What should the Cavs do with the Nets pick: The answer depends on LeBron James
Late Wednesday evening, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics agreed, at last, to finalize their trade centered on Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas. In addition to the original deal that had Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first round pick going to Cleveland in exchange for Irving, the Celtics added in the Miami Heat’s 2020 second round pick, in order to compensate for Isaiah Thomas’ hip injury that could keep him out for a significant portion of the 2017-18 season.
The Cavaliers now have more options for the present and future than they had with Irving on the team. The biggest question, the one that will affect every move made after the trade, is whether LeBron James will be staying with the Cavs or will he chase another ring elsewhere?
As of now, Dan Gilbert and the Cavs are doing business under the assumption that James will leave next summer. While this may sound worrying at first, it is not a bad strategy. The Cavs have to be prepared for life after LeBron, because no matter how scary it sounds, it will happen eventually. It may not be this summer, but at some point, LeBron James will not be a Cavalier.
Right now, the Cavs have a veteran team. Derrick Rose will turn 29 years old in October. J.R. Smith will be 32 in less than two weeks. James will be 33. Kevin Love will be 29. Tristan Thompson will turn 27 this season. The bench is even older than the starting lineup: Richard Jefferson is 37 years old, Kyle Korver is 36, Channing Frye will be 35, and Jae Crowder is 27 — one of the younger members of the team. The Cavs have definitely been in win-now mode for the past few seasons, and it could cost them if James signs elsewhere.
Is James likely to leave? No, as his primary goal at this point in his career is to win as many championships as possible. The Cavs are the clear favorite in the East, with even the new-look Celtics unlikely to pose much of a threat. James would be better served to remain in the conference as it would be far more difficult to beat the Warriors in the playoffs on a West team. Staying in the East almost guarantees James a Finals appearance, while heading West would decrease his chances tremendously. No other team in the East is as talented as Cleveland, nor has the cap space needed to sign James. It would be extremely surprising if James leaves the Cavs.
As unlikely as it is that LeBron James suits up in a different jersey next season, what if it happens? In that case, the Cavs would have two options: blow it all up and begin rebuilding or attempt to compete for a playoff spot with their still-talented roster.
In the first scenario, the Cavs would most likely not re-sign Isaiah Thomas, as he will probably be seeking a max contract. The team would also attempt to trade its veteran players, namely Korver, Smith, Love, and Thompson. The Atlanta Hawks own the Cavs’ 2019 first round pick, which is Top 10 protected, so if the Cavs dump their key veteran players and give young players such as Kay Felder, Cedi Osman, and Ante Zizic more playing time, they may be able to recoup that selection.
If James leaves, then the Cavs would have held onto the Nets’ 2018 first round pick acquired in the Irving deal. This is the key to either the Cavs’ rebuild, or drastically improving their team to beat the Warriors. The 2018 draft class is stacked at the top, with the crown jewels being forwards Marvin Bagley III and Michael Porter Jr. If the Cavaliers are able to land one of those two players, their rebuild will be off to a fantastic start as both prospects have the potential to be franchise cornerstones.
If the Cavs still want to compete after James leaves, they would certainly be able to. They could re-sign Isaiah Thomas and run a lineup of Thomas, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson, while continuing to develop Osman and Zizic off the bench. While this team wouldn’t pose a threat to the Warriors, James’ new team, or the Celtics, it would easily make the playoffs in a weak Eastern conference. The Nets’ pick would also still be in play here, so the Cavs could have a bright future while remaining competitive for the present.
Moving onto happier subjects, what are the Cavs’ options if LeBron James returns? While trading Irving saves the Cavs money as far as the luxury tax is concerned, they will still be without cap space due to the large contracts and cap holds of James, Smith, Love, and Thompson. The Cavs are used to having their hands tied as far as new additions go, so this would be nothing new.
The team would have LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas’ bird rights, so they would be able to go over the cap to sign both players. Whether or not the Cavs would be interested in re-signing Thomas to a large deal is unclear, as they are apparently very concerned with his hip injury. Unfortunately, due to their lack of cap space, the Cavs may not have any better options at point guard. Chris Paul is almost certainly unattainable, as is Mike Conley. Eric Bledsoe could happen, but do the Cavs have anything to trade that the Suns would be interested in? Who knows?
As of now, the Cavs’ bench has drastically improved from last season, but Isaiah Thomas is a downgrade from Kyrie Irving, and that’s assuming he’s the same player he was before injury. If Cavs fans were scared when Irving was defending Stephen Curry, they have another thing coming with Thomas. At 5-foot-9, Thomas just doesn’t have the physical stature needed to play even passable defense against anyone. Golden State will expose this, and the Cavs will suffer because of it. It’s difficult to see the Cavs being able to beat Golden State with their current roster for this reason.
Any upgrades will need to be made via trade. All of a sudden, the Cavs have some attractive assets. The 2020 second rounder could be used in a salary dump of Iman Shumpert in order to save money. The 2018 Brooklyn pick will be extremely valuable, and could be used to get a star such as Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, and others, should the opportunity present itself. The Cavs also have their own 2018 pick back due to the Stepien rule, which can now be traded along with the Nets’ pick on draft night, which could be very interesting. The Cavs still own their 2021 pick, which could pique the curiosity of teams that think the Cavs will be a bad team by then.
Whatever the Cavs do will be dictated by what LeBron James decides to do. Ideally, he eventually commits to the Cavs long-term, which would allow the team to trade for a star this season and compete in the Finals. But, as James apparently wouldn’t commit to the team even with a trade offer that would bring Paul George and Eric Bledsoe to the Cavs in exchange for Irving on the table, that doesn’t appear to be likely.
If James doesn’t commit to the team this season, it could be a long year for Cavs fans, as the current roster would most likely pose less of a threat to Golden State than last year’s squad, while the opportunity to improve dramatically in the offseason looms. Due to the Irving trade, the Cavs have many good options for multiple scenarios, but everything will depend on what LeBron James’ decision is.