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How Can The Cavaliers Improve Their Roster?

The Cavaliers are off to a mediocre start, especially on defense. Can they upgrade the roster going forward?

Nate Duncan

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The Cleveland Cavaliers have been the league’s most newsworthy team in the first two weeks of the season, sputtering to a 1-3 start before their offense regrouped to lead the team to back-to-back wins against the Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans. Nevertheless, the first two weeks have removed any hope that this team would play passable defense out of the gate, and cast doubt on their ability to do so even in the long-term with a roster that that is missing a shot-blocker and adequate defenders in the backcourt.

With this backdrop, we turn to four key transactions the Cavaliers have made since the acquisition of Kevin Love.

• Acquired the fully non-guaranteed $5.3 million contract of Keith Bogans from the Boston Celtics for non-guaranteed players and second-round pick swaps.
• Traded Bogans and a 2018 second-rounder to the Philadelphia 76ers, acquiring a $5.3 million trade exception.
• Agreed on a three-year, $30 million extension with Anderson Varejao that locks him up through the 2017-18 season. The second year is almost entirely guaranteed, while the third year is non-guaranteed.
• Did not reach an agreement with Tristan Thompson on an extension. Thompson was believed to be seeking at least eight figures per year beginning in 2015-16. He’ll be a restricted free agent in July.

The Cavaliers currently sit at about $72.8 million in salary, $4 million below the projected luxury tax line. The reasons for the Bogans transactions are clear. The Cavs were able to acquire more salary for subsequent trades by aggregating the non-guarantees, but then were able to avoid the tax and still maintain some flexibility by exchanging Bogans for a trade exception equal to his salary. It should be noted that Dan Gilbert, reputed by some to be an owner immune to such pressures, did green light a trade that provided less future flexibility in exchange for savings.* With the trade exception, the Cavs are limited to acquiring $5.4 million in salary (the trade exception plus $100,000), whereas Bogans’ contract could have allowed them to acquire up to $6.6 million if over the tax, or $7.9 million if under the tax. Moreover, Bogans could be aggregated with other players, such as Brendan Haywood’s non-guaranteed $10.5 million contract next summer, to acquire salary up to 125 percent of their combined $15.8 million salaries.

*The Cavs likely saved around $10 million in this transaction when considering Bogans’ actual salary, foregone luxury tax distributions once the team is over the tax and actual tax payments, so it’s perfectly understandable why they went this route considering the likely tax payments in future years. On the other hand, they might have figured out another way to get under the tax later in the year if needed to maintain flexibility.

The Varejao extension was curious in timing, even though he was set to reach free agency this summer. While he has been a Cleveland stalwart as the city’s longest-tenured pro athlete, at age 32 his best years are behind him. He has also struggled to stay healthy in his career, playing over 31 games once in the last four years. What’s more, Varejao probably isn’t even worth $10 million per season this year, as Tristan Thompson has been closing games at center for the Cavs. The cap will be going up in 2016-17, but $10 million a year is still close to quality starter money even under a $90 million projected cap (assuming, as appears increasingly likely, there will not be smoothing of the money from the new television deal and it will hit all at once in 2016-17). As a borderline starter now, the chances of him being worth that kind of money at age 34 are slim.

By contrast, there would have been almost no risk to Cleveland by letting him play out the year and become a free agent. Even if he stays healthy all year, it is difficult to believe Varejao would command a two-year deal for $10 million a season on the open market next summer. Even if he were to receive such an offer, it is difficult to believe that a Cleveland fixture playing on a stacked team with LeBron James wouldn’t at least give the Cavs a chance to match or exceed an offer in free agency. And by signing Varejao now, they take on all the risk of age- or injury-related performance decline, in exchange for almost no chance of locking Varejao up at a below-market deal.

The Varejao extension should not be evaluated solely in a vacuum though. The opportunity cost for next season and beyond is the key consideration. LeBron James and Kevin Love have player options for 2015-16, which they will almost certainly decline so they can sign new maximum contracts. Kyrie Irving’s maximum extension kicks in, and Tristan Thompson will likely be re-signed for something into eight figures. That alone will put the Cavaliers around $90 million in payroll, about $9 million above the projected luxury tax line.

The Cavaliers also have Haywood’s non-guaranteed final season of his contract, which rises to $10.5 million on their books after only $2.2 million this year for the Cavs.* The Cavaliers can use Haywood’s contract to match salaries, and use their protected first-rounder from Memphis** and/or Dion Waiters as a sweetener to pick up another big man. Players with 2016 expiring contracts like Roy Hibbert, David West, Al Horford, Timofey Mozgov or Nene might all conceivably be available for such a package if their teams fear losing them as free agents.

*This is because he was amnestied, meaning the remainder of his contract this year is being paid by Dallas. Amnesties only apply to the guaranteed portion of the contract, so Dallas’ responsibility ends next year and he appears in full on the Cavaliers’ books.
**The Memphis pick protections: Top-five protected and 15-30 protected through 2016, top-five protected in 2017 and 2018, unprotected in 2019. It will likely be conveyed in the high teens or early 20s in 2017 if Memphis continues on its current track, but could be much higher if the Grizz lose Marc Gasol this summer.

If the Cavaliers were to acquire one of the previously mentioned players, their salary structure might look something like this.

Cavs 2016-17 projection

That is a payroll over $102 million, without accounting for more salary potentially obtained via the Bogans trade exception, or a signing by the taxpayer mid-level exception of $3.4 million. A $102 million payroll would mean a luxury tax payment of $46 million, and it would rise at a rate of $3.75 per $1 in salary from there, with an additional 50 cents per $1.00 for every $5 million increment over $106 million in payroll.* Paying $9.6 million to Varejao in 2015-16 could cost Dan Gilbert more than double that in luxury tax payments. That will be quite a bitter pill if Varejao declines or is injured.

*Note that these figures are based on the projected cap and tax for 2015-16. It will not be finalized until next July.

As a tax team, the Cavs’ transactions will be limited. They will not be able to engage in sign-and-trades since they have a team salary above the apron (a figure $4 million above the tax line), eliminating perhaps the most useful potential application of Haywood’s contract—obtaining a free agent rim protector such as Marc Gasol, Robin Lopez, Hibbert (if he opted out) or Omer Asik. And they can only acquire players up to 125 percent of the traded salary, instead of for Haywood’s $10.5 million salary plus $5 million were they not in the tax. Other players could also be added to the trade to increase the amount received, of course.

The options to improve are somewhat limited for the Cavs aside from that Haywood trade. Would it be otherwise if the Cavs had not extended Varejao? Possibly, although it would also require moving on from Tristan Thompson and renouncing his rights next summer. There are off-court considerations here, as Thompson is a client of Klutch Sports, an agency with which James is heavily involved. Thompson has his strengths and can be a dominant offensive rebounder, but his lack of shooting range and ball skills make him a center offensively despite his power forward size. It is hard to imagine him holding up at the rim or on the block the way a center needs to defensively, even with the improvement most young players experience. The Cavs also have Kevin Love already at power forward. Moving on from Thompson would be reasonable if the Cavs could replace him with a better option at center or shooting guard. That is a decision that did not have been made until they knew another option were available at the onset of free agency.  Waiting to extend Thompson made sense, especially if he was not going to come at a discount.  But it would have made more sense in conjunction with foregoing an extension for Varejao as well.

If the Cavs would have parted ways with Thompson and Varejao, the payroll looks like this during free agency, accounting for cap holds to James and Love once they have opted out. (Those cap holds are what they likely would eventually sign for anyway.)

2015 No Thompson

With a payroll of about $78 million, Cleveland could deal Haywood in a sign-and-trade, so long as the team salary did not exceed the $85 million apron at the conclusion of the trade. The Cavs would then be hard-capped during the year at the apron. Depending on the amount of salary acquired (or whether they just make a trade rather than a sign-and-trade), they might also have been able to use some combination (though likely not each) of the Bogans trade exception, the full mid-level exception or the bi-annual exception. The Cavs could also have opened up maximum cap room in the unlikely but terrifying scenario that Kevin Love leaves as a free agent.

It may well be that Varejao and Thompson play well and the Cavs want to bring this whole band back together next season. But as some of the early struggles have shown, success is by no means assured. It probably made more sense for the Cavs to wait to extend Varejao and keep their options open for next summer, especially considering they are not sure how this new team is going to play as a unit. But now that Varejao’s extension has assured the Cavs of a high payroll, it probably makes sense to re-sign Thompson as well since they will have no way to replace him so far over the cap. They will also need him as insurance for Varejao’s potential health issues.

The Cavs’ lack of flexibility remains an issue as we look further ahead. Return to the 2016-17 projection:

Cavs 2016-17 projection

While the rest of the league will be flush with cash, assuming the cap explodes to $90 million in 2016, the Cavaliers will likely be looking at another big tax bill. Given the amount the cap is projected to rise in 2016, Love and James may both sign similar contracts to LeBron’s most recent deal, two years with a second-year player option. This will allow them to become free agents again in 2016, when their individual maximums should be about $30 million and $25 million respectively if the cap rises to $90 million with no smoothing. Between James, Love, Irving, Varejao, Thompson’s new contract, the potential Haywood trade booty, a new contract for Waiters* and various smaller contracts, the Cavaliers are looking at about $118 million in payroll for 2016 and a huge tax bill even with the exploding cap. Now there are various permutations by which they could avoid being a tax team in 2016, but the chances of adding a player using cap room (which would require a team salary well below $90 million in the summer of 2016) are low indeed with this salary structure.

*His $10.3 million cap hold is indicated on the graphic.

The coming years are going to be fascinating for the Cavaliers. They are not without avenues for improvement, as Waiters, the Haywood contract and the Memphis pick could net some juicy pieces in a trade. But to make that happen, it seems almost certain that Gilbert will be paying massive luxury tax bills. The early extension for Varejao may greatly complicate the Cavs’ task going forward.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?

As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.

Jordan Hicks

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Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.

For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?

The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.

Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.

What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.

Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.

While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.

Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.

One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.

As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.

The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.

Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”

Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.

As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.

Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.

Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.

But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.

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How The NBA Became The Most Betting-Friendly League In American Sports

Basketball Insiders

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The NBA has become synonymous with betting conversations during the Adam Silver era, with the league frequently being at the forefront of those discussions. Compared to the other professional sports leagues in the United States, the NBA has not only appeared to be the most progressive with regard to the topic, but it has also looked like the league that is the most likely to get further involved in the industry.

Of course, the league has placed a focus on sports betting, given that they have a vested interest in the continued legalization of that. They have mentioned that they would like a cut of NBA wagers placed, with the industry’s growth in the United States being something that the league could see improving the bottom-line.

Whether or not the NBA gets a piece of the action from a financial perspective, it is still surprising to see a major professional sports league in the United States willing to entertain the conversation at all. By comparison, the NFL has been largely afraid to discuss sports betting, while Major League Baseball has banned its all-time leading hitter for life for gambling-related offenses.

And it isn’t as if the NBA is only interested in gambling in the context of betting on NBA games. The league has relationships in the daily fantasy sports industry as well, with visibility for brands in that space seen in NBA arenas as well. And the NBA-subsidized WNBA is also a part of this betting-friendly basketball landscape, most notably in the form of a team named after a casino.

The Connecticut Sun is that team, as they play in the home of a popular casino in their area. Both the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury play in a venue named after a casino as well. And it is the casino industry that the NBA may conceivably expand into as their relationships in the betting industry appear to be growing in both quality and quantity. With the growth of online casinos, it isn’t impossible to envision the NBA encouraging its fans to compare the best casino bonuses to increase its market share in this growing industry.

Of course, with the betting renaissance that is going on in the United States at this time, the league is making sure that everyone knows that its integrity is not to be questioned. The league has made clear that they are going to ramp up the enforcement of its betting policies, to make sure that players aren’t compromising the game’s integrity. That move by the league is a smart one, as it makes sure that fans know that there is no reason to question the sport even if the league embraces betting.

The NBA is seeing progress across the sport, from its on-court evolution that prioritizes ball movement and long-range shooting, to its off-court stances on betting. Unlike the other major American sports, that willingness to evolve is part of what has caused the popularity of the NBA to skyrocket in recent years.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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