The Cleveland Cavaliers won't have long to dwell on falling short in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. With several key players set to hit free agency and the need to keep building around LeBron James and his desire to compete for titles annually, the offseason looms large even after the successes of the past year.
James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova could all be free agents, either restricted or unrestricted, by July 1. That's not as bad as it sounds because many of those players are locks to return, but retaining them will push the Cavaliers' payroll to well over $100 million, making it difficult to add more talent.
LeBron is the top priority, and there's little reason to believe his future with the team is in danger at this point. Even if the forward opts out of his 2015-16 player option, it's expected that he'll sign another short-term deal with the Cavaliers to continue maintaining flexibility going forward.
Either way, the Cavaliers know they have their franchise player for a limited window and needs to keep giving him reasons to stay. The way to do that is give him a better roster than the one he had against Golden State. The core of LeBron and Kyrie Irving is sure to remain intact, but otherwise general manager David Griffin has a lot of issues to solve.
Like James, Love has a player option for 2015-16 that he's expected to decline. There has been a lot of speculation about the 26-year-old leaving this summer following an up-and-down debut year in Cleveland. He and James in particular didn't hit it off as expected and his role in the Cavaliers' offense was minimal for a player with his talents.
Publicly, Love has been consistent in committing to the Cavaliers. On May 31, Love said he expected to suit up for the Cavaliers on opening day next season. A week later, he doubled down when asked again about his plans. But that's not going to stop teams from coming after him if he does opt out.
What's less certain is the kind of deal Love receives if he stays with the Cavaliers. Does he follow James' lead and take a short-term contract in hopes of cashing in when the salary cap booms in a couple years as expected? Or, does he go for the five-year maximum and take the job security? There are several options on the table, and whichever one Love chooses could impact the team's ability to spend more elsewhere.
The Cavaliers offered Thompson a four-year, $52 million deal last offseason, but he declined in favor of playing out his rookie contract. That decision that looks to be paying off for the 24-year-old, who seems likely to command an even bigger dollar figure this summer as a restricted free agent following a breakout playoff performance.
Thompson shares an agent and a strong personal relationship with LeBron, two reasons to believe that the Cavaliers will figure out a way to keep him long-term. James told reporters that "Tristan should probably be a Cavalier for his whole career. There's no reason why he shouldn't" during the conference finals, and management is surely aware of those comments.
Retaining one of LeBron's favorite teammates is an easy way to keep James happy. At the very least, the Cavaliers know they can keep Thompson for next season on a one-year, $7.1 million qualifying offer, but that would allow him to hit unrestricted free agency next season. Expect the team to try to work out a long-term contract with Thompson, or match any offer sheet extended by another team. That contract could be for much more than the $52 million one he turned down last summer.
Delly, Shump and J.R.
We know Irving will be the Cavaliers' starting point guard next season. The mystery is figuring out who will join him in the backcourt, with Dellavedova and Shumpert set to hit restricted free agency and Smith expected to decline his 2015-16 player option. Dellavedova and Shumpert are restricted free agents, while Smith is unrestricted.
It's possible the team will lose at least one of these players by the end of the summer, especially if Smith decides to pursue a lucrative long-term deal on the open market. Cleveland may want Smith back, but only at the right price.
It's also possible Dellavedova or Shumpert receives a sizable offer sheet from another team, putting the Cavaliers in the difficult position of matching a figure larger than expected or letting the player go for nothing. The odds of that happening aren't likely after the duo struggled to end the Finals, but it's another element the team will have to consider this summer.
Filling out the roster
Assuming LeBron, Love and the restricted free agents stay, the Cavaliers' biggest challenge for the offseason will be adding to their bench. A healthy core of LeBron, Love, Irving, Shumpert, Thompson and Timofey Mozgov is very strong, so the goals are to keep that group together and make upgrades to the rest of the roster.
The NBA Finals showed that James badly needs more help. Most of that next season should come from getting Irving, Love and Anderson Varejao back, but adding more depth will be important after being undermanned during the Finals.
If Smith leaves through free agency, the team will need help on the wings even with Shumpert still around. Veterans like James Jones, Mike Miller and Shawn Marion just didn't cut it in the playoffs, and the team can't possibly go into next season banking on aging players to be in their rotation. Miller and Jones always seems to stick with LeBron, but the team needs more than they can provide.
The Cavaliers will have to get creative, however, given the amount of money that will be on the books from other players. The team must shell out well over $100 million to keep its core together next season. That'll be the highest payroll in the league and command a massive luxury tax bill. How the team will add to the bench beyond that is hard to say, though it likely involves pitching veterans the chance at winning a title at dirt cheap salaries. The Cavaliers also have Brendan Haywood's $10 million non-guaranteed contract to use as a trade asset.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert has said he would be willing to spend, but this summer will test those words. The Cavaliers will be good enough to contend next season if they can just tweak this roster and stay healthy. It just won't be cheap.
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