The Cavaliers, somewhat inadvertently, had a two-step plan for attracting back LeBron James after losing him in 2010:
1. Remain in Northeast Ohio, where he’s from
2. Accumulate assets that could be flipped into winning players
The Cavs completed the first step by remaining in Cleveland. They executed the second step by not only losing, but also parlaying lottery luck into especially high draft picks. The Cavaliers landed the No. 1 pick in three of their four LeBron-less years.
But only two of those No. 1 picks originally belonged to the Cavs. They got the 2011 top pick as an unprotected Clippers first-rounder earlier that year in exchange for taking Baron Davis’ toxic contract. Well worth the opportunity to draft Kyrie Irving.
Now, again in the dumps without LeBron, Cleveland is eying a similar strategy.
In conversations the Cavs have had around the league, they’ve begun to express that they’ll be willing to take on long-term salary as the trade deadline approaches, league sources said.
The Cavaliers aren’t any good now. They don’t project to be any good soon. Cleveland is not a free agent destination. This probably the best use of the Cavs’ cap space.
They have a few players who’d be useful in such trades:
- George Hill ($19 million salary this season, $1 million of $18 million guaranteed next season)
- J.R. Smith ($14.72 million salary this season, $3.87 million of $15.68 million guaranteed next season)
- Alec Burks ($11,536,515 salary on expiring contract)
The Cavaliers would accept burdensome, longer contracts in exchange for sweeteners – draft picks, valuable players. The other team would get cap relief after this season.
Burks, just acquired from the Jazz, can be flipped only until the upcoming trade deadline. Hill could still be traded after the season, but his salary would count only at his guaranteed amount for 2019-20, undercutting the viability of dealing him after the trade deadline.
But, because he signed under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, Smith will count at his full salary – even after the season. So, there’s not the same urgency to deal him. (Which is why Cleveland is keeping him on the roster despite sending him home.)
Becoming a salary-dumping ground makes the Cavs more likely to lose longer, but that’s OK for a couple reasons:
1. They’re likely to lose, anyway.
2. They owe the Hawks a top-10-protected first-rounder this season or next.
If the pick doesn’t convey either year, Cleveland will instead send Atlanta two second-rounders – likely far less valuable than the first-rounder.
It’s a good time for the Cavaliers to be very bad. They should make the most of it. It’ll pay off once they’re eventually good again.