The NBA Finals are wrapped up, and the offseason has officially begun for all 30 teams in the NBA. The two squads that met in the NBA Finals -- Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers -- will have drastically different offseasons. The reigning NBA Champions will have some shuffling to do at the bottom and ends of their rosters, while the Cavaliers are locked into their role players and are awaiting the crucial decision for LeBron James this summer.
Here's a potential outlook and game plan for each team:
2017-18 Record: 50-32
2018 Draft Picks: 8th (via BRK)
Restricted Free Agents: G Rodney Hood
Unrestricted Free Agents: F Jeff Green, PG Jose Calderon
Other Players of Note: F LeBron James (player option), F Okaro White (non-guaranteed contract), C Kendrick Perkins (team option with non-guaranteed contract)
Committed Salary: $137,976,709
Luxury Tax Room: -$13.9 million
No team has ever been more strangled by the decision of one player than these Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James will decide whether he'll move on or come back to Cleveland and try again with this core. It will be a divisive decision and one that impacts his legacy and perception greatly. From an organizational perspective, it's the difference between trying to compete for an NBA Championship and starting a full tear-down of a team that made the NBA Finals four-straight times.
Order of Operations:
1. Wait on LeBron
There's no choice in the matter. Whatever LeBron wants, LeBron gets. If he chooses to return, the Cavaliers will have to suck up the luxury tax penalties, orchestrate a few more moves to improve their chances of toppling Golden State, and vie for another NBA Championship. It's the only logical move as long as LeBron is around.
If LeBron opts out and leaves, the Cavaliers will still have a committed salary of over $102 million. Retaining Rodney Hood would likely vault them closer to $110 million, and a Mid-Level Exception could put them closer to the luxury tax. From there, Cleveland can limit their own spending, and perhaps even try to move in on an Eastern Conference playoff spot built around Kevin Love for a year. It's unlikely they'd qualify, but crazier things have happened.
The nightmare scenario though involves LeBron opting into his final year and demanding a trade, allowing him to pick a team like the Houston Rockets, where he can compete and the Rockets can bypass free agency restrictions to bring back their core. Cleveland would then have little choice but to absorb big contracts of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, vaulting them into the luxury tax again and forcing an all-out tear down to both lower costs and accumulate assets to be competitive down the line. Cleveland would likely be one of the worst teams in the league next season as a result.
With those three different scenarios, we will take you through a quick sketch of the team's best plans within each situation, following a quick synopsis about their draft scenarios:
2. The 8th pick and the LeBron timeline
Many times a team that is competing for a title but still manages to snag a top-ten pick will spend the pick on a long-term piece that has a great deal of upside. Detroit did that with Darko Milicic back in 2003, opting not to shake up the established core. Cleveland doesn't have that luxury and needs pieces that help them win within LeBron's window.
The 8th pick is a little too low in the draft, and the Cavaliers have a few too many needs, to predict exactly who they'll take at a spot like this. Trendy names like Mikal Bridges of Villanova, Wendell Carter Jr. of Duke, Miles Bridges of Michigan State and Collin Sexton of Alabama are all ready to play immediately and could provide the Cavaliers an extra punch on either end of the court. Cleveland is hopeful to have the LeBron decision clearer by the draft on June 21st, but likely will go into it blind. If a player like Michael Porter Jr. or Trae Young is still on the board at 8th overall, this could be an intriguing dilemma for GM Koby Altman: draft one of those tantalizing but flawed pieces, or pass on them and go with a more immediately-ready piece?
3a. (LeBron stays): Let Hood walk
If LeBron decides to stay, he could do so by opting out and signing a new deal for more money with the Cavaliers. That would stiffen the tax penalty on the Cavs, and make a divisive player like Rodney Hood potentially expendable. Hood's asking price will likely be above $5 million a year, adding nearly $22 million in luxury tax penalties at the minimum. Cleveland likely cannot match another offer if one comes in for Hood, and should prepare to move on and plug that hole with Veteran Minimum deals.
4a. (LeBron stays): MLE options
Their emphasis should go on using their $5.4 million MLE to retain Jeff Green. The Cavs don't have to use the entire exception on Green, but something slightly more than the minimum should dictate his return. Again, the luxury tax is a major concern here, but splitting the MLE with Green and maybe one more perimeter shooting veteran like Marco Belinelli or Jamal Crawford.
5a. (LeBron stays): Limited trading options
There aren't a lot of ways the Cavaliers can engineer trades this summer. Few people will want to touch the large guarantees to guys like George Hill, JR Smith, Jordan Clarkson and Tristan Thompson. Both Hill and Smith have partial guarantees in 2019-20, though it's more likely that other organizations wait until at least February to take advantage of those assets. Altman might have to shop younger pieces like Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic to add some veteran role players if they want to make aggressive moves.
3b. (LeBron leaves via free agency): Lock up Hood
Once LeBron announces he's gone via free agency, expect many other teams to begin movement around the league -- there will be a great deal of patience as the rest of the league waits for his decision. Cleveland's first call should go to Hood, knowing they'll need his scoring and they have the Bird rights of a young restricted free agent. Instead of letting another team drive up the price, a fairly generous offer in the ballpark of three-years and $25 million with a third-year player option should get them in his good graces.
4b. (LeBron leaves via free agency): Shopping Kevin Love and Kyle Korver
Love and Korver both have extreme value on the trade market thanks to the duration of their deals and being pieces that are built around winning now. Love's offensive versatility makes him an ideal target for teams like Portland, Miami, Phoenix or Utah. Korver and his role playing prowess would be ideal for many title competitors. Cleveland will know the title window is closed as soon as LeBron leaves, and instead of overpaying to get off their worse contracts, getting prime draft assets or young players back for Love and Korver, without having to worry about the luxury tax, is a great option.
5b. (LeBron leaves via free agency): Building blocks
If Love and LeBron are both gone, who are the guys that the Cavaliers are building around? Larry Nance and Rodney Hood aren't top-notch options, and depending on what Cleveland does with the 8th pick they may not have an alpha male. Because Cleveland has a top-ten protection on their first-round pick, which is owed to Atlanta, they'd likely want to win as sparingly as possible, maximize the minutes to those youngsters they do possess, and add their franchise building block in the 2019 draft.
3c. (LeBron opt-in and trade): What do they take back?
Cleveland doesn't have a ton of control here, but if they take back more salary they're likely to also take back more picks. Houston would send Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, Portland likely CJ McCollum and Moe Harkless. Either way you slice it, if this scenario happens, LeBron is leaving the Cavaliers in a terrible scenario: with more dead weight salary, still with a massive luxury tax penalty and no players worth building around.
4c. (LeBron opt-in and trade): Complete tear-down, including paying to get money off
The Love and Korver trade scenarios still occur, but additionally Cleveland enters an additional territory: trading draft picks just to get off the contracts that vault them into the luxury tax. At that point, the non-guaranteed contracts of George Hill and JR Smith become more valuable to Cleveland than to other teams, allowing them to cut them next summer and precipitate a complete roster change. Owner Dan Gilbert won't want to pay the luxury tax in the meantime though, and with Cleveland likely having to shed up to $15 million just to dip that line, it's not unreasonable to expect the Cavaliers to attach a young player or a pick just to get below. Calls to Atlanta, Sacramento, Dallas, Chicago and Phoenix become priorities as the team searches for cap space.
5c. (LeBron opt-in and trade): Free agency chaos
It's unlikely the Cavaliers can afford Rodney Hood or use their MLE if they'll be in luxury tax territory and a non-competitor. Look for Cleveland to simply offer multiple camp invitees on minimum deals roster spots, starting the dreaded (dare I say it) tank job.
Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Record: 58-24
2018 Draft Picks: 28th
Restricted Free Agents: G Patrick McCaw
Unrestricted Free Agents: G Nick Young, C JaVale McGee, F/C Kevon Looney, F/C David West, C Zaza Pachulia
Other Players of Note: F Kevin Durant ($26.25m player option)
Committed Salary: $129,886,406
Luxury Tax Room: -$5.8 million
There aren't many questions with the core of this team right now. Eventually guys like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson will have to get paid, while Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are aging quickly. This summer's big investment: Kevin Durant, as the Finals MVP is likely to decline his player option for next season and cash in on a larger deal, likely worth the maximum available. That will add about $10 million to Golden State's luxury tax penalties, but it's worth it to keep the band together.
That said, Bob Myers and the rest of the basketball decision-makers must figure out how to balance the roster out in a summer where many veterans and key role players are free agents.
Order of Operations:
1. Size or versatility through the draft?
Picking 28th in the 2018 NBA Draft, Golden State will want to find another piece that can come in and help the core. As coach Steve Kerr noted on the Lowe Post podcast with Zach Lowe this morning, he likes the thought of adding youth and more guys that must scratch and claw for minutes, as it helps keep the team motivated and adds a mentoring presence to the vets that keep them engaged. Golden State won't be selling this pick at all.
That said, many of their free agents are interior defenders and guys that come in and guard opposing post players. Golden State's best draft pick of the last three years, Jordan Bell, projects as a 4 or a 5 man that could take some of that responsibility. The Warriors also have a need for outside shooting combined with positional versatility, where some of their most versatile pieces - Iguodala, Livingston, Bell and Draymond Green - are below-average three-point shooters at best. Assuming the Warriors view valuable pieces of each on the board when they pick, which priority will they take?
To me, it has to be outside shooting and defensive versatility. There aren't a ton of big men of value that will be on the board around 28th. Omari Spellman of Villanova and Mitchell Robinson are the two names that could hover around that area. Instead, the shooters and long wings that can both shoot and defend multiple positions are bountiful near the end of the first-round. Some names: Josh Okogie, Khyri Thomas, Chandler Hutchison, Keita Bates-Diop and Melvin Frazier.
2. Kevin Durant's deal done early
There is no advantage to the Warriors waiting in free agency to get the long-term deal with Durant agreed upon. The Warriors should give him whatever he is looking for money-wise. That said, which type of structure will Durant prefer? A one-and-one contract similar to LeBron James, where he takes a higher dollar amount but retains the leverage to opt out and leave whenever he wants?
Durant could also opt for a three-year max deal, with a player option in the second year. That would open him up for a potential five-year max deal in 2020, when the cap is once again expected to spike, worth around $225 million. The other option is signing a four-year max now, which would be worth a total of $158 million. That is the least likely option, and because Durant holds all the leverage over the tax-saddled Warriors that have no choice but to pay him, he should go for one of the first two scenarios.
3. Prioritizing and Paying their own Early Bird Free Agents
Golden State has some needs via free agency, and players like Kevon Looney and JaVale McGee are due raises beyond their near-minimum contracts. Golden State has Early Bird rights for McGee, David West and Zaza Pachulia, meaning they can retain them for up to $8.7 million (105% of the league-average salary is the max that a team can offer an Early Bird free agent). The other option would be to split some of the Mid-Level Exception to keep McGee or Looney, if not both, and then use some of it elsewhere on attracting a new free agent.
Early Bird Rights are tricky for the Warriors because of how it relates to the luxury tax. Paying guys like McGee, Looney, West or Patrick McCaw more than a minimum contract to come back will skyrocket their repeater tax penalties and raise their payroll. On the flip side, not paying them means the Warriors only have the MLE and minimum deals to attract new players. In a year with a truncated market and technically only 10 teams with more than the full MLE to offer, the Warriors could have the advantage of seeing good players trickle down to them as the money dries up elsewhere. Would that be enough to convince them to forego spending more on their own free agents with Early Bird contracts? Most experts think so.
My best guess is that the Warriors will split the difference. Guys like JaVale McGee and Patrick McCaw (who has his own unique situation as an Arenas provision restricted free agent) would be their top targets for Golden State to lock up long-term. However, they do need to preserve that full $5.45 million Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, as that combined with their winning circumstances should net them a decent haul. Replacing Pachulia or David West's on-court production should be easier. But Myers should spend to retain at least one of McGee or McCaw though, as letting all those players go and replacing them only through the draft and Mid-Level is a tall task.
4. The Taxpayer MLE and Nick Young
That truncated market that was mentioned before should benefit the Warriors with utilizing their Mid-Level Exception. That likely means that with their $5.45 million offer they can snag somebody that's an upgrade over Nick Young. Of course, there is the added Early Bird rights that come next summer from using the MLE on Swaggy P, but the Warriors are more concerned with adding the right players to win now than navigating the cap for a veteran like Young.
Who are some of the targets the Warriors should go after with their Mid-Level Exception? Some veterans might take the paycut and come to Golden State like Brook Lopez, Avery Bradley or even Trevor Ariza. Other names that are more perimeter-oriented, like Joe Harris or Wayne Ellington, could draw their attention.
5. Balancing veterans minimums with undrafted free agents
Kerr mentioned he wants those younger players to come to town, and the undrafted free agent pool should be an attractive draw for them... not to mention those rookies liking the thought of going to the Bay Area. How should the Warriors finish the end of their roster with veterans that can help them win and in the locker room with some high-upside youngsters?
Much of that depends on what players are available and who the Warriors target elsewhere. Still, don't be shocked if Golden State even purchases a second-round pick once again and gets in on the action for a high-upside piece that falls down draft boards for whatever reason.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).