By Jason Lloyd
Beacon Journal sports writer
If LeBron James’ final season in Cleveland was the most important in Cavaliers history, then this one ranks second. They might not have realistic hopes of winning a championship this year, but the next six months can dictate the legitimacy of a title run as early as next season.
As the Cavaliers emerge from the darkness of a three-year rebuilding period, there are really only two plausible scenarios: They stay relatively healthy, make the playoffs as a lower seed and prove to the rest of the league — and more important a talent-rich, free-agent class next summer — that they’re one significant piece from returning to the league’s elite; or they suffer more debilitating injuries to some or all of the key players with lengthy injury histories, which would likely cause this season to unravel and send the Cavs tumbling back into the lottery for a fourth consecutive year.
It’s a game of equal risk and reward, but it sure beats spending the winter counting Ping-Pong balls and lottery odds. For the first time since James departed, the Cavs begin a season with legitimate playoff aspirations.
“It’s good for our guys. We want them to have the high expectations,” General Manager Chris Grant said. “This is a pretty amazing place when you play deep into the playoffs. It’d be great to have the guys feel that energy.”
Before worrying about a deep postseason run, the Cavs first must get there. Reaching the playoffs and showing significant progress from last season’s 24-win team is crucial to maximizing next summer’s potential.
They have a razor-thin window next summer to sign a free agent to a max contract while Kyrie Irving is still on his rookie deal. After next summer, the opportunity to acquire a max contract is more complicated, because the salaries of guys like Irving and Tristan Thompson — and eventually Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller — will start escalating.
The Cavs recently picked up the fourth-year options for Irving and Thompson next season, meaning they will be paying one of the league’s best point guards $7 million — about half of what he would command on the open market.
If Irving stays healthy and has the type of season expected of him, he can sign a max contract next summer for five years and at least $80 million. For simplicity and sanity’s sake, let’s assume he accepts the max offer without asking for opt-out clauses (or rejects the offer entirely, something no player coming off a rookie deal has ever done).
The two most recent players to sign max contracts, John Wall and Paul George, did so without the opt-out clause made famous by James’ draft class.
Any new deal for Irving, which should start around $13.7 million annually, won’t kick in until the 2015-16 season.
Grant has been careful throughout this roster rebuild to protect his cap space. He used all of the team’s available space during the summer to sign Andrew Bynum to an incentive-laden deal, but he maintained enough flexibility after this season to slide in a max contract for next year with minimal maneuvering.
The team holds options for next season on both Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee, the two current small forward candidates. They are scheduled to make a combined $7.5 million next season. Only about half of Anderson Varejao’s $9.8 million contract for next season is guaranteed, and if the Bynum experiment fails, the Cavs can decline his option for next season and free up another $12.5 million.
Of course, if the Bynum project is a success, he will be the second piece (alongside Irving) in the Cavaliers’ attempts to create their own Big Three.
Who would be that third piece? It could be James or another member of this free-agent crop. If James leaves the Miami Heat, Chris Bosh is a candidate to leave South Beach, too. Carmelo Anthony is already on record as wanting to test free agency next summer, then there are guys like Luol Deng, Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay — all of whom are still impact players who can become free agents next summer.
The summer of 2010 provided a seismic shift in the NBA’s landscape. The potential of next summer’s draft class and free-agent pool creates the formula for another dramatic shakeup.
“The free-agent market all depends on what happens in Miami and whether they opt out or if there is movement there,” NBA analyst Steve Kerr said. “It’s shaping up to be a big-time market next year.”
Even if they can’t land a marquee free agent, the Cavs still have enough young players and draft picks to complete a trade similar to last fall’s blockbuster that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The Cavs were high on Harden, but weren’t a fit because they didn’t have the pieces the Oklahoma City Thunder sought, specifically a shooter/scorer like Kevin Martin. Those types of trades are incredibly difficult to execute because of the timing of contracts and team needs. For now, there doesn’t appear to be a “Harden trade” available to the Cavs — although landscapes shift quickly in the NBA.
“Just like they were preparing and clearing cap space when Dwyane [Wade] and Chris and LeBron were coming up, I can see general managers doing very much the same thing with this 2014 class,” NBA analyst Reggie Miller said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing when you get a franchise, marquee player. It can change your fortunes and your team’s fortunes in a hurry.”
For three years, the Cavs have made all the right moves off the court while floundering on it. Beginning this season, all of that has to change.
In Kevin Durant’s third season, the Thunder transformed from a 23-win team to a 50-win team and made the playoffs for the first time. In James’ third year here, he made the playoffs for the first time and the Cavs won 50 games — although the leap wasn’t as dramatic (they won 42 the year before).
In Chris Paul’s third year, the New Orleans Hornets went from a 39-win team to a 56-win team, and Paul made the playoffs for the first time.
This is Irving’s third year in the league, and this is the third year of the rebuild. The Cavs are on the clock. Thankfully, it isn’t at the draft.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.