As currently constructed, the Cavs likely wouldn't even make it to the NBA Finals next season, given how the Boston Celtics pushed them to seven games without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. Add in a rapidly developing Philadelphia 76ers squad and an Indiana Pacers team that also took Cleveland to seven games in the first round, and it's clear the Cavaliers need to make major changes to convince James to return.
They're reportedly pursuing one such option already.
The Cavs are one of at least four NBA teams to have made an offer for San Antonio Spurs superstar forward Kawhi Leonard, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne. Along with the Cavaliers, the Celtics, 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers have all presented offers to San Antonio.
There remains pressure on the Los Angeles Lakers to deal for Leonard, according to Wojnarowski, Windhorst and Shelburne, as his presence could be enough to convince James to sign in L.A. The 76ers likely share the same strategy since James may be reluctant to commit to such a young core without a veteran star like Leonard on board. Boston's pursuit of Leonard would mean keeping him off of the Cavs and finally pushing past James into the NBA Finals.
Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles all have a greater collection of young talent and draft picks to trade for Leonard than Cleveland does, which may prove problematic in trade discussions.
Per Wojnarowski, Windhorst and Shelburne, "the Cavaliers probably don't have the assets to top the rest of the market." That's the downside.
But if the Cavs are looking for a glimmer of hope, the report also stated that the Lakers felt the Spurs already "shut the door" on trade talks, making it seem likely that San Antonio would prefer to move two-time All-Star out of the Western Conference. USA Today's Sam Amick reported Saturday that the Spurs "are determined to either fix the situation or trade Leonard to an Eastern Conference team."
That creates an opportunity for the Cavaliers, both in their quest to keep James out of Los Angeles and to trade for Leonard.
Unfortunately, they'll still have to outbid the Celtics and Sixers. As Tom Westerholm of MassLive.com notes, that may be a challenge.
"The Spurs won't get a better offer than a package built around Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris (for money purposes) and the Sacramento Kings pick from anyone else, if they are looking to fully rebuild. Alternatively, the Celtics could go nuclear and trade Kyrie Irving plus a pick if the Spurs wanted to look both now and to the future."
Brown looks like a budding star, and the Kings 2019 first-round pick is only top-one protected, so it's likely to convey next June. The Spurs were reportedly on Irving's wish list last summer, according to ESPN.com's Chris Haynes, and Wojnarowski said in January (via Shelburne) that San Antonio "tried really really hard to get him." The concern now, however, is that Irving is coming off his second left knee surgery in four years and will become an unrestricted free agent in 2019.
As for the Sixers, Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer proposed the following deal:
"In the deal for Leonard, include Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Jerryd Bayless, then an additional $5.79 million in outgoing salary that could come in different forms.
"It's unclear who the Spurs would want. But Sixers draftee Zhaire Smith, a high-flying 18-year-old wing from Texas Tech, met with the Spurs prior to the draft, so he could be one player involved."
Philadelphia won't trade Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid, but a package of Fultz, Covington and Dario Saric would give the Spurs a few young core pieces to build around. The Sixers also could include the Miami Heat's unprotected 2021 first-round pick that they picked up in the draft-night deal involving Mikal Bridges.
If the Spurs want young players and draft picks in exchange for Leonard, the Cavaliers have no chance to match what the Celtics or Sixers can offer.
But why would San Antonio want to rebuild now?
Head coach Gregg Popovich is under contract for only one more season, which will take him up to age 70. The Spurs haven't "rebuilt" in over two decades, and they have a regular-season winning percentage of .689 since Popovich took over in 1996-97. A core led by Fultz or Brown might be excellent in a few years, but it couldn't be expected to compete for a title in the next two seasons.
Instead, the Cavaliers should aim to give the Spurs stars who can help them win while Popovich still roams the sidelines. Looking two or three years into the future may be too late.
To build a trade offer the Spurs can't refuse, Cleveland will need help.
Rookie point guard Collin Sexton should be a dynamic two-way player for years to come. The No. 8 overall pick averaged 19.2 points per game in his lone season at Alabama and figures to draw significant trade interest from rebuilding teams, but perhaps not from the Spurs.
The Cavaliers and Hornets are still active in trade talks involving All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, according to Bleacher Report's Ken Berger. At age 28, Walker averaged 22.1 points, 5.6 assists and 1.1 steals this past season. While San Antonio would have little immediate need for Sexton, the Hornets could plug him in as their point guard of the future. Jordan Clarkson, once drafted by Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak while he was with the Lakers, could be included with Sexton for salary-matching purposes.
Walker would be a dynamic scorer for San Antonio, an injury-free lite version of Irving that could start ahead of Dejounte Murray or pair with him in the backcourt. That's a nice start for the Spurs, but it still isn't nearly enough for Leonard.
The Cavaliers would also include Kevin Love, even though they "have interest in keeping" the All-Star big man next season regardless of whether James stays or leaves, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. Love averaged 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 41.5 percent from three-point range this season. He and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns were the only players in the NBA to reach those marks.
Would two current All-Stars in their prime be enough for Leonard? San Antonio would have to listen at that point, but Cleveland can do even better.
The Cavs also could include Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr., two key rotation pieces that would give the Spurs more shooting, size and high basketball IQ. Korver shot 43.6 percent from beyond the arc in 2017-18, tied for the sixth-highest mark in the NBA. Nance was brilliant after a midseason trade from the Lakers, averaging 8.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals with a 21.5 PER in only 20.8 minutes per game. He's scheduled to make a paltry $2.3 million this coming season.
If the Spurs are still on the fence, the Cavaliers need to part with their next available first-round pick, a 2021 selection that they'd leave unprotected. Such a move would backfire if James leaves, but the potential of pairing Leonard with James may be too tempting to pass up. As a final straw, the Cavs could agree to take back Pau Gasol and the two years and $32 million remaining on his contract.
The final deal would look as follows:
San Antonio Receives: 2021 1st-round pick via Cavs (unprotected), PG Kemba Walker, F/C Kevin Love, G Kyle Korver, C Larry Nance Jr.
Cleveland Receives: F Kawhi Leonard, F/C Pau Gasol
Charlotte Receives: Rights to PG Collin Sexton, G Jordan Clarkson
If the Spurs want to tear everything down and rebuild with draft picks and prospects, they'll be more inclined to take an offer from the Sixers, Celtics or Lakers.
But if San Antonio wants to win right now and maximize what could be Popovich's final season, Cleveland should have enough to offer with the help of a third team.