LeBron James' Opt-Out Leaves Cleveland Cavaliers Facing Major Free-Agent Summer

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistJune 28, 2015

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are in for quite the noisy offseason.

LeBron James opting out of his contract Sunday afternoon isn't helping the cacophony of sounds about to roar out of Cleveland.

James' opt-out appears to be a move motivated by finances as opposed to relocation.

A max contract in the NBA is merely a percentage of the salary cap from the year the deal is signed. So, as the cap climbs—only slightly to about $67 million this summer, but burgeoning to a projected $88 million next year—James can stand to make even more money.

Tommy Beer of Basketball Insiders explains it well:

It's not just James hitting the open market. Cleveland has its fair share of free agents, and though retaining LeBron is obviously the priority, it's hardly the only move a hamstrung organization has to make. 

Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert are all set to come off the books when free agency begins Wednesday. J.R. Smith will too since he declined his $6.4 million player option for next season.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

The Cavs will have to pay through the nose to maintain the same team next year. Actually, not even the nose. It's deeper than that. They're cutting into the sinus. They're finding stray luxury-tax dollars in their olfactory mucosa. 

Love has already opted out but is expected to return, per Fox Sports' Sam Amico, on a max deal, which would give him a pay raise.

Thompson, who made $5.1 million this year, is going to see his salary double or triple. And it doesn't help the Cavs' case that GM LBJ, as we all know him, has pushed so hard for his return.

"Tristan should probably be a Cavalier for his whole career," James said after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, via ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "There's no reason why he shouldn't. This guy is 24 years old, he's played in 340-plus straight games and he's gotten better every single season. It's almost like 'What more can you ask out of a guy?'"

Shump, meanwhile, is one of the more fascinating free agents. He's a talent, but he has never played a full season in a role that fits his skill set. There isn't really a deal that would shock the world (anything from $5 million to $10 million a year could elicit an "OK, I guess I see it" reaction).

But one thing we do know: He's getting a big-time raise on his rookie-scale contract.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

That doesn't even factor in the slight bump James' contract will get after he re-signs in July. Or the jump in Kyrie Irving's salary as his recently signed max deal kicks in for 2015-16.

The Cavs went over the luxury-tax line in 2014-15. But all these other commitments could force having to pay a repeater tax down the line, even as the cap increases to that projected $88 million in 2016-17. And as the frontcourt crowds with some returning and the improved health of others, it'll bring about questions regarding what's best for LeBron.

At this point, James' best position is power forward, where he's a nightmare matchup playing on the perimeter, even if he's said time and time again that he much prefers guarding wings to bigs, a common theme in pretty much any star's mind. But Cleveland has packed so many bodies into its frontcourt, it's hard to imagine a scenario—injuries aside—in which James would move from the small forward spot in the future.

Love would require 36 minutes a night. Thompson re-signing would demand playing time. Timofey Mozgov will be back for another year. And then there's the ghost of Anderson Varejao, who's under contract for three more expensive seasons, though the final two years of the pact are not fully guaranteed.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

Keeping James as a small forward now isn't a problem as long as he's the best player in the world, but if the Cavs move forward with this frontcourt core as LeBron progresses into his 30s, the disparity between his quality of play as a 3 vs. 4 could increase. 

In some ways, Cleveland might have been better off holding on to Andrew Wiggins last summer and playing the reigning Rookie of the Year at the 3 next to James at the 4. But that's a case of hindsight being 20/20, even for those who were part of the "Don't Trade Andrew Wiggins" contingent at the time.

Cleveland is hardly in a sticky spot. The Cavs did, after all, just win the East handily, and they'll probably be in even better shape next year with a healthy Love, an improved 23-year-old Irving—who's still yet to enter his prime—and a full year of Mozgov. James has led a team out of the Eastern Conference five years in a row. There's no reason to think that's changing anytime soon.

During LeBron's first swing in Cleveland, the Cavs struggled to put a satisfactory roster around him. This time, that's not the case, and owner Dan Gilbert is going to have to pay the price for it. As long as he's copacetic with bleeding into the tax, the Cavs will be just fine moving forward.

 

Follow Fred Katz on Twitter at @FredKatz.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All statistics are current as of June 28 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless noted otherwise. Salary information is courtesy of Basketball Insiders.

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