Potentially, many things could be over.
In what can only be categorized as the most up and down season in the history of Cavaliers basketball, Cleveland ended the season falling to the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the 2018 NBA Finals in a straight 4-0 sweep. Given all that happened, it was a truly improbable run. They narrowly escaped the Indiana Pacers in the first round, smashed the Toronto Raptors in the next round, and again narrowly escaped the Boston Celtics to punch a ticket to the Finals. Even LeBron James did not think the Cavaliers would have the ability to make the Finals, or even the playoffs for that matter.
When Kyrie Irving requested a trade out of Cleveland, the team started the downward trajectory. The Cavs spent nearly the entire season trying to fill Irving’s shoes in terms of scoring, with nothing to show for it. Isaiah Thomas was miserable, Derrick Rose was missing and/or ineffective, and, until George Hill warmed up a bit, the best Cavs point guard this year was (gulp) Jose Calderon. Nobody was able to adequately replace the instant offense Irving provided. Kevin Love had moments where he looked like a decent sidekick for James, but injuries and ineffective play when it mattered put that notion to rest. This past season felt very reminiscent to the ones before James left for Miami, where he was forced to do everything. The loss of Kyrie Irving was monumental to this franchise and past season.
The end seemed inevitable at times with how frustratingly bipolar the Cavs looked all year. In fact, there was so much that happened this past season it will all assuredly not make it into this season eulogy. From Thomas’ hip injury, to Rose inexplicably leaving the team, J.R. Smith throwing soup at an assistant coach, the scuffle in the locker room (reportedly led by Dwyane Wade), the huge mid season trade, to Tyronn Lue taking a leave of absence, the stories were never-ending. If there is one thing the Cavs were consistent at, it was drama. Not shooting, or defense, or highlight-reel plays (even though LeBron had many). They were filled with drama.
And this offseason, they could be filled with change.
Truth be told Cleveland has a seemingly limitless number of paths available to them, some more painful than others. Following a much more difficult season than being publicized, James could opt to jump ship and join a more stable team. He could sign a contract and demand to be traded to Team X, similar to what he did to the Cavs before leaving for Miami. The roster would likely be gutted if he decides to leave, with GM Koby Altman adopting a scorched-earth policy to erase his infamous first season. Shedding salary, getting younger, and requiring draft picks. On the flip side, LeBron could stay, prompting Cleveland to package the eighth pick for a star, and the train chugs forward in an undetermined direction. Lue could be fired and replaced whether James stays or not. Kevin Love could be dealt, whether James stays or not. Everything hinges on LeBron and what he decides to do.
Assuming James leaves and issues another heartfelt goodbye to Cleveland he leaves behind a franchise he helped reach the mountaintop of the NBA, but also destroy. Every move the Cavaliers have made has not been for the future, it has been for him and the present. Trading away future draft picks and young, talented players to acquire guys who help LeBron right now. The result in four years of a revolving roster and mortgaged future is one championship. To some, that one ring is enough to say that it worked. To others, it is not enough considering what was given up. If James bolts and had Altman not pried the Brooklyn Nets pick away from the Celtics in the Irving trade, the Cavs would be a barren cupboard with only a few moths flapping around aimlessly.
Luckily, the Cavaliers do have the Nets pick. The ping pong balls did not bounce as favorably as they did in years past, but the Cavaliers will still pick eighth. In a deep draft, that represents a decent amount of value. That draft choice was acquired as the safety net for if James leaves, but is also available if he stays. If LeBron leaves, Cleveland can use the pick to start the rebuild. If LeBron stays, Altman has the pick as ammunition to make a last-ditch effort to get LeBron another sidekick.
Assessing the current state the Cavaliers can be summed up by the word “expensive”. They are the priciest team in the NBA, narrowly beating out Golden State and Oklahoma City. Next season does not look any better. Cleveland is on the hook next season for some pretty outrageous contracts including George Hill ($19 million), J.R. Smith ($14.72 million), Jordan Clarkson ($12.5 million), and Tristan Thompson ($17.4 million). All of those players are also on the books for 2019-2020 as well, all of them making more money except for Hill who goes from $19 million next year to $18 million the following. Calderon and Jeff Green are the only relevant names that come off the books next season. Whether James stays or leaves, the Cavs will have to try and move one or more of those enormous contracts to try and gain some sort of financial flexibility. Cleveland, as they have for the past few offseasons, could try to trade Kevin Love and the $24 million he is owed next season. If James leaves, expect the Cavs to take calls on Love.
This will be quite the offseason around the NBA, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to be at the center of it. The most successful era of basketball in Cavs history could come to a close if James leaves Northeast Ohio again. Or, he can continue to push the Cavs ownership and front office to build a winner in Cleveland. The two paths look very different and have drastically differing timelines of success. Either way, buckle up for a wild summer.