When I wrote that LeBron James – who has been sounding off about the Cavaliers’ roster – held frustrations with the Heat’s roster that contributed to him leaving Miami, I didn’t elaborate on all the circumstances. It wasn’t just that the Heat failed to build a supporting cast that satisfied LeBron. It was that they didn’t spend as much as LeBron desired.
But maybe there is no distinction between that situation and Cleveland’s.
Tension between LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ leadership is centered around payroll spending, multiple sources told ESPN.
James and team owner Dan Gilbert have different viewpoints on the issue and it has been straining the relationship, sources said.
When James was considering returning to the Cavs in 2014, James pressed Gilbert on if he’d be willing to spend unconditionally on talent regardless of the luxury tax cost, sources said. Over the course of several meetings with James and his representatives, Gilbert agreed and James subsequently signed with the team.
The Cavaliers have the NBA’s highest payroll. They’re on track to spend $154,616,543 – $127,519,873 in player salaries and $27,096,670 in luxury tax – this season. They also had the NBA’s highest payroll last year. In LeBron’s first season back, they ranked second in payroll and paid the luxury tax, no small feat considering they dipped far below the salary cap the prior offseason to sign him and the system is designed to limit a quick escalation of team salary.
By any reasonable standard, Gilbert is spending abundantly.
But LeBron is under no obligation to hold reasonable standards.
Many believed it was unreasonable for LeBron to play again for Gilbert, who attacked the superstar personally and with racist undertones in his infamous letter. If LeBron demanded limitless financial commitment from Gilbert to return, it was up to Gilbert to agree or not. And if Gilbert did, LeBron can hold him to that standard.
Even with Cleveland’s monstrous payroll, there’s room for more spending.
Despite LeBron’s repeated pleas for another point guard, the Cavs have held an open roster spot for weeks. There aren’t great options available – Norris Cole, Ray McCallum, Will Bynum, Kirk Hinrich, Kendall Marshall, Andre Miller – but it seems LeBron just wants someone who can eat up a few minutes per game. While Cleveland waits, Ronnie Price, Chasson Randle and Pierre Jackson have been taken off the market by 10-day contracts. The Cavaliers will probably eventually sign someone, but why the delay? They save about $20,000 in salary and luxury tax each day the roster spot goes unfilled.
Meanwhile, the Cavs continues to carry Chris Andersen, who’s on a one-year contract and out for the season. Waiving him would allow them to sign a second player who can help the team now – but would also mean double-dipping in cost, as they’d have to eat Andersen’s salary. It’s always possible they can trade him to another team that would pay him. The same went for Mo Williams, who filled a roster spot despite being de facto retired until Cleveland unloaded him in the Kyle Korver trade – another deal that saved money. Taking Williams was a burden on the Hawks, and if they didn’t have to do that, perhaps they would have accepted less-favorable protections on the draft pick they received.
The Cavaliers also have two trade exceptions worth more than $4 million each. Packaging one with a draft pick could land a helpful player, though such a trade would also add substantially to the Cavs’ luxury tax. It’s worth noting that, in the Korver trade, Cleveland essentially chose to have these two trade exceptions that would last into next season rather than a single trade exception that could add a much-pricier player but only this season.
So, I see why this would upset LeBron, who has little to no margin for error against the star-studded Warriors. With the Cavaliers’ lackluster depth, he’s playing an NBA-high 37.6 minutes per game – hardly ideal playoff preparation for the 32-year-old. Cleveland has also lost six of eight, exacerbating any problems.
But LeBron mistimed his complaints. If Gilbert is inclined to appease his franchise player, LeBron could have affected much more in the offseason. LeBron signed off on the Cavs not matching the Bucks’ offer sheet for Matthew Dellavedova, who is exactly the type of player – an effective backup point guard for the long haul of the regular season – Cleveland needs right now. If he really wanted to push Gilbert, LeBron could’ve demanded the Cavaliers beat the Lakers’ lucrative offer to Timofey Mozgov. Though Mozgov was an unrestricted free agent and left for a starting job, money and sentimentality probably could’ve kept him with the Cavs.
Mozgov would’ve been an incredible luxury (-tax burden) coming off the bench in Cleveland, but the cost wouldn’t have been LeBron’s problem. Failing to match on Dellavedova seems like a mistake given everything that has transpired. That LeBron lacked the foresight to demand Dellavedova be kept at the time matters only so much. LeBron holds the power, and nothing can stop him from citing the Dellavedova and Mozgov cases in a list of grievances when he becomes a free agent next year.
The best way for Gilbert to prevent that? Grit his teeth and spend as much as possible before then.