The Cleveland Cavaliers’ recent history can be divided into two periods: life-with-LeBron and life-after-LeBron.
The life-after-LeBron period has been somewhat of a roller coaster. The Cavaliers managed to swing a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers that netted them a 2011 first-round draft pick that became Kyrie Irving. This was the high point on the Cavs’ rollercoaster ride. However, it didn’t last long.
The Cavs then drafted Tristan Thompson with the fourth pick in 2011 and Dion Waiters with the fourth pick in 2012. Though Thompson and Waiters are talented players, the Cavs passed on players like Andre Drummond, Jonas Valanciunas and Klay Thompson to pick them. Then, after winning the 2013 lottery, the Cavs selected Anthony Bennett. The choice was so surprising, it caused ESPN’s Bill Simmons to emphatically say “whoa” during coverage of the draft.
In spite of these less than ideal picks, the Cavs still managed to acquire veterans this offseason like Jarret Jack, Earl Clark and controversial center Andrew Bynum. Clark and Jack were coming off strong seasons with their former teams, and Bynum had missed an entire season in Philadelphia while rehabbing. With a little luck (especially with Bynum), the team was primed to make a playoff run.
The Cavs didn’t have any luck, however, and are now 10th in the East and are facing another return to the lottery. Bynum and Clark are no longer on the roster and the general manager who assembled the team, Chris Grant, has been fired. Despite all these gaffs, the Cavs have flexibility heading into this offseason and the means to turn their fortunes around rather quickly. Here are some things the Cavs can do to make this happen.
Tell LeBron It’s Time to Come Home
It was not long ago that there were whispers that LeBron James could return to Cleveland if he exercised the early termination option in his contract with the Miami HEAT this offseason. It made sense, as the Cavs had an All-Star in Irving, up-and-coming talent in Waiters and Thompson, last year’s first overall pick in Bennett and James’ old coach Mike Brown.
However, after a disappointing 2013-14 season, the rumors have gone away. Bynum is in Indiana, Clark is currently out of the league, Bennett has underwhelmed and Irving has had a relatively down year for his lofty standards. So why then should the Cavs make an offer to James? Because they have the home-court advantage and he is the best player on the planet.
Don’t underestimate LeBron’s ties to Akron and Cleveland. He is a fixture in those communities and he knows the attention a return home would entail. Cleveland, like many of the small-market teams, struggles to bring in big-time free agents. But the situation is different with LeBron, who struggled to make “The Decision” to leave initially. Additionally, LeBron is such a transcendent player that if your team has even a one percent chance of landing him, you have to give it your best shot.
Though this scenario isn’t by any means a sure thing, the Cavs have to at least engage James this offseason if he does in fact opt out of his contract.
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Draft For Talent, Not Need
Drafting for need is what caused problems for the Cavs last year. Instead of picking someone like Victor Oladipo to play alongside Irving, they drafted Bennett out of UNLV. The idea was with Waiters in place, Oladipo was redundant. But now there are questions about Waiters’ long-term fit in Cleveland and his relationship with Irving. Having Oladipo, who may win Rookie of the Year, in town would make any issues with Waiters less concerning, but instead he is wreaking havoc on opposing wing players for the Orlando Magic.
The Cavs are projected to have a top-10 pick in this year’s draft, which is loaded with talent. Players like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Dante Exum are some examples of the talented prospects who will be available. These players will probably be off the board when the Cavs are up to pick, but there will likely still be plenty of talented players like Aaron Gordon, Noah Vonleh and Doug McDermott, just to name a few.
The Cavs will have a better idea of who they like once they have officially secured their position in the draft and start holding private workouts. Whoever the Cavs pick, it should be based upon overall talent, especially in a draft as talented as this. This is also the case because teams are valuing first-round draft picks more than ever since the new CBA makes it very difficult to simply add one solid veteran after another. It’s not about who is willing to spend the most money anymore, but about who can do the most with the cap space they have. First-round draft picks are the best bargains in the NBA because they play on capped salaries, and if valuable enough, they can be retained through restricted free agency, no matter how much other teams may offer them.
The Cavs have a better shot of making a good choice this time around with so much talent in the draft, but they cannot afford another significant draft-day mistake.
Make a Plan and Stick With It
ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst recently reported that the Cavaliers have been making strategic moves to position themselves for a big trade this offseason. They signed point guard Scotty Hopson, who had never played in the NBA before, to a two-year contract worth $3.8 million, the second of which is non-guaranteed. Hopson’s contract, along with the non-guaranteed deals of Alonzo Gee ($3 million), Matt Dellavedova ($816k) and Anderson Varejao (only $4 million of his $9.7 million is guaranteed) can be packaged and shipped to a team that is looking to free up cap space. These contracts provide the Cavs with flexibility to make deals come June and July.
If the Cavaliers don’t make a trade, they could enter the offseason with significant cap room to be players in free agency. Cleveland could have up to $23 million in cap space, allowing them to make a max offer to a player like James or pursue other free agents.
However, even if there aren’t any major free agent acquisitions, the Cavs can re-sign their own free agents, like Luol Deng, Spencer Hawes and C.J. Miles, and use their mid-level exception on a solid player. Then, they can hold onto the non-guaranteed deals and wait for a team to start a fire-sale of its players.
With all these options in mind, the Cavs need to make a realistic assessment of their roster, and what they can compete for. Their plan needs to be based on that assessment and needs to be properly executed. Either acquire more young talent and continue to rebuild, or keep adding on veteran players to put around Irving, Waiters, and Thompson.
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Don’t Be Afraid to Admit You Made Mistakes
Refusing to acknowledge that drafting players like Waiters and Bennett or trading for Deng were mistakes will hurt the Cavs’ chances of turning this team around quickly. Masai Ujiri signed on to to be the general manager of the Toronto Raptors last offseason. He replaced Bryan Colangelo, and undid some of Colangelo’s biggest mistakes. Ujiri traded Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks and Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings for John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes. Since trading Gay, the Raptors have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA, and players like DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have improved their play significantly.
Similarly, the Cavaliers need to be willing to trade players like Waiters and Bennett if the right deal comes along. Trying to make it work against all odds to prove the team was right in drafting them initially will harm this team. Replacing Grant with David Griffin in the front office was good, as Grant may have been hesitant to admit mistakes and hold onto players as they develop in order to protect his job. Griffin can step in and build the team as he sees fit, without the same ties that Grant had to his acquisitions.
Also, the Cavs cannot re-sign Deng to a contract beyond what he is worth. There may be incentive to retain Deng at all costs to avoid backlash for surrendering as many draft picks as they did to acquire him from Chicago. However, as good as Deng is, the CBA punishes teams that pay veterans substantially more than they are worth. Interestingly enough, cutting out of the Bynum deal was exactly the sort of move the Cavs need to make. Trading Bynum was an admission that their plan for him had failed. The only problem was they surrendered too much for a player on an expiring deal.
LeBron may not be coming home to Cleveland this offseason, but the team needs to try and make that happen. If that fails, the organization needs to start laying out plans to properly utilize its flexibility. The team cannot overspend on mid-level free agents, and should retain its flexibility until next year (when more free agents are likely to hit the market) if nothing significant materializes this offseason. The Cavaliers are in a position to correct their recent mistakes and, with the right moves, the next high point on this roller coaster ride might come sooner than many expect.