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5 Scenarios for Cavs in 2018 NBA Draft That Could Sway LeBron James

Scott Sargent@WFNYScottFeatured Columnist IJune 17, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts during the second half of Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — Thursday night will finally bring closure to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Once the early portion of the 2018 NBA draft is complete, the Cavs will have the end result of the Kyrie Irving trade, 10 months later. Not until the eighth overall pick is made will general manager Koby Altman and the rest of the Cleveland front office have a full comprehension of what they received in return for shipping an All-NBA talent to the Boston Celtics last summer.

As luck would have it, the lottery pick that headlined the Irving deal is the one that will have to headline any potential deals the Cavaliers make this offseason. As Altman attempts to unwind the mess that forced them into this unfavorable position, what the team does with the eighth overall pick will play a major role as to whether LeBron James even entertains returning to Cleveland for his age-34 season and beyond.

When James was pondering his return in 2014, then-Cavaliers GM David Griffin merely had to clear the cap space needed to sign him. The Andrew Wiggins-Kevin Love deal notwithstanding, Griffin's hurdles included finding takers for players like Tyler Zeller, Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev.

This summer, fresh off a four-game sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, Altman has the unenviable task of making deals without the guarantee of James returning. Selling the future by trading the eighth overall pick comes with a level of risk the Cavaliers front office has not had to endure voluntarily for several summers.

Speaking with the media before Game 4 of the NBA Finals, James stated his preference loud and clear. He left Cleveland for the Miami Heat to be surrounded by talented players with high basketball IQs.

"Not only do you have to have the talent, [but] you have to have the minds as well," said James. "We're all NBA players. Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?"

With draft selections come cost-controlled players, and with cost-controlled players come a whole host of NBA owners and general managers attempting to build rather than reload. What are the Cavaliers' options? Who could they receive in return? If they deal the draft selection, will other dominoes soon fall? And if they do not deal the No. 8 pick in the upcoming draft, who could the Cavs possibly take?

                      

Scenario 1: Discuss Trades with Charlotte Hornets

Cleveland attempted to acquire Kemba Walker from Charlotte heading into February's trade deadline, but—despite the Cavs' persistence—gained little traction. Michael Jordan was not about to move his best player for pennies on the dollar, and all the Cavaliers had to deal at that point was a fist full of copper coins.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Last season, the belief was the Hornets would require a trade partner to take on the albatross deals of either Dwight Howard or Nicolas Batum. While Jordan may have drawn a line in the sand this past winter, he will now be faced with the reality that Walker is entering the final year of his deal and will be an unrestricted free agent this time next season.

For Cleveland, the ace up the sleeve is always owner Dan Gilbert's willingness to cut a luxury-tax check. Howard is due $24 million in 2018-19, but he's also an expiring contract, which limits downside risk in the event James goes elsewhere. Batum is guaranteed $49.6 million over the next two seasons with a $27 million player option for the 2020-21 season, making this a tough pill for any team to swallow.

It's difficult to envision a scenario where the Cavaliers are willing to include Kevin Love ($49.7 million over the next two seasons) in a deal for a player who could leave after one season. George Hill ($19 million in 2018-19, $1 million buyout option in 2019-20) or JR Smith ($14.7 million in 2018-19, $3.9 million buyout in 2019-20) are attractive financial assets, but dealing them means the Cavaliers lost the chance to have enough space for a maximum contract next summer.

In Walker, the Cavs would take a backcourt that was transient and inconsistent and give it a player who can create his own shot and provide scoring balance for James. Altman's case to James improves dramatically with a Walker-Love pairing in addition to the potential cap space one year down the road to maintain competitiveness as opposed to the perennial reboots the team has undergone over the last three seasons.

With a host of expiring deals and a list of Eastern Conference opponents on the rise, Charlotte is a prime candidate for an offseason trade. Getting MJ to budge on his cost, however, will be the challenge.

                 

Scenario 2: Make a Play for Dame Lillard or CJ McCollum

Kevin Love's Instagram story said it all: Portland is home. Love—who is from Lake Oswego, Oregon—has expressed a desire to continue playing in a Cavaliers jersey alongside James. But wouldn't he want to spend the majority of his time where the heart is?

Moving Love for pieces, however, does not exactly help the Cavaliers compete with the Bostons and Philadelphias of the world, let alone the Golden State Warriors. Thus, barring a second deal for a two-way star like Paul George or Kawhi Leonard (more on him later), Altman's best-case scenario in wooing James involves sending the No. 8 pick and younger, cost-friendly talent like Jordan Clarkson (due just $26 million over the next two seasons) and/or Cedi Osman ($5 million over the next two seasons).

While Damian Lillard would be the ideal running mate for LBJ given James' well-documented appreciation for the Portland point guard and the backcourt issues of the past season, the more realistic option is Canton, Ohio's own CJ McCollum.

Would the Cavs make a play for CJ McCollum to keep LeBron James intrigued?
Would the Cavs make a play for CJ McCollum to keep LeBron James intrigued?Randy L. Rasmussen/Associated Press

McCollum's ability to stretch the floor (a career 40.8 percent three-point shooter) and play off the ball immediately solves the Cavs' issues at the wing.

While not a ball-handler like Walker, if the Cavaliers managed to hold on to George Hill throughout the summer, a Hill-McCollum backcourt is a vast improvement over what the Cavaliers put on the floor throughout the entire 2017-18 season. An added silver lining would be the 26-year-old McCollum's ability to immediately click with the Cavaliers' fanbase in the event James were to opt to play elsewhere next season.

                  

Scenario 3: Send Kevin Love to OKC for Paul George

The Carmelo Anthony experiment neared "Kyrie Irving Trade" levels of disaster for the Thunder, Russell Westbrook is the Usage Rate King, and Paul George wants to compete for championships. While the Cavaliers barely missed on acquiring George last summer, the iron might be hot enough for striking this time around.

It's anticipated that George will opt out of his current contract and test free agency, potentially as the piece that drags James to the Los Angeles Lakers. Much like the Love-Wiggins deal in 2014, however, a potential deal involving the No. 8 pick to Oklahoma City could link the two stars together—in Cleveland.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

This would be one of just a handful of possible scenarios that would involve the Cavs pairing their top two assets (Love and the No. 8 pick) to get a deal in place. From a narrative standpoint, it would allow Love to rejoin UCLA teammate Westbrook while allowing the Thunder to add young talent to make up for what was dealt last summer. From a competition standpoint, it would give James an All-NBA-caliber running mate.

The rub: The deal in 2014 would not have been consummated had James not returned home. If the Cavaliers cannot get a guarantee in place, it's difficult to envision a scenario where Altman sends talent and a draft pick to OKC solely on the hopes it is enough to lock up the four-time MVP.

               

Scenario 4: Enter the Kawhi Leonard Sweepstakes

Though it has perhaps the longest odds of all scenarios, the Cavaliers find themselves in an interesting situation. Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants out of San Antonio, per Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News, and not only is Cleveland in the Eastern Conference (unlike Los Angeles), but it also has assets to deal.

If Gregg Popovich cannot mend fences with Leonard, the proposed deal of Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Korver, George Hill and Cedi Osman for Leonard and Patty Mills would be the kind of trade that would immediately make up for the Irving debacle a season prior.

Issues with San Antonio notwithstanding, a healthy Leonard would unquestionably be the most talented two-way partner James could play with in any of these scenarios. Leonard checks all the boxes for James as a smart, hardworking player who wants to compete for a championship. Leonard, a reserved player by most NBA standards, could flourish in a situation where he is not asked to be the face of a franchise.

Hill returns to the Spurs, where he has a huge believer in Popovich. San Antonio gets out of the $38 million left on Mills' contract. And general manager R.C. Buford gets to sprinkle his magic draft fairy dust to turn the No. 8 pick into the Spurs' next young star.

The Spurs got through last offseason not ceding to LaMarcus Aldridge's trade demands, so there's a chance they can wait this out as well. In the event they cannot, however, they could do a lot worse than having conversations with the Cavaliers.

            

Scenario 5: Keep the No. 8 Pick

It's the scenario that has the least amount of potential to keep LeBron James in Cleveland, but it's also the one that allows the Cavaliers to not mortgage their entire future on a hope and a prayer. Bleacher Report's most recent mock draft has Oklahoma's Trae Young falling to Cleveland at No. 8.

Would the Cavs consider keeping their pick to draft Trae Young, who could be available at No. 8?
Would the Cavs consider keeping their pick to draft Trae Young, who could be available at No. 8?Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

A potential trade scenario could allow Altman to move up to select Real Madrid's Luka Doncic or Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. (pending medical examinations). However, James appears to like Young, Young plays a position of need, and the name recognition allows the front office to say, "He was the player we wanted all along."

Young's offensive prowess is among the best in his class. And while his defense admittedly needs work, his advanced statistics place him in the top three, according to ESPN's Kevin Pelton.

While Young (or an equivalent player) would provide the team with a player who could immediately be sold to fans as something worth watching in James' absence, the reality will soon set in that no draft pick in this class will allow the team to reach its fifth consecutive NBA Finals without No. 23.

Who knows? Maybe James could shock the NBA world by unquestionably putting his family first and staying home regardless of what Altman and his team do. Given how much of the team's luck had to be cashed in to have the best player on the planet grow up in the same region, however, betting on James being willing to run alongside a rookie during the final years of his career would not be the shrewdest of moves.

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