Cavs Next Steps – Still Not A Clear Path to a Real Contender

Despite Solid Draft A Path To Success Is Elusive
Despite Solid Draft A Path To Success Is Elusive
As I outlined in my Cavs Draft Analysis, the team is set-up well for an opportunity to establish a sustainable championship caliber team. However, now that the majority of the “prep” is completed, the finishing steps are as dangerous as black ice on a frozen Winter day in Cleveland. I have tried and tried to generate in my mind a plausible scenario to get closer to that sustainable championship contending team. Each time I try to put the puzzle together and glean what the Cavs are thinking or what path I would take, I come up empty. I always reach a point where I don’t like a critical aspect of the plan and scrap it for the next one. If nothing else, this gives me a clear appreciation of the challenges facing the Cavs front office and Chris Grant.

So with that disclaimer that I really don’t like every idea I am about to present, I will give it a go from both angles. I will try my best to “guess” what the Cavs might be thinking and present how it might work or fail. I will also give my view on some possible options to consider to accomplish the same goal of a sustainable championship caliber team. As data, I will be referencing the Hoopsworld team salary data and the ESPN free agent list for this year and next summer as well. I also have the estimates of the NBA salary cap for the 2014-15 season. This is about the only data I am using for this blog except for looking at player stats. There is no way I can propose crazy 3 team trades or unexpected blockbusters. It is absolutely impossible to write anything rational when you start throwing out trades as a basis for a strategy. So I will purposely minimize trade options even though I will bring up some players that might be worth looking into as a realistic trade targets.

The Cavs have remained consistent, as I have pointed out before, with their administrative approach of not allowing the public or press to have information that could potentially be used against them. In other words, they will keep us all in the dark as much as possible. Some names have leaked out so far and I think that is all you will hear about is a name here and a name there. Some of this, as with the draft, will be misinformation and partial truths. They have made it clear that they need a backup point guard, a center/power forward, and a small forward. At no time have the Cavs assured anyone that they will get all of those needs filled this off-season, but they will try to upgrade as much as possible. I also believe that the Cavs are hoarding cap space as much as they can to allow them to facilitate a trade or take on salary in a trade. I don’t think they know exactly what might become available but they want to be ready when/if it does. They also want to have max contract space remaining for the 2014-15 class of free agents. Unfortunately, I think this puts the Cavs at a distinct disadvantage this off-season and makes it nearly impossible to bring in any veterans with impact for next year. They will try to keep cap flexibility and maybe bring in some minor “upgrades” or role players. The sad thing about this strategy is that they might end up with players similar to or only slightly better than the three we just gave up. I think that Speights, Livingston, and Ellington might be about as good as they will get this summer in free agency. The reason that they are not pursuing any of those three yet is they do not want to commit to a multiyear contract with any of them. If they could sign them all for one year, I think they would do it. But they know that would not be possible. They might even let CJ Miles go but I think that would be silly for an expiring contract worth only a little over 2 million for next year.

So, even when you see them possibly talking to Darren Collison, don’t get your hopes up. Collison will certainly demand and get a multiyear deal somewhere which just about rules out the Cavs. Even Jarrett Jack is probably out of our price range. That also makes signing Pekovic out of the question and Al Jefferson. There are virtually no starting small forwards in the free agent market so don’t hold your breath on that one. Therefore, if I gauge the Cavs correctly, they will not get players in free agency much more effective than the three veterans from Memphis that are now free agents. This might mean we are holding out for players to become available via trade once the highest profile free agents sign with other teams. This strategy could work because I do think some very solid players might be available for a reduced price depending on where Howard goes and others. This strategy is a high risk/high reward strategy. As happened with the draft, the Cavs could talk to every team under the sun about trades and come up stone cold empty. I admire Chris Grant’s persistence to get the best value in a trade, but sometimes the trades need to be a bit more even to happen.

If I am reading the Cavs strategy correctly, they will sign a couple minor free agents for short contracts and hope that a trade can be made to their advantage. If that kind of trade can not be made, then the Cavs run the risk of getting more desperate and making a really BAD trade rather than disappointing Mr. Gilbert. This strategy can work amazingly well if: 1) That favorable trade or trades can be made and we can upgrade the 13-14 team significantly without losing too much cap space or assets. or 2) If the team is upgraded enough to make the playoffs or nearly make the playoffs, and we can acquire two major free agents in the 2014-15 class. The strategy will fail if: 1) The Cavs can not make any favorable trades or, worse yet, make a really bad trade. or 2) They can not attract ANY of the 2014-15 free agents and are left with a shell of a team and Kyrie Irving on the way out the door.

That is my fear for the Cavs. I am concerned that the odds of the strategy I envision they are attempting is not good. If it works, fantastic. If it fails, the franchise is in big trouble. I have SERIOUS doubts that, even with a ton of cap space for two players, we can attract the marquis free agents from the 2014-15 class. We need to face facts here and recognize that Cleveland is not exactly the trendy destination for NBA free agents. The more high profile and high maintenance the player, the less likely he is to come to Cleveland under any circumstances. Next year’s class of free agents is full of high profile and high maintenance players. It is not a good year for the Cavs to go fishing. The players might eat the bait and evade the hook. That includes LeBron James who would like nothing better than to have the Cavs and Cleveland on their knees again begging him to come back and he flirts and then leaves for LA or whatever other high profile market can buy a championship. He did it before. What makes anyone in their right mind think it won’t happen again? So, if the strategy is to get a little better and hope James comes back in 14-15, it is virtually doomed to failure. I honestly don’t believe that is the strategy but that doesn’t mean the thought can’t frighten me.

My strategy would be much simpler and with a higher likelihood of success. I would try to make the team dramatically better with THIS year’s group of free agents and try to save room for one max contract in 14-15. I would not play the high stakes game of trying to pay Andrew Bynum max money for one year and see if he will accept it (and a club option for 14-15). I would not try to wait for bargain basement prices on marginal free agents or fantastic trades that will be very hard to complete. If a great trade presents itself, my approach would not preclude us from being a part of it. So that option will still exist but the strategy will not depend on it.

Let me present a couple of facts about our salaries, cap space, and projected cap space for 2014-15. The Cavs have committed (including CJ but excluding Kevin Jones and Quinn) about 30 million in salaries for next year. The estimated salary cap for next year is around 58.5 million. The Cavs, I believe, do not have the full 28 million in cap space because of previous roster issues and to sign our drafted players but do have well over 20 million. In 2014-15, they have nonguaranteed salaries for Varejao and Gee totaling about 13 million. The projected cap for 14-15 goes up substantially to about 62.1 million. If we traded or did not pay the nonguaranteed portion of Varejao and Gee’s salaries, we would have about 37 million in cap space to sign our newly drafted players and sign free agents. Of course, that does not represent a full roster so the actual cap space is lower because you need to fill out your roster with players. That means the Cavs could probably sign two max or near max players by the time the 2014-15 season comes around. I would not wait for that to occur.

My approach would be to try and sign a significant free agent this year and assess the teams progress. Based on the free agents available, there is not a small forward that is really worth bidding on. There are a couple of point guards worth considering and a couple of centers that would look very good in a Cavs uniform. So I would be aggressive and try to sign Al Jefferson to a contract and get the power forward/center position completed for a championship run. He is a player that would consider signing in a smaller market (evidence his proposed visit to Charlotte) and is highly skilled and a wide body under the basket. That is a good contrast to our current bigs. He is not a dominant shot blocker but rebounds well and can really score the rock. He doesn’t foul excessively for a big man and can pick and pop or pick and roll. Depending on the cost of Jefferson (who I think would be a near max or max deal), we could try to address the point guard position with either Livingston or a better alternative like Collison (who we are reported to be interested in). We could not afford any more free agents this year and would be pressed to add a max deal next year even if we let Andy and Alonzo go. A lower cost alternative would be to sign Pekovic to an offer sheet and hope the Wolves won’t match the offer. That cost could be more back loaded to keep more cap space available. Pekovic would likely take the lower early years in return for a solid multiyear deal. This would be similar to when we signed Andy previously. If we did this, we could certainly afford Collison and still have significant cap space for next year minus Andy and Alonzo. The Cavs base team for 2013-14 would be substantially improved from last year and would be a favorite for a playoff spot. The starting lineup would be Jefferson, Andy, Alonzo, Waiters and Irving. Andy would be able to play less minutes and move back to the power forward position which is somewhat less physical. Tristan and Tyler would come off the bench or you might bring Andy off the bench and start Tristan. Either way the big rotation would be formidable and very very competitive with the top teams. Notice I didn’t mention Bennett? At first he might need to be in the big rotation and that would limit all of their time somewhat. But, before mid-season, I project that Bennett will be able to take over the starting small forward position. He definitely has the skills to do this. I think the Cavs are wise to look at him as a 4 to lower expectations and place less pressure on Bennett. IF you make these two signings, the rotation and players will be easily playoff ready and might create some matchup problems for teams. If the team looks like it could develop without another max free agent, then Andy could be kept and only complementary pieces added. If you need another All Star in 14-15, you would need to cut loose Andy and Alonzo. If I add this up right, the 2013-14 team would have Jefferson, Tristan, Gee, Waiters and Irving starting with Tyler, Andy, Bennett, Collison and Miles/Karasev. In 2014-15 the team would change and a free agent would replace Andy/Alonzo/Miles salaries and our first round draft pick and Karasev would fill out a ten man rotation.

This strategy so far is easy. Simply sign a top center this year and try to fill the back-up point guard slot with a free agent or maybe Dellavedova could fill that role. He was actually a very skilled college player. That would not be my first choice but I would certainly give the kid a chance. Then we could decide, based on how well that team performs, whether or not we need to free the cap space for another max free agent. The more complicated part of the strategy is to use strategic trades to fill the roster out and not depend on a free agent in 2014 at all. A few players to look for as being available cheaply depending on who their teams sign as a free agent would be Derrick Williams, Austin Rivers, Omer Asik, and there are others. You could look for them to become available and make trades to add their talents to the roster.

If the Cavs “dabble” in free agency this year and depend on next year, they might be left at the alter. The free agents this year are still very good and would be much more likely to listen to offers from the Cavs. Although I know I am in the VAST minority with this view, I hope my article has at least caused you to rethink the well publicized position that the Cavs MUST wait until next year to sign a significant free agent. A huge leap forward in 13-14 will go a long way toward convincing the free agent you REALLY want to sign here, Kyrie Irving, that Cleveland is the place to be and to stay.