If LeBron Stays, Cavs Will Need an Overhaul; If He Goes, Time to Blow It Up

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterJune 12, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 18: LeBron James #23, Kevin Love #0, and Kyle Korver #26 of the Cleveland Cavaliers react during game against the Indiana Pacers in Game Two of Round One during the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 18, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

No matter what LeBron James decides to do in free agency, this Cavaliers roster is on the precipice of a significant renovation.

There are two paths the dominos could fall, one where James returns to the franchise where he's spent 11 of his 15 professional seasons and the other where he chooses to spend the remainder of his Hall of Fame career away from the shores of Lake Erie.

The worst thing Cleveland can do, regardless of where James signs, is nothing. 

This is a roster that survived only for as long as it did thanks to James' brilliance after major scares in both the first and third rounds of the playoffs. The mere fact that the Cavaliers reached the Finals by coasting in on fumes is an accomplishment in itself. James won't be satisfied by a few new veteran free agent signings, not with the dramatic rise of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers in the East.

If he leaves, this team is a fringe playoff contender that probably isn't bad enough to collect on a high draft pick, either. Due to the Kyle Korver trade with the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland only gets to keep its 2019 first-round pick should it fall in the top 10. Watching James walk while still trying to build a winner on the fly would mean a lost lottery pick and a return to NBA purgatory.

Here's the best path Cleveland could go down with either James decision.


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Roster Demolition Plan 1: LeBron Stays

James' presence puts a lot of pressure on a front office led by general manager Koby Altman to hit the reset button for the third time.

Altman's first major move on the job was to trade Kyrie Irving, an absolute disaster in hindsight unless Cleveland can flip the No. 8 pick in the draft for some kind of star. Placing non-shooters Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade around James provided the team with plenty of sizzle but not a lot of steak.

The trade-deadline deals have resulted in one quality rotation player (Larry Nance Jr.), one placeholder point guard (George Hill), a bad contract (Jordan Clarkson) and an enigma about to hit restricted free agency (Rodney Hood).

Given how poorly the last two attempts to build a championship roster around him have gone, no one could blame James for leaving.

Through it all, the Cavaliers have kept an ace up their sleeve with the Brooklyn pick, the one remaining hope to bring in another star player to this roster. The value of the pick likely depends on opposing teams' infatuation with Oklahoma's Trae Young, Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. or whatever other high-upside prospect may still be on the board at the time.

If James is on the roster to start training camp, whichever rookie is taken at No. 8 will not be. Much like 2014, when Cleveland flipped Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. Expect the Cavs to dangle the pick in a package for a player like Kemba Walker, CJ McCollum, Bradley Beal, Paul George or even Kawhi Leonard, should his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs become irreconcilable. 

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 5:  Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards hugs LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers after the game between the two teams on April 5, 2018 at The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowle
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

While Hill is a serviceable point guard, it's clear the Cavs desperately missed Irving's ability to organically generate offense at any time. Hill's contract is major trade bait, given that only $1 million of the $18 million is guaranteed next season. He's essentially become an expiring $19 million, an attractive option for any team looking to clear cap space in 2019.

If Cleveland needs to send out more salary, JR Smith and Korver could be the next to go. Smith is owed $14.7 million this season but only has $3.8 million of his 2019-2020 salary guaranteed. Korver is similar, with a $7.5 million price tag in 2018-19 and a partial guarantee of $3.4 million the following season.

No one is taking the $36 million owed to Tristan Thompson over the next two seasons unless Cleveland accepts another bad contract back. Even flipping him for someone like Hassan Whiteside ($52 million over the next two years) would be a worthwhile gamble.

Kevin Love remains a great fit next to James as a floor-spacing, rebounding big, but the Cavs need to at least put feelers out there if trading him helps bring in a shot-creating guard or wing.

This plan becomes all about talent accumulation, adding salary if necessary and sacrificing draft picks and other tradeable assets.


Roster Demolition Plan 2: LeBron Leaves

We'll chalk this one up as Plan B.

If James walks, this team needs to immediately plunge into rebuild mode. We've witnessed the Miami Heat bounce around as a fringe playoff team for four years now after James left, winning just a single postseason series and never drafting higher than 10th overall.

This doesn't mean selling off everyone for 25 cents on the dollar of course, and it doesn't all need to be a fire sale this summer, either.

Korver and his reasonable salary will get calls, especially after he averaged 9.2 points on 43.6 percent shooting form three this past season. Hill could draw some interest as well for teams both looking to contend this season and keep a flexible cap next summer.

If any team wants Smith, Thompson or Clarkson, majority owner Dan Gilbert would send them in a personal jet to get them off his payroll as quickly as possible.

This would leave a core of Nance Jr., Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic, whomever the team drafts at No. 8 and possibly Hood. Not great.

A big part of this rebuild will come down to Love and how Cleveland chooses to handle a potential trade request.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

"Anything is possible. People have been saying that for the past four years," Love said after Game 4 of the Finals when asked if he considered it may be his last game as a member of the Cavaliers.  "I knew that question would come. But I like to be here. I've always said that. Always wanted to win here."

While Love seems to be true to his word, transitioning into a rebuild may conjure up bad memories of his days with the Minnesota Timberwolves. It's doubtful he'll want to begin his 30's right back where his 20's began.

This is where Altman needs to be patient. Offers will come for Love this summer, sure, but at what value? Cleveland needs to play the waiting game and instead look to move Love closer to the trade deadline.

This would give the Cavaliers a chance to inflate Love's stats on a team without many other offensive options. Love actually averaged 27.4 points, 14.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.2 steals per 36 minutes when on the court without James this past season. With James, these numbers dipped to 22.3 points and 11.7 boards, per NBA.com.

There should be no other plan but to rebuild if James leaves, and parting with some of these inflated salaries will no doubt be tops on Gilbert's list.


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


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