As the Cavaliers grab ice packs and aspirin for all the lumps they’ve taken the last three years, as they quietly pass on free agency and strategically negotiate trades for short-term contracts, there is an end game, an ultimate prize.
With a couple of nifty financial turns around the roster, the Cavaliers can have enough cap space to add two max contracts during the summer of 2014.
That isn’t necessarily the plan — and given the luxury tax repercussions, it’s probably not even the wisest strategy — but it yet again illustrates the way this organization is gearing up for what could be another franchise-altering event about 15 months from now.
Yes, LeBron James will be a free agent then. Yes, the Cavaliers are interested. No, no one — not even James — has any idea yet how this will go.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls could also have the cap space to sign him, but James passed on the Bulls once already. The general consensus is this will come down to Cleveland and Miami, with both organizations having valid reasons to believe he’ll choose them and both with legitimate concerns for why he won’t.
The morning James returned to Cleveland last February and said he’d love to play for the Cavs again if the fans would have him, I called a member of his inner circle. Without putting a timeframe on anything, I asked one of his closest friends what he thought of the remarks.
“It’s still 2½ years from happening,” I was told. “It’s still a fragile relationship on both sides. There are a lot of conversations that need to be had and now is not the time.”
Now a year later, it still isn’t the right time. But anyone who says James won’t return to the Cavs because he now has the winning formula in Miami is mistaken. In fact, it was made clear to me James wouldn’t return until he won a championship.
He left Cleveland to win a title, therefore he couldn’t return without one. Now that he has one ring — and an excellent shot at another this summer — that self-imposed obstacle has been removed.
If James decides he wants to return home, nothing the Heat can say or do will stop him. But Heat owner Micky Arison isn’t going to just let James leave without exhausting every opportunity to keep him. If that means trading Chris Bosh and retooling the roster around James and Dwyane Wade, he’ll do it. If it means finding a successor to Pat Riley that James approves, he’ll do it.
Riley will be 69 when James is a free agent. One idea that has at least floated down South Beach is for the Heat to aggressively pursue Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to replace Riley as team president.
James has strong ties to Krzyzewski from their time together with USA Basketball. Krzyzewski will be 67 next summer — not much younger than Riley — but he has been infatuated with the NBA from afar despite always declining coaching opportunities.
He declined the Los Angeles Lakers job in 2004, but nearly took the New Jersey Nets job three years ago when incoming owner Mikhail Prokhorov was prepared to pay him between $12 million and $15 million per season to make him the league’s highest-paid coach. But news of the potential deal leaked too soon — while Krzyzewski was preparing for a national championship game against Butler — and he was forced to publicly withdraw from consideration.
If the Heat ever pursued Krzyzewski, it likely wouldn’t be to coach the team, but instead to run the organization.
There are plenty of strategic moves to be played between now and then, beginning with the Cavs’ need to improve the roster. That will be easier said than done, since any long-term commitments would eliminate the very cap space they’ve spent three years protecting.
They aren’t expected to pursue any of the top free agents in this class, but instead are stockpiling draft picks for a potential deal similar to what the Houston Rockets struck when they acquired James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Those deals, however, are incredibly difficult to complete.
Locking in hard numbers now for 2014 is impossible because 1.) no one yet knows where the Cavs will draft or 2.) how many draft picks they’ll have, 3.) what the salary cap will be and 4.) free agents are entitled to different percentages of the salary cap based on service time.
The higher the Cavs’ selections this summer and next, the more money they’ll have to devote to the draft. The Cavs could also gain a first-round pick next summer if the Sacramento Kings fall out of the top 12 next year.
James can earn 35 percent of the salary cap in 2014 for being a 10-year veteran, while someone younger can only make 25 or 30 percent of the cap.
Yet assuming they don’t add significant money to future payrolls this summer, the Cavs could conceivably clear enough space for two max contracts in 2014 by trading Anderson Varejao and trading or releasing Alonzo Gee. They could also waive Varejao, since only a small portion of his $9.8 million salary for 2014-15 is guaranteed, although it’s highly unlikely they would simply release him. A trade at some point over the next 15 months is more conceivable. Gee’s deal for the 2014-15 season of about $3 million is also not guaranteed.
Of course, the new collective bargaining agreement was established to prevent teams from loading up on max players and creating super teams. And Cleveland, of course, has never been a destination for marquee free agents. James is the exception because of his local ties. And if they somehow landed two max stars in the same summer, they’d soon be confronted with the same tax ramifications the Heat are about to face.
The Cavs have tried trading for an established star the last couple of years and they’ve been shut out. No one actually thought the Thunder would trade Harden so early, particularly since they had until the trade deadline next season before the tax penalties kicked in. Regardless, they didn’t have the necessary pieces to match up with the Thunder because they didn’t have an explosive, veteran scorer like Kevin Martin to replace Harden.
But they do have a war chest of draft picks and some young, rising players with high ceilings if a team is eventually willing to trade a star and start over. Kevin Love is not on the market now, but that could change over the next year. The same is true of the Memphis Grizzlies, who are holding on to Marc Gasol for now. Maybe that changes later, maybe it doesn’t. But a trade for a high-impact player, where future dollars are already established, is the wiser path than trying to aim in the wind for two free agents in 2014.
There is still time. The Cavs have another full calendar year to figure this out. But the opportunity is out there. With a couple of strategic moves, they can create the opportunity for two max contracts.
It’s a risk, but it’s also their best shot at a championship. In fact, it might be their only chance.
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.