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NBA PM: What’s Next For the Cavaliers?

After LeBron James’ big free agency announcement, where do the Cleveland Cavaliers go from here? How about the Miami HEAT?

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What’s Next For the Cavaliers?

For the better part of the last four years, the idea of LeBron James returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers was farfetched – borderline laughable. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s scathing letter published after James’ departure seemed to have burned that bridge completely; and, while the Cavaliers were one of the worst teams in the league, James’ Miami HEAT ran off four straight trips to the NBA Finals and were being talked about as a dynasty.

Little did we all know, returning to Cleveland was the plan all along.

“I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there,” James wrote in his essay on Sports Illustrated. “I just didn’t know when. After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.”

Even with his heart still in Cleveland, James wouldn’t have committed four of the prime years of his career to a franchise that he didn’t think could contend for a championship. He came off very modest and humble about the expectations for the team next year, saying that they’re not ready to compete for a championship yet, but anything less will be viewed as a disappointment. The Eastern Conference is wide open and with James on board, the Cavaliers become the instant favorite. The only team with the hope of uprooting them from that spot is the Chicago Bulls if they land Carmelo Anthony, who is expected to decide on Saturday where he will be playing next. He’s deciding between the Bulls and Knicks.

Quite possibly more important than the Cavaliers putting together a formidable team was Gilbert rebuilding his relationships with James. Many thought Gilbert’s presence would forever prevent James’ return, but it actually didn’t take long for the two to get past it.

“We had five great years together and one terrible night,” Gilbert told James, according to Yahoo! Sports. “I told him how sorry I was, expressed regret for how that night went and how I let all the emotion and passion for the situation carry me away. I told him I wish I had never done it, that I wish I could take it back.”

Getting James back goes a long way in restoring Gilbert’s public image and basically makes the letter nothing more than an afterthought. There will be no more negativity stemming from it. In fact, when it comes up now, it may actually be something that both he and James laugh about.

Landing James automatically makes the Cavaliers one of the winners of free agency. However, what they do next is just as important.

Before the signing can become official, the Cavaliers have to complete a series of cap cutting moves in order to free up the rest of the money they need for James’ max contract. They’re in the process of shipping Alonzo Gee to the New Orleans Pelicans and have already traded Jarrett Jack to the Brooklyn Nets in a three-team trade with the Boston Celtics.

Somewhat lost in all of this is that the Cavaliers’ latest No. 1 overall pick (they have four now), Andrew Wiggins, is going to make his professional debut tonight at the Las Vegas Summer League against Jabari Paker and the Milwaukee Bucks. Wiggins’ camp has received assurances from the Cavaliers that they are not going to trade him, but obviously their world has changed a lot in the last few hours.

Less than 15 minutes after James’ Sports Illustrated essay ran, reports started to surface that Minnesota Timberwolves disgruntled All-Star forward Kevin Love, who reportedly killed a deal to the Cavaliers earlier this summer by refusing to give any long-term commitment to them, is now intrigued by the idea of joining the team and willing to commit beyond this season. The question becomes are the Timberwolves still interested, and will the Cavaliers give up Wiggins?

The ideal scenario for them of course is to ship off multiple first round picks, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett and acquire Love while keeping Wiggins. However, it’s highly unlikely that the Timberwolves are going to accept that. They’d be foolish not to demand Wiggins, and given where they are at now – the Cavaliers may eventually budge. Wiggins is a phenomenal talent with immense potential, but if he’s what it costs to get one of the best power forwards in the league, the deal has to be done. They’re in win-now mode. They don’t have time to wait for Wiggins. Even if he is ready to make a big impact from day one, it’s hard to imagine that can come close to what Love would provide.

The Cavaliers aren’t the only team interested in Love, though. The Golden State Warriors have long been involved in discussions with the Cavaliers and have all of the pieces (Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson and David Lee) to pull off a deal that would push the Timberwolves closer to the playoffs right away than a Wiggins-centric package would. After missing out on the playoffs for 10 straight years, the Warriors’ package could be more appealing to the Timberwolves even with Wiggins on the table. The Celtics are also aggressively trying to find a way to pry Love away from Minnesota. With Anthony soon to come off of the board, the Love trade offers should start to improve to the point where the Timberwovles are seriously willing to consider them.

Outside of another major splash like that, the Cavaliers seem poised to fill out their roster with veteran talent with championship experience, specifically Mike Miller and Ray Allen . Miller was in advanced discussions with the Denver Nuggets, but has halted those talks with hopes of landing in Cleveland. Allen is contemplating retirement, but could be persuaded to play one more year with how attractive the Cavaliers have become.

What’s Next for the HEAT?

No one with HEAT president Pat Riley’s experience level and track record would go into free agency without preparing contingency plans for every possible outcome. He was extremely confident that he was going to be able to keep James, though, and was reportedly blindsided by his decision today. James did call Riley and HEAT owner Micky Arison to let him know his decision before the Sports Illustrated story went live.

With James gone, the HEAT are now facing the very serious prospect of losing Chris Bosh as well. The Rockets are on the verge of having enough space free to offer him a four-year contract worth very close to the max. However, the HEAT have countered with a five-year max contract. Bosh is expected to decide sometime before the end of the day due to the timetable the Rockets are working on. They’re well into day one of the three they have to match the Chandler Parsons offer sheet from the Dallas Mavericks.

Believe it or not, Dwyane Wade is drawing interest from other teams as well. The Chicago Bulls have reportedly gauged interest in Wade. It’s believed to be a foregone conclusion that the HEAT were going to give him a new deal that would give him at least the $42 million that he passed on in order to give the HEAT maximum financial flexibility to keep the team together this offseason. That obviously hasn’t worked out, but the HEAT are still very likely, out of loyalty more than anything, to give Wade more than he can get anywhere else, especially Chicago. The Bulls’ interest is more about seeing if he wants to return home too, albeit at a serious discount, but to compete for a championship.

Depending on Bosh’s decision, the HEAT could look to engage the Rockets in a sign-and-trade discussion. As of right now, with both teams feeling like they have a chance at him, no such discussions have taken place.

No matter what happens – there’s no sugarcoating it: the HEAT took a big step backward today with the loss of James that will be hard to recover from. They have a lot of cap space, and could still have Wade and Bosh, but the days of being the favorite in the Eastern Conference are now gone. Riley has to pull off a quick, effective contingency plan just to keep them in the playoffs.

(UPDATE: Bosh has decided to re-sign with the HEAT on a five-year max deal).

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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