CLEVELAND — Everything changed at 8:05 p.m. on July 1. The Twitter account for Klutch Sports Group sent out a press release. It was just one sentence for immediate release, followed by the customary three pound signs signifying that no further copy would be disseminated.
LeBron James was heading to Los Angeles and would be signing a four-year, $154 million contract with the Lakers. What seemed likely (after all, Vegas had taken James' free-agent odds off the board to limit any potential risk) was still a shock. The feel-good story of 2014 had come to an end, and James' next chapter was about to be written, the foreword being little more than 36 words from a sparsely active Twitter account.
While the NBA world wondered what was next for the storied franchise in Los Angeles—there was no way the Lakers were done adding talent on the first day of free agency—there was undoubtedly a small pocket of fans, highly concentrated in the Midwest, wondering what was next for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Could a team that was in four straight NBA Finals find itself in the dregs of the league with just one player leaving? Would there be moves made in the wake of James' decision that would signal an attempt at competing or bottoming out? What would Koby Altman—a general manager on the job for less than 12 months—do after the most important player in the history of the franchise opted to leave...again?
At just 35 years of age and just one season under his belt as GM, Altman has a host of decisions to make that could potentially be career-altering. With the league's top tiers clearly defined, does he position his Cavaliers in an attempt to compete with the rest of the Eastern Conference, or does he hit the reset button like a mid-'80s teen who just fell down by three scores in Tecmo Super Bowl?
There is a lot at stake for this Cavaliers franchise, much of which extends beyond the basketball court.
The Cavaliers, as presently constructed save for rookie point guard Collin Sexton, are a cavalcade of players brought to Cleveland to play alongside LeBron. There are veteran guards in George Hill, JR Smith and Kyle Korver; teammates from the championship team in Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love; and a handful of players—Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood, specifically—who were acquired midway through last season in a last-ditch effort to save the team from outright combustion.
When James left Cleveland in 2010, team owner Dan Gilbert was defiant in keeping his Cavaliers afloat. In his letter following James' decision, Gilbert said the Cavs would win a championship before James and that fans could "take it to the bank." The Heat won the title in 2012, just weeks after the Cavaliers finished their second consecutive lottery-bound season.
That year, the Cavaliers fired Mike Brown, replaced him with Byron Scott and attempted to compete in the East with a core of Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison and Anderson Varejao. There was a game against the Indiana Pacers that season where the Cavaliers had the ball with a few seconds left and the win for the having, and they ran an out-of-bounds play for Anthony Parker.
Eventually, Chris Grant, who was the general manager at the time, thought wiser. His Cavs had just completed a historically bad, 26-game losing streak, leading him to eventually pull the plug on the team's initial plan. Grant traded Williams and Jamario Moon to the Los Angeles Clippers for a highly compensated Baron Davis and an unprotected draft pick.
That draft pick ultimately became Kyrie Irving.
This season, while clearly a lesser team without James, the Cavs are a year ahead of where they were in 2010. Kevin Love just finished his age-29 season, while Jamison was 34 at the time. Prior to 2010, the Cavaliers, then under Danny Ferry, had mortgaged the future for the present, leading to a team bereft of draft picks. Thompson, drafted a few selections after Irving in 2011, is the only other home-grown, first-round draft choice still on the roster beyond Sexton.
Sexton's speed and Love's elbow prowess could theoretically provide the Cavaliers with one heck of a pick-and-roll tandem flanked by shooters in Korver and Smith. There's the mysterious upside of players such as Ante Zizic and Cedi Osman (both coming off eyebrow-raising summer leagues), and there are the young, recently acquired players in Nance, Clarkson and Hood (assuming they match any potential free-agent offer).
Far from the team's 2010-11 roster that was counting on key minutes from Alonzo Gee, all is not lost.
But could this roster fight for a playoff spot? Potentially, but only because teams such as the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls appear primed for another run at the lottery. For the Cavaliers to not make the playoffs, it would take the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks (without Kristaps Porzingis for a while) or Charlotte Hornets leapfrogging them.
As a prophet named Kevin Garnett once said, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. But if the Cavaliers stood pat, four playoff games would not be as far-fetched as they were eight years prior.
Blow It Up
If the Cavaliers opt to keep things together, the top tier of the East looks to be the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and maybe the Toronto Raptors (barring any trades). The Milwaukee Bucks have one of the league's most exhilarating players in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Indiana Pacers took the Cavaliers with LeBron to seven games in the first round of last season's playoffs, and the John Wall-Bradley Beal tandem, despite being foretasted to regress, is still likely to finish among the top eight in the East.
Factor in that the Cavaliers' 2019 draft pick—owned by the Hawks from the Kover trade two seasons ago—is top-10 protected, and there is some vested interest in ensuring a finish near the bottom third of the league.
ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst pegged Sexton as the only "untouchable" player on the Cavaliers roster. Love is still one of the league's preeminent power forwards, stretching the floor on the offensive end and providing outlet passes made for late-night highlight packages. With two years remaining on his contract and All-Star production still a nightly occurrence, moving Love to a contender for a first-round pick would put the team in a better position three years down the road.
If the Cavaliers keep Love and make the playoffs, not only do they not get the 2019 first-round pick, but they would also not be able to trade Love at peak value. However, there is the potential for the Cavs, led by head coach Ty Lue, to run the offense through Love and let him bolster his stats heading into February's trade deadline, thus increasing his value to potential contenders.
Both Hill and Smith have buyout options next season, so they are effectively on the final year of their respective contracts, but Korver could immediately add value to a team predicated on a catch-and-shoot offensive system. Korver has a contract for $7.56 million this season. In 2019-20, he has a $7.5 million deal with $3.44 million guaranteed, providing an acquiring team with a cheap, low-commitment endeavor.
Can he fetch a late first-round pick? It's hard to argue his value is much lower today than it was two seasons ago when Cleveland dealt a first-round pick to add his long-distance skill set.
The "Other" Items
After the initial shock of James' announcement subsided, fan sentiment turned to "What will happen to the banner?" The banner, of course, was the multistory Nike Basketball advertisement that had adorned Cleveland's Landmark Office Towers since James' return in 2014.
For the nostalgic, it recalls memories of the "Witness" campaign of the late aughts. But for Clevelanders in general, it was one of the most photographed landmarks in the city.
When the Republican National Convention came to Cleveland in 2016, there were initial plans to take the banner down and temporarily replace it with something deemed to be more patriotic. After fans reacted negatively to the news, the banner was left alone. When the Cavaliers won the championship in 2016, the massive banner was briefly removed to add a gold patch to the neckline to commemorate the title.
When James' announcement came across the wire, reports were the banner would be removed at some point that week. On the early-morning hours that following Tuesday, as the sun was just breaking over the city's east side, a crew was situated high atop the building ready to remove something that had been a fixture in the city for four full years.
Across the street from that crew, however, is a cornucopia of barricades that surround Quicken Loans Arena. As the home of the Cavaliers undergoes what is being dubbed a "transformation," the numerology that went into the expansion of the arena includes a budget surrounding playoff income in the coming seasons.
Not making the playoffs in the coming seasons may be better for the long-term health of the team, but does it conflict with the short-term plans surrounding a team looking to host an All-Star Weekend in the coming seasons?
The Decision (Too Soon?)
Unlike 2010, the Cavaliers have options. When James left for Miami, emotions were running high. A championship was so, so close but was never won, leading to drastic measures.
This time, the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland have their championship. If things don't go according to plan, there is a fallback.
The Cavaliers could be a low-entry seed into the playoffs, or they could be one of the teams hoping to press their luck at the 2019 lottery. Few teams in the league have as wide a range, and come February 2019, the NBA universe will have an understanding of what the future holds for a team that has made four straight Finals.