With LeBron James leaving yet again, the Cleveland Cavaliers are in a far better place than they were eight years ago. That 2010-11 team had no other All-Stars named that year, little young talent to build around and no picks from the June draft.
Now, Cleveland still has 29-year-old Kevin Love, potential building blocks in Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood (restricted free agent) and Cedi Osman, and recently selected Alabama point guard Collin Sexton.
However, the Cavs are still over the $101.9 million salary cap thanks to the bloated contracts of George Hill, JR Smith, Tristan Thompson and Jordan Clarkson.
This is a team that could still conceivably compete for a low playoff seed in a weak Eastern Conference, but should it?
Reasons to Win
After Kevin Durant left the Thunder in 2016, Oklahoma City made the postseason in 2017, traded for a star in Paul George, made the playoffs again in 2018 and then locked him into a four-year, $137 million deal.
The Celtics quickly shifted from the Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen era to a team that looks set to take over the East based on smart drafting, some big free-agent signings and the trade for Kyrie Irving. That and destroying the Brooklyn Nets in a trade, as well.
Could Cleveland pull off something similar?
After all, Love has proved he can put an offense on his back when given the opportunity. He averaged 27.4 points and 14.9 rebounds with a usage rate of 30.4 percent per 36 minutes when James was on the bench this past season. During his final year with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2013-14, Love put up 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists. With no James around to carry the offensive load, look for Love's numbers to spike once again.
Hood should be back and with a better offensive opportunity. If head coach Tyronn Lue is smart, he'll make Hood the starting shooting guard immediately next to George Hill in the Cavs backcourt. Hood averaged 14.7 points per game between the Utah Jazz and Cleveland, and he would greatly benefit from a full Cavaliers training camp.
Kyle Korver, Clarkson, Smith and Hill are all candidates to average double digits in scoring. Sexton remains the wild card and should contribute in a reserve role immediately.
Cleveland could enter the 2018-19 season with playoff goals like Oklahoma City and then look to make its big move next summer.
In 2019-20, the combined salaries of Hill ($18 million), Smith ($15.7 million) and Korver ($7.5 million) only carry guarantees of $1 million, $3.9 million and $3.4 million, respectively. General manager Koby Altman can turn $41.2 million worth of cap hits into only $8.3 million, if he so chooses.
If Love opts out of the final year of his deal, the Cavs could have over $50 million in cap room next summer based on a projected $109 million cap, not counting a new deal for Hood. If Love opts in to his $26 million contract, the Cavs would only need to move one expiring deal (Clarkson or Thompson) to open up a max salary slot.
Cleveland could hope one of those players would be interested enough in playing alongside Love and a budding star like Sexton for a max salary and make the rebuild without James a short one.
Reasons to Lose
In a perfect world, the Cavs could stay competitive for a year and then make the jump next summer with an impact free agent and the development of Sexton, Nance, Hood and others.
Realistically speaking, however, what free agent on that list is walking through the door? Leonard seems destined for Los Angeles, Durant and Thompson will likely be back with the Golden State Warriors, and Butler should max out with the Timberwolves. As for Irving, well, a reunion is not happening.
Oklahoma City had an entire year to wine and dine George before he hit free agency. If not, he'd likely be a Laker by now.
Cleveland could pursue a similar route with a disgruntled star, but doing so would mean parting with what precious few trade assets the Cavs possess.
They can't trade a first-round pick until 2021 and have to be pretty bad next season to keep their pick in 2019. If that pick doesn't fall in the top 10 overall, it will be sent to the Atlanta Hawks from the Korver trade.
Simply put, it's time for Cleveland to rebuild once again.
That doesn't mean Altman should try to sell off every player for 25 cents on the dollar. It may be advantageous to keep Love until the trade deadline, letting him inflate his stats to his Minnesota levels and then deal him to the highest bidder.
Hill's contract essentially works as an expiring $19 million deal, and he'll make a nice mentor for Sexton for the time being. Clarkson's postseason was a disaster (4.7 points, 0.7 assists, 30.1 percent shooting), but he was pretty good for Cleveland during the regular season. The Cavs would be smart to hold on to the 26-year-old as a sixth man and see if he can regain his pre-playoff numbers (12.6 points, 40.7 percent three-point shooting).
If anyone offers as much as an expiring deal for either Smith or Thompson, Altman cannot say yes fast enough.
Cleveland's best-case scenario now becomes heading into next summer with a top-10 pick and a core of Sexton, Nance, Hood, Osman and whatever it can get from Love, Korver and other veterans.
While cap space may not lure a big free agent, it provides other teams a place to dump one of their existing players with a draft pick attached. The Nets have recently used this strategy to acquire former No. 2 overall pick D'Angelo Russell and the Toronto Raptors' 2018 first-rounder (Bosnian small forward Dzanan Musa).
Former general manager David Griffin said in 2014 the organization would be shifting from "asset accumulation mode" into "target acquisition mode."
Now under Altman, Griffin's former assistant, the Cavs should go back to asset accumulation and begin the slow and often painful process of rebuilding. The focus should turn to stockpiling as many draft picks and young players as possible after years of trading both away in hopes of attracting a star sometime in the not-so-distant future.
After all, it's only three years until James can become a free agent again.