on Houston’s bad contracts.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are the only legit candidate for James who have the cap space to sign him outright to a max deal. They actually have the space to sign two max players and will look to pursue Paul George or Demarcus Cousins to pair with James in Los Angeles. The problem would be the rest of the Lakers roster. If they signed two max players they would most likely let Julius Randle walk in free agency as he is looking to cash in this off season. Lebron owns a home in Los Angeles.
The Philadelphia 76ers will also heavily pursue James this off season. They are arguably the most talented young team in the NBA. Philadelphia also would need to clear some salary as they currently do not have the cap space to fit a max salary. Like Houston the 76ers could also be a candidate for a Lebron opt in and sign and trade. Philly has the package of young assets and draft picks that would satisfy Cleveland.
It came out yesterday that the San Antonio Spurs and head coach Greg Popovich will also make their pitch to Lebron. James is fond of Popovich and the Spurs organization but this is a long shot given the Spurs roster and cap situation.
Lebron has until June 29th to decide whether or not he will pick up his 2018/2019 player option.
James as he always does will take a few weeks of vacation time with his family before making any kind of decision on where he will play next season. The Cavaliers will most likely get a meeting with James before free agency begins. It will be up to Gilbert & Altman to convince James to stay. It will take more than the #8 pick in the draft to do so. Hang on tight as it should be a wild ride that hopefully ends in James finishing his career in Cleveland.