Yes, Cleveland made its third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, but they lost in two of those appearances and got embarrassed by the Warriors this summer. They couldn’t agree on a new contract with their former general manager David Griffin and still haven’t replaced him. Now, Cleveland’s title as best in the East is in jeopardy, and their roster could absorb a huge blow when next year’s free agency rolls around and LeBron James’ contract is up.
Irving sees everything. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Cleveland’s point guard detailed a certain level of uneasiness after the rocky roller-coaster ride that’s been the Cavs’ summer.
“Like I said, we’re in a peculiar place,” the 25-year-old all-star said. “The best thing we can do is handle things with class and professionalism. Obviously we have a great owner that’s willing to spend a little money on guys that he believes in. At this point, we just see what happens throughout the summer.”
What could Irving be referring to?
1. Cleveland’s fruitless GM hunt
The Cavaliers watched Griffin leave town after owner Dan Gilbert lowballed him during negotiations on a new contract. Gilbert pursued ESPN’s Chauncey Billups to be his new president of basketball operations, but Billups turned him down after reportedly being lowballed as well. Now, Cleveland’s watched the free agent market dry up and all desirable trade targets have been dealt, with the exception of Carmelo Anthony.
On top of it all, we don’t even know who’s calling the shots in the front office. It’s probably Koby Altman, who was promoted to assistant general manager in 2016 and is the highest front-office member left. But without an official voice and direction for the franchise moving forward, the Cavaliers can’t possibly advance.
2. Cleveland’s underwhelming offseason
The Cavaliers parted ways with Griffin just as he was in the process of inquiring about a Jimmy Butler trade. The Pacers were also reportedly set to give permission to Paul George to get on the phone with Gilbert. Both teams ended up trading their stars out West, and Cleveland’s activity this summer has been on life support ever since.
The Cavaliers re-signed Kyle Korver, then added Jeff Green and Jose Calderon via free agency. They also signed Turkish forward Cedi Osman, their 2015 second-round pick, to a three-year deal. None of those players are expected to close the gap between Cleveland and a loaded Golden State team coming off the best playoff run in NBA history.
3. The competition got stronger
The talent gap between the Warriors and Cavaliers is palpable. Golden State was the dominant of the two teams competing in the NBA Finals and threatened to sweep Cleveland had they not pulled off a historically efficient Game 4.
Out West, Golden State re-signed Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and veterans Zaza Pachulia and David West. They then signed Nick Young to the mid-level exception, drafted Jordan Bell out of Oregon, and signed sharpshooter Omri Casspi.
In Cleveland’s own backyard, the Celtics have also emerged as challengers to the throne. After adding both Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris without trading Jae Crowder — and also drafting Jayson Tatum amid the emergence of Jaylen Brown — Boston has the frontcourt depth to potentially offset the talents of the world’s greatest basketball player.
And if Isaiah Thomas has a repeat of last season, Cleveland could see itself knocked off as top dog sooner than later.
4. James’ pending free agency
Oh yeah, that.
It’s not a secret. It hasn’t been for a long time. LeBron James could be gone as an unrestricted free agent next summer.
The King made his grand return to Cleveland three summers ago and delivered on his lifelong promise to bring his hometown its first-ever NBA championship. But even if the Cavaliers pull off the impossible and beat the Warriors in the Finals this season, there are no guarantees James returns for another go-round.
James has been rumored to be headed far west to Los Angeles when his free agency strikes in 2018. He has property out there and there are two teams in varying life cycles that could vie for his services: Doc Rivers’ Clippers or Magic Johnson’s Lakers.
In mid-June, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported James was “very much in play to leave again and likely head out west to one of the two LA teams.” More recently, James’ agent Rich Paul — who also reps new Lakers player Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — reached out to Lakers’ brass with two simple words: “Let’s talk.”
Rob Pelinka says agent Rich Paul contacted him, noticing how patient the Lakers have been with their cap space: ‘Let’s talk.’
— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) July 18, 2017
Los Angeles could be a destination for James, as could anywhere really. James has wanted to play with his friends — the banana boat crew — for years now. And with Chris Paul headed to Houston, also Carmelo Anthony’s preferred destination, the Rockets seem to be an attractive destination if they can clear room, with James Harden pulling the strings as lead maestro.
Gilbert’s Cavs seem to have decided on its direction. By not significantly upgrading the team to truly compete with the Warriors, is Cleveland prepping for a life without James.
There’s still a long time between now and James’ free agency, but without a GM calling the shots and with the possibility of their star player skipping town for a second time on the table the Cavaliers are definitely in a peculiar place.