Where Do the Cleveland Cavaliers Go from Here?
By: MICHAEL PINA
Despite having the best player on the planet and one of the most impressive one-on-one scorers who ever lived, Cleveland needs a little more to get over the hump—and the Warriors—next season.
The Golden State Warriors are NBA champions once again, an anticlimactic result that felt preordained ever since Kevin Durant broke The Player's Tribune 11 months ago.
This Warriors team may be the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled, and they torched the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, averaging 117.5 points per 100 possessions while maintaining a blistering 103.1 pace (the pace was 95.4 in last year's Finals). Assuming Golden State remain in good health, it'll take league-shifting transactions for another team in the Western Conference to challenge them in a seven-game series anytime soon. Before us rises a dynasty that may hang over the league for another half-decade.
But even though these Finals ended in five games and disappointment for Cleveland, the Cavs proved they aren't a distant second. They pushed the Warriors throughout the back half of the series, and Golden State's stars needed to play otherworldly basketball to come out on top.
So what does Cleveland do now?
The Cavs already have three extremely good players who can play at a high enough level to dethrone the Warriors next season. First, of course, is LeBron James. Kevin Durant may have won his first Finals MVP this year, but James will keep his crown as Earth's best basketball player. He averaged 33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 10.0 assists per game—for those following at home, that's good—with a .630 True Shooting percentage. His value is undeniable: over the 28 minutes of rest James took this series, Cleveland managed to average 75.0 points per 100 possessions. In his 212 minutes on the court, that number rose to 116.5.
Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, remains an unsolvable riddle for opposing defenses off the bounce, even though a slew of curious, unforced turnovers in Game 5 were what ultimately crippled Cleveland's chances. Kevin Love showed he can be a net positive against Golden State's various trauma-inducing small-ball lineups. He handled himself on the defensive end, had his say on the glass, and forced the Warriors into some uncomfortable situations on the block.
So in discussing Cleveland's off-season plans, trading any one of these three doesn't feel wise. On paper, a Love for Paul George swap slightly improves Cleveland's chances in a matchup against Golden State, but expiring contracts make that extremely risky. With George and James both able to enter unrestricted free agency next summer, a Finals collapse in 2017-18 could send the franchise spiraling back to the lottery sooner than it has to.
At the same time, the Cavaliers can't roll this year's roster back and expect to be victorious next time around—they put up a good fight, but not that good a fight. So long as James is healthy, they should be able to waltz through the Eastern Conference again next season. The Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks could be more formidable opposition than what Cleveland saw this season, but nobody has an answer for James when he's surrounded by elite three-point shooting.
To beat the Warriors, though, Cleveland will need more. Their defense was atrocious throughout the regular season and sputtered when it mattered most in the Finals, particularly in transition. The Cavs have scarce resources to improve that side of the court without damaging their pristine offense, however, and it'll be particularly difficult to shore up the margins if the organization does not give general manager David Griffin a new contract. As things stand, Griffin's current deal will expire on June 30, and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has yet to indicate whether he's willing to increase Griffin's annual salary from just under $2 million in the years ahead.
Losing Griffin would be a major blow. He's been masterful since taking the job, beginning in 2014 when he cleared enough cap space to fit James, traded for Kevin Love, acquired J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov for future picks and Dion Waiters, scooped Kyle Korver for a top-ten protected first-round pick in 2019, and so on.
Without him, the franchise's long-term future becomes less clear, and its ability to maximize short-term growth is weakened. Even if Griffin returns, though, Cleveland is still in a tricky spot. They have no cap space this summer, zero draft picks, no tradable assets, and eight players from this year's team who are guaranteed money next season (not including Kyle Korver, who's an unrestricted free agent).
But they also have the taxpayer mid-level exception (worth a little over $5 million) and veteran's minimum contracts to dangle in front of any aging ring-chasers out there. Cleveland's primary goal should be to target athletes who can shoot and who may be willing to accept a reduced role with less money on a one-year deal in order to boost their stock heading into 2018. It's a stretch given the type of player Cleveland needs, but it's not totally impossible to imagine a scenario where someone bites.
They can also use a playmaking ball-handler to back up Irving, but the market there is paper-thin. Would someone like Darren Collison be willing to take the mini mid-level? How about Tyreke Evans? Ray Felton is the most likely get, but he'd be a stampede victim against the Warriors.
At the minimum, someone like Jodie Meeks (assuming he can stay healthy) or Randy Foye can be semi-helpful. Arron Afflalo is another option if the Sacramento Kings move on from his non-guaranteed contract. Maybe Zach Randolph is willing to pull a David West and take a major pay cut for a shot at the title as his career winds down. Z-Bo isn't a great fit against Golden State, but he could still ease the burden on Cleveland's stars over a lengthy regular season.
In the youth department, Cedi Osman is a 22-year-old Turkish prospect whose rights Cleveland obtained at the 2015 draft. He's a swingman with nice size who can potentially develop into a consistent three-point threat, but as of this moment there are more questions than answers over whether he'll be on next year's roster, let alone his ability to compete in a Finals setting against one of the best teams in history.
Cleveland's options don't inspire much optimism, but this team isn't miles away from the top. Had they defeated Golden State in a winnable Game 3 and shot the ball as they had throughout the first three rounds, they could've gone the distance this series.
James will apparently never decline, Irving still has room to improve, and Love should enter next year's postseason with more confidence than he's ever had. Even with so few ways to improve the roster in July, this team is already on the doorstep of regaining the title in 2018. They'll once again be major players in the buyout market, and a lot can happen between now and then to make a meaningful piece newly available.
There's no arguing that the Warriors should be a favorite next year, but Cleveland has the horses to keep up. They just need a few shrewd moves and a lot of luck to go their way.