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The Blueprint for Cavaliers Re-Signing LeBron James in 2018 NBA Free Agency

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterApril 6, 2018

INDEPENDENCE, OH - SEPTEMBER 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 25, 2017 in Independence, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

LeBron James doesn't like to discuss his free agency during the regular season, and he doesn't have to, either.

Plenty of teams will be lining up for the 14-time All-Star's services this summer, with the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets, and yes, Cleveland Cavaliers likely at the top of the list.

James hasn't willingly addressed his pending free agency since media day in September, when he said, "At the end of the day, I have a contract and I will fill out that obligation, which I have always done. I've always handled it in the most business-like way. I will do that with my team and we'll handle it in the summertime as we always have."

As for his previously stated plans of finishing his career in Northeast Ohio?

"It hasn't changed," James said.

This is far from a ringing endorsement to pledge his remaining Hall of Fame years to the Cavaliers and majority owner Dan Gilbert, but it does provide a glimmer of hope for fans.

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Of course, James isn't going to commit to the Cavs blindly. Winning is still far and away at the top of the 33-year-old's list, even ahead of remaining near his hometown.

If Cleveland wants to keep the NBA's best player in Wine and Gold, there's a number of things that have to go right between now and July.

      

Step 1: Maximize the Current Roster

It's been nearly two months since the Cavaliers swapped 10 players with the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings at the trade deadline and breathed new life into a team that was going into cardiac arrest.

Unfortunately, we still have no idea of the ceiling for these Cavs. Injuries to Kevin Love, George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver, Jose Calderon and Cedi Osman have created a revolving door in both the starting lineup and overall rotation, leading to more questions than answers at this point.

Slowly, guys have made their returns and the team is now just two pieces (Hill, Calderon) away from being a complete puzzle.

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 1: Kevin Love #0 celebrates with LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half against the Dallas Mavericks at Quicken Loans Arena on April 1, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Jason Miller/Getty Images

This should finally allow players to slide into their permanent roles and create a sense of comfort and support in which they can grow and produce.

Some of the biggest questions revolve around Hood and Nance, likely the Cavaliers' starting shooting guard and center moving forward. Hood carries some nice upside, being a 6'8" shooting guard who can spot up, create off the dribble and run the pick-and-roll. Over his last seven games, Hood is averaging 13.9 points on 44.0 percent shooting from deep, and he's looking more confident in his shot selection and aggressiveness. Just 25, Hood will be a restricted free agent this summer and could become a nice long-term starter next to James.

Nance and James were meant to play together, as the son of the Cavaliers' legendary power forward is a high-IQ athlete who can run the break and finish lobs around the basket with his 44" vertical. As a starter, Nance is averaging 10.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 23.1 minutes.

"High-energy plays is what he's all about," James said following Nance's 22-point, 15-rebound performance against the Detroit Pistons on March 5, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "He's very fast, athletic and puts himself in a position to be successful on the floor. He's always in the right spots, and for us, if we break the defense down, just try to put it up there for him on a lob, or if the 5 man is sagging off on him, we try to get him the ball where he can get his shots. He makes a lot of energy and effort plays by just being himself, and it results in good things for our team."

Kevin Love needs to keep up his All-Star play as well. He's become the perfect floor-stretching second option to James, and the duo possesses a net rating of plus-18.7 together since Love returned from a broken left hand.

      

Step 2: Get Back to the Finals

Anything short of a fourth straight Finals appearance for these Cavaliers will be unacceptable.

Cleveland will either end the regular season with the No. 3, 4 or 5 seed, marking the first time James hasn't finished in the top two conference spots in 10 years. Make no mistake: This is a team that fears no one in the East. The Cavs are 6-3 against the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers and 34-15 overall in the Eastern Conference this season. 

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 21: Serge Ibaka #9 of the Toronto Raptors tries to guard LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena on March 21, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Raptors 132-129. NOTE
Jason Miller/Getty Images

If James can't even get back to the Finals in a still far inferior conference, why would he stay in Cleveland? 

This is where things get tricky. Winning a title with a team that was assembled just months ago and is seemingly all coming back would obviously be a big incentive for James to stay, but that scenario isn't likely at this point.

A healthy Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets squad would be heavily favored against Cleveland, even with another superhuman performance by James.

Instead, a competitive Finals could be the minimum requirement for the three-time champion to want to stay. Even making it through the East and getting swept or dismissed in five games would be a tough pill to swallow when pitching a new contract this summer. The Cavs at least have to get close and then reassure James that more help is on the way.

      

Step 3: Form Another Big Three

The Rockets will obviously appeal to James in free agency because of likely league MVP James Harden and Chris Paul, James' close friend and still a top-level point guard.

The 76ers' young duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is already catching Cleveland in the standings, and the Lakers could have the cap space to bring in both James and Paul George to complement Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram.

The theme here? All other contenders can put two stars or soon-to-be stars around James. Right now, the Cavaliers can not.

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 21: LeBron James #23 and Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the backcourt on defense against the Toronto Raptors during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena on March 21, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The only option Cleveland has to significantly upgrade the roster is the 2018 Brooklyn Nets unprotected first-round pick, projected to fall seventh overall per Tankathon.com. Since the Cavs traded their own first-round pick to the Lakers at the deadline and have their 2019 pick scheduled to go to the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland can't also trade this pick until the new league year.

That being said, the Cavaliers can agree to a deal at the NBA draft and make a selection for the team they will eventually trade the player to. Such a move would happen before the start of free agency, meaning there would still be no assurance that James would stay.

Cleveland could strike gold in the lottery and land a top selection once again, but even a DeAndre Ayton or Marvin Bagley III likely wouldn't be enticing enough to make James stay.

The same process took place in 2014 when the Cavs make Andrew Wiggins the top selection. While some thought keeping Wiggins would be an eventual ideal running mate for James, the writing on the wall became clear when James omitted Wiggins' name from his coming home letter even though he clearly mentioned Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson.

Obviously, trading for Love was right choice.

As much as one of the top prospects would help a potential rebuild, Cleveland's only move is to go all in to keep James. This means scouring the league for star players who may be looking for a change of scenery.

Kemba Walker, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard could all become available. Paul George was Cleveland's biggest target last offseason, largely due to his availability and James' well-known desire to play with him. George will also hit unrestricted free agency this summer. 

While players like Marc Gasol, Carmelo Anthony, Mike Conley and Kent Bazemore may become available, James is likely looking at more elite-level talent to finish his career with.

It would likely take someone of the caliber of Leonard or Davis to convince James to stay, giving him a young superstar to help carry him into the late stages of his career.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Leonard is the most fascinating option here. A Finals MVP like James, Leonard has played in just nine games this season while battling a quad injury. His elite defensive ability would mean easier opponent assignments for James, while Leonard's 25.5 points per game a season ago would lessen the scoring burden as well.

A trade for Leonard may be possible, especially depending on how the draft lottery shakes out.

"If the Brooklyn pick falls in the top five, that puts Kawhi into play, because San Antonio's going to want a ton," one NBA scout told B/R. "You'd probably have to include a future first unprotected and San Antonio's banking on LeBron leaving and the Cavs turning to s--t. That turns into a Brooklyn scenario and that unprotected Cleveland pick becomes gold. That's really risky for [GM Koby Altman] to do."

This is the Cavaliers' dilemma. Sacrifice the future with no assurance that James returns, or do nothing and essentially pack his bags for him. Cleveland set the table with the trade-deadline deals by stocking up on quality role players and young rotation pieces, but it couldn't pull the trigger on a third star.

The Cavs will get a second chance at acquiring one at the draft on June 21, just 15 days before James can officially sign his next contract.

The future of the Cavaliers' greatest player ever may depend on it.

                    

Greg Swartz covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report. Stats provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.  

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