The Cleveland Cavaliers will have many decisions to make concerning their roster this offseason, and those decisions depend entirely on what choice LeBron James makes in free agency. His decision will not only change the present and future of the Cavs, but also the entire NBA.
James’ impact on Cleveland cannot be understated, and what he decides to do will shape the Cavaliers’ team for the next decade.
Prior to the 2014-2015 season, the Cavs’ rebuild was coming along nicely. A 33-49 record in the 2013-2014 season was not fantastic, but Cleveland finished third in the Central Division and won nine more games than the previous season. The Cavaliers had formed a nice young core of players, including shooting guard Dion Waiters and three first overall picks; point guard Kyrie Irving, small forward Andrew Wiggins, and power forward Anthony Bennett.
Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach David Blatt joined the Cavs after winning five championships in the Israeli Super League. Blatt was the perfect coach to mold Cleveland’s young core into a playoff contender, and that’s exactly why he signed a four-year $20 million contract.
But on July 11th, 2014, everything changed.
In a stunning move, LeBron James announced he was returning to his former team, and general manager David Griffin went into a frenzy. First, the Cavs needed cap space to sign James to a max contract. In order to do this, Cleveland traded Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev to the Brooklyn Nets and Tyler Zeller to the Boston Celtics.
Six weeks later, Griffin sent Bennett and Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Love. Instead of a young team looking to make its first playoff appearance in four years, Cleveland was transformed into the NBA Finals favorite.
Ever since then, the Cavs have continually churned their roster in an attempt to keep up with the Golden State Warriors, who surprised everyone by winning the championship in 2014-2015 and beginning one of the most dominant dynasties professionals sports has ever seen.
In January 2015, Waiters was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and in return, the Cavaliers acquired J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks. Two days later, Cleveland sent a pair of future first-round draft picks to the Denver Nuggets for big man Timofey Mozgov.
On the night of the 2015 NBA Draft, the Cavs selected Duke point guard Tyus Jones and promptly traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the future draft pick which would eventually become Cedi Osman.
Before the 2015-2016 season began, Cleveland locked down Love, Shumpert, Smith, and Tristan Thompson on long-term contracts. Anderson Varejao and a future first-round pick were sent to the Orlando Magic for Channing Frye in February of 2016, and the Cavs were able to win their first-ever NBA championship in June.
In January 2017, Mo Williams, Mike Dunleavy, and a future first-round pick were sent to the Atlanta Hawks for sharpshooter Kyle Korver. Jeff Green, Derrick Rose, and Dwyane Wade were free agent signingings in the summer of 2017. Out of necessity, Kyrie Irving was dealt to the Celtics in exchange for Isiaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the pick that would become Collin Sexton.
At the trade deadline in February 2018, out went Crowder, Rose, Shumpert, Thomas, and Frye, and in came Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill, and Rodney Hood.
All of these moves illustrate Cleveland’s philosophy when it comes to roster building with James on the team; the roster is fluid, and the Cavs are in a complete win-now mode. The front office will do “Whatever It Takes” to give the team a better chance at winning a championship.
If James re-signs with the Cavaliers or opts into the final year of his current deal, this strategy won’t change. In fact, it could be amped up to a different level.
The way the team is currently constructed, Cleveland is not going to be able to beat Golden State, and they would probably lose to the Houston Rockets as well. After all, the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics pushed the Cavs to seven games in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and the Warriors swept the Cavaliers in the Finals.
James’ decision could mean a potential departure for around half the roster. The Cavs most likely need another All-Star player if they hope to contend for a title once again, and rumored targets include Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George.
With James retained, it isn’t completely ridiculous to think that the Cavaliers could end up with one of those names or a player of similar caliber. If they want to win another championship, they almost have to.
However, if James leaves to try and win a championship elsewhere, Cleveland’s philosophy will shift 180 degrees. The focus would then be on initiating another rebuild, with Sexton as the centerpiece. Players like Hill, Tristan Thompson, and Love should be traded for young players and first-round draft picks, and the Cavs should explore taking on bad contracts from other teams in exchange for picks.
Few players can make the type of impact that LeBron James can when he isn’t even on the court. But then again, there aren’t many players like James. His decision will send shock-waves across Cleveland and the rest of the NBA, and the entire sports world will be watching to see what he does.