As confused NBA fans scramble to figure out if they may have accidently checked off a box to “filter all basketball news by Cleveland Cavaliers content” in their Twitter settings, we’re going to take a look at all of the deals made by the Cavs prior to the 3 p.m. ET cutoff.
If you told me yesterday that Cavs’ GM Koby Altman would ultimately fail to acquire DeAndre Jordan or Kemba Walker by the trade deadline, I’d have almost certainly guaranteed that LeBron would not be sticking around Cleveland beyond this summer. Now? I’m not so sure.
The frantic news cycle broke in the early afternoon when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that he was hearing the Lakers were involved in a deal that would send Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cavs. And when ESPN finally broke that it would be Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye (and the Cavs 2018 protected first-round draft pick) who would be shipped back in return, basketball Twitter already began speculating what this move meant for LeBron James’ impending 2018 free agency.
The Lakers have been trying to free up additional cap space for months in hopes of signing two max free agents next summer. Clarkson, Nance, Julius Randle, and Luol Deng were names we most often heard being shopped around, and today’s big deal will lead to about $47M in cap space when Thomas and Frye come off the books at the end of the season. The Lakers could potentially get that number up to $70M next summer by shedding additional contracts.
With the Lakers trade, many also believed that the Cavs had all but paid for LeBron’s ticket to L.A. come the offseason. Firstly, the move gives L.A. the financial wiggle room to pursue James and another big-name free agent like Paul George next summer. And thanks to the Stepien rule, Cleveland also severely limited its future trade flexibility by attaching their 2018 first-round draft pick in the deal. The rule, which is ironically named for previous Cavs’ owner Ted Stepien after he traded away five consecutive first-round draft picks between 1982 and 1985, does not allow for NBA teams to trade away first-round draft picks in consecutive years. Cleveland had previously packaged its 2019 first-round pick in last year’s deal to the Hawks that brought Kyle Korver to Cleveland, but because they also own the 2018 Brooklyn first-round pick acquired from Boston in last summer’s Kyrie trade, it allowed them to give up their own future first-rounder while locking them into ownership of the Brooklyn pick. The Brooklyn pick was previously thought to be in play as a major trade chip prior to the deadline and many Clevelanders hoped it would be used to land some additional help for LeBron James.
With or without the draft pick, Cleveland was far from finished for the day.
Nearly an hour later, the Cavs acquired Jazz shooting guard Rodney Hood and Kings point guard George Hill in a three-team deal that sent Iman Shumpert and a 2020 second-round pick to the Kings while Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose are headed to Utah. Cleveland has also shipped Dwyane Wade back to the Miami Heat for a future second-rounder.
So what can we expect from the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, and what do these deadline deals mean in the context of LeBron James’ future with the franchise?
Well, Dan Gilbert’s payroll hasn’t gotten any cheaper, that’s for sure. In trading for Clarkson and Nance, the Cavs took on long-term money while trading away two expiring deals in Thomas and Frye. Clarkson is in year two of a four-year, $50M deal while Nance is still on his rookie contract for which Cleveland will have the option of exercising the option on the 2019-20 season.
George Hill’s contract calls for $19 million guaranteed in the 2018-19 season, while just $1 million of the $18 million on his 2019-20 contract is guaranteed. Rodney Hood is in the final year of his rookie deal, but Cleveland will have the option of exercising his option for 2018-19, but that will come with a $7.1M cap hit.
On the plus side, the Cavs will get younger and more versatile with these moves. Hill, the oldest of all acquired players at 31, has the ability to guard both backcourt positions and will have no problem playing more of a hybrid point/shooting guard role with LeBron in the mix. Clarkson has been averaging 17 PPG since January while Hood is having arguably his best professional season yet, averaging career highs with 16.8 PPG and 2.8 rebounds. Hill is averaging 10.3 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists this season.
As far as where LeBron James will end up next summer, it’s doubtful we’re going to get any insight about his next destination until other free agent pieces begin falling into place. LeBron won’t risk the final years of his NBA career playing for a team that doesn’t have a legitimate shot to be title contenders each season. And so with guys like Chris Paul, Paul George, and DeMarcus Cousins set to hit the market, James will wait out the signing window until he has a better idea of what the player landscape will look like going into the 2018-19 campaign.
Today, Gilbert and Altman showed James that, at the very least, the franchise is willing to continue to spend on his behalf. Cleveland is up against an ever-escalating luxury tax bill and, rather than making moves to cut back on spending and seek out future assets, the Cavs doubled-down on the King by shedding two team-friendly expiring contracts for Clarkson and Hill.
Altman still has a few other tradeable assets in his pocket, including Kevin Love’s contract and the 2018 Brooklyn pick (provided, of course, another 2018 or 2019 first-round pick would need to come back to Cleveland in the deal). So if LeBron decides that the Lakers will still be too young to make a title run, or Houston is unable to free up enough cap space in June, just remember that Cleveland always remains an option.
And after today, it might not be a bad one.