McCaw, a second-round pick in 2016 out of UNLV, played rotation minutes during the regular season for the last two championship Warriors teams. He became a restricted free agent this summer, and drew very little attention. The Warriors reportedly offered a two-year, $5 million deal to bring him back, but he declined due to a mix of wanting a bigger opportunity elsewhere and hoping for a bigger payday.
So he waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. So did the Warriors, refusing to budge and renounce his rights so that he could sign with whomever.
Just after Christmas, McCaw finally signed an offer sheet with another team, forcing the Warriors to act. The deal was a 2-year, $6 million contract with the Cavaliers, who were considered a Warriors rival until the minute LeBron James packed up and moved to Los Angeles. Now, Cleveland is the worst team in the league, and taking flyers on low-risk players honestly isn’t a bad strategy.
The Warriors had a couple of days to decide whether to match the offer (with a large luxury tax bill looming), and eventually declined to do so. Saga resolved, yes?
The offer sheet included a clause that let the Cavaliers off the hook for the contract if McCaw was waived by Jan. 7. McCaw played in three games for Cleveland, and then on Sunday, the day before all non-guaranteed 2018-19 contracts in the NBA became guaranteed for the season, the Cavaliers waived him.
Now McCaw is an unrestricted free agent, which is what he wanted all along, but which his status as a former second-round pick with two years of experience prevented. Rumors indicate the Cavaliers are interested in signing him again — they can now offer a 1-year deal, which is not allowed in restricted free agent offer sheets.
Basically, McCaw and the Cavaliers conspired to strip the Warriors of an asset, however weak, by executing a loophole that allows offer sheets to be fully non-guaranteed.
McCaw doesn’t actually matter to the Warriors — and I write that with all due respect. Their odds of winning the championship are not affected by McCaw’s presence or the team’s ability to use his contract status to improve their roster. We know this because the Warriors would have made more of an effort to retain or repurpose McCaw if he were that important. This is all an afternoon walking crooked through a windmill farm for the Warriors, in the grand scheme of things.
But it is a grand scheme, isn’t it? The Cavaliers weren’t much interested in McCaw, clearly: they waived him to sign Cameron Payne, for goodness sake. (No offense to Cam Payne, who is a master dap artist and has a name with so much pun-tential.)
So why did the Cavaliers bother to help McCaw escape the maw of restricted free agency? To stick it to the Warriors, of course!
Restricted free agency is a tool for NBA front office, a lever of power over young players that can be used to depress salaries and, well, restrict movement. Restricted free agency is truly one of the most powerful forces in NBA team-building. It’s what helps make the draft so important by giving incumbent teams huge advantages in retaining young stars for their second contracts. Weakening restricted free agency as a tool hurts all NBA teams and front offices in the end, while helping players and agents. The Cavaliers clearly helped McCaw and his agent here.
So why did the Cavaliers go against the grain and do this? It has to be pure pettiness.
There’s no other explanation for why an NBA team would MF another squad to no personal benefit. Someone in Cleveland must still be sore about the Warriors signing Kevin Durant and basically ending the rivalry after two close NBA Finals series. Revenge by helping Patrick McCaw escape restricted free agency at the expense of the Warriors is the saddest little revenge imaginable, but hate is a strange motivator.
The Cavaliers aren’t just bad at basketball since LeBron said goodbye. They’ve gotten bad at being petty, too.
The NBA will sew this up in the next collective bargaining agreement, possibly by forcing restricted free agent offer sheets to be guaranteed. It won’t even be controversial; it might go unnoticed. But restricted free agency is one of the pillars of NBA team strength in the ongoing power struggles between franchises and players. The league won’t welcome any sort of weakening of that pillar.
The only question is whether some other team will find an opportunity to use the loophole for a player more consequential than Patrick McCaw in the interim, and whether the known existence of the loophole will change the calculus as teams face standoffs with restricted free agents.