Do the Cavaliers Need LeBron James to Contend Again?

LeBron James and Kyrie IrvingIn the podcast I did with Craig over the weekend, we talked a bit about the Miami Heat winning streak and whether it’s actually as impressive as it seems. Now, don’t get me wrong, winning 27 straight games in the NBA is always impressive. I cannot emphasize this enough…Their run is amazing.

Yet, I still can’t help but feel underwhelmed by it when I look at the rest of the NBA. I think this is a one team league right now. We can debate whether that’s more about the dominance and greatness of Miami or more about the lackluster play of the rest of the Association. I personally think a team doing this in the late 80s/early 90s when every team had a star would have been more impressive. In this current climate where all the stars are migrating to a select few teams, it has created a situation where Miami can beat arguably 85% of the other teams without breaking a sweat.

But even on those teams who have been arms race winners (Clippers, Knicks, Lakers), only the Clippers are really a threat to Miami1. Instead, it’s the two home-grown teams (Thunder and Spurs) who appear to be the biggest threats to the Heat’s throne. That’s not to discount the Nuggets, who are a patchwork team that is exceeding everyone’s expectations. Or Memphis, who is 5th in the West but would be 2nd in the East.

The point is, even as Miami is “just” 3 games above San Antonio for the NBA’s best record despite playing in the vastly inferior conference, the Heat are still the juggernaut that everyone else is chasing. They are the Champions wearing the crown until someone can steal it off their heads.

For the Cavaliers, that’s the goal. It’s not going to happen this season. It almost certainly won’t happen next season. But the 2014-15 season is where this thing is headed. That’s the focal point2 for the Cavaliers current rebuilding plan. But I’m not necessarily talking about LeBron James here.

Sure, the most literal way to steal the Heat’s crown would be to lure the King back to his home. Putting LeBron James on a team with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, and whatever likely top 5 pick the Cavaliers get this year would instantly re-shape the Eastern Conference and vault the Cavaliers back to one of the top slots of the conference.

But what if LeBron doesn’t come back to Cleveland? Is that game over for the Cavaliers? Do the Cavaliers need LeBron James to return to prominence?

I ask these questions because Marc Stein dumped a huge bucket of cold water on any idea of LeBron returning to Cleveland in the Weekend Dime. Stein went in depth to lay out some really great reasons why any thought of LeBron returning to Cleveland in 2 years is ludicrous.

It’s just one man’s opinion there. He has no more insight into LeBron’s thinking than anyone else. You might think Brian Windhorst has more perspective than Stein, especially after reading his recent take on LeBron’s next Decision. But remember, last time around, Brian was just as wrong as Stein was in saying they felt LeBron would stay in Cleveland.

And that’s the point. Nobody makes decisions for LeBron. He’s going to make his next Decision for his reasons alone, and trying to project those reasons is futile. At the end of the day, I agree with Stein that the thought of LeBron turning his back on Dwyane Wade seems far fetched. No matter how exciting the thought of LeBron’s return is for some, we have to maintain perspective here and understand that Miami is the overwhelming favorite to retain LeBron’s services. Nothing will be worse for Cleveland sports fans than to unrealistically get hopes or expectations raised, only to have them crushed by LeBron again. Cleveland seems to finally be getting over LeBron leaving, lets not open new wounds here.

That’s not to say it’s hopeless. Lets keep our fingers crossed behind our back. But don’t be crushed, let down, or angry if/when LeBron stays with his BFF in Miami.

So with that all said, lets forget about LeBron on the Cavaliers for now, and focus instead on LeBron in Miami and how the Cavaliers can beat them. Because if Cleveland wants to win an NBA Championship, eventually it’s going to have to come by going through LeBron James and his Miami Heat.

2014-15 remains the key season. I’d like to hope the Cavaliers are getting the injury bug out of the way this season. If they can stay healthy next year, I have to believe they will be back in the postseason. By 2014-15, hopefully the Cavaliers will have made the right moves to be a team with postseason experience ready to make a move up the Eastern standings.

But how do they get there? That part of the equation might start as soon as this offseason.

Buried in his cold water dousing of the rumor mill, Marc Stein mentioned this point:

Rival executives know what the Cavs are trying to do with all those future first-round picks and all that cap space they’ve amassed: Trade for (or sign) a Kevin Love-ish complement to Irving to really make The Next Decision tough.

Ok, fine, it could make the Decision 2.0 a little tougher. That’s all good, but that’s not what I find compelling about this. The more compelling point is that even if LeBron says no, landing a Kevin Love-caliber talent would be a major coup for Chris Grant and a quite satisfying consolation prize in the LeBron sweepstakes.

I’ve long thought that this should be the Cavaliers’ goal with all of these assets they’re stockpiling, but this is the first I’ve seen a reporter come out and actually say it. The Cavaliers have options, and now is the time for them to start using their options to build a team for 2014-15. Not to entice LeBron James back, but to take advantage of the assets they have and get this team back into some degree of title contention.

Do you know how many players have a fully guaranteed contract for 2014-15? The answer is zero. Zilch. None. The Cavaliers have team options on Anderson Varejao, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, and Tyler Zeller. Clearly some of those players will be picked up. Also, I think there’s a good chance Wayne Ellington is re-signed and maybe Shaun Livingston as well. Same with Marreese Speights. But as of right now, no players are guaranteed roster spots in 2014-15. This is remarkable flexibility for the franchise.

It’s not just about current players. The Cavaliers also have a plethora of future draft picks coming their way. In addition to their own picks (the Cavaliers owe no future picks to anyone), they could have as many as 7 extra draft picks through 2015, plus the ability to swap the Lakers pick this year with the Heat pick.

All of this adds up to just a ridiculous number of options going forward for the Cavaliers. We’re talking an almost literal unlimited potential for deals, picks, trades, signings, etc. So to predict any one move is awfully tough to do at this point. But it’s reassuring to know that big moves are likely coming.

One of the biggest moves could come this offseason. With Anderson Varejao already done for the season and Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters looking like they could both be done as well, the Cavaliers are cruising for a bottom 3 spot in the NBA standings. In other words, a top 5 pick in this year’s draft is looking pretty good. But what if the Cavaliers don’t use that pick?

One of the most intriguing options for the Cavaliers would be to trade their pick. Everyone talks about the Thunder model of team building, but what about the Celtics’ model? Remember, once upon a time they were a bad team with Paul Pierce, some intriguing young players, and a top 5 draft pick. They turned those assets into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. What if the Cavaliers were to package this top 5 pick, a player like Tristan Thompson or Anderson Varejao, and other draft picks and/or players for something like a couple star players?

In my opinion, the Cavaliers do not need LeBron to get back into some form of contention. But they need to make some big moves to bring in some elite talent quickly. With this season that has devolved into another #TankStrong campaign, following the Jon Leuer trade, the asset acquisition phase can come to an end. It’s time for the Cavaliers to start turning these assets into real pieces of the puzzle.

I’m not saying the Cavaliers will, or even should, trade their first round pick3, but I am saying that they ought to be shopping that thing around like crazy. See what’s out there, see who’s willing to make a deal.

Waiting for LeBron is a dangerous strategy. He’s the best player in the world by a country mile and that’s not likely to change any time soon. So by all means, pursue him. But don’t sit on your hands until that time. LeBron or Bust is too risky of a strategy for me4. The Cavaliers already made the mistake of not surrounding a superstar with other star players. Lets not go down that road again.

So no, the Cavaliers don’t need LeBron to contend again. But they do need to add some much better players to this team. I like every player on this team on a personal level. But as much as I like some of these guys, the talent level just isn’t where it needs to be. Using acquired late first round picks and second round picks isn’t likely to change this. The way for the Cavaliers to get to where they want to be is eventually going to require using these assets to acquire star-quality players. Hopefully that starts sooner than later. Because while everyone is talking about LeBron’s next Decision, Kyrie Irving’s “Decision” is going to come quicker than we realize.

  1. and probably not a serious threat even at their best []
  2. or, it should be anyway []
  3. can’t say that until I know more about what pick they have and who the best prospects are []
  4. again, I’m not saying that’s what the Cavaliers are doing….just saying not making moves until then is a mistake []

  • BenRM

    I think nostalgia clouds some of the initial argument on whether the streak is impressive or not. I believe if you go back, a similar percentage of teams in the 80’s, 90’s etc. were sub-.500. In 20 years, the Brooklyn Nets or LA Clippers could be viewed similarly to how we view the Utah Jazz from that era.

  • It’s not so much about the records as it is the talent dispersion. The talent on sub-500 teams today looks much worse to me than it did on some of those teams before expansion watered down the league.

  • FearTheRoo

    The Cavs will never have Lebron again. If they want to win the Cavs need more than Kyrie. Tanking every season so we can end up with Dion Waiters is just wasting everyone’s time. Make some moves and don’t rely on draft picks that might work out in 6 years.

  • Alan

    If the Cavs make a move for Love they better spend a ton of money on their training staff too. Kevin’s game is great but he might be more fragile than Kyrie. A team with Kyrie, Varejo and Love might as well change their name to the Cleveland Glass.

  • mgbode

    “late 80s/early 90s”

    you mean when the NBA GMs were so dumb that hey gifted the Lakers and Celtics a bevvy of stars in the early-to-mid 80s and left them jam-packed with HOFers for the late 80s?

    I know what you are getting at, but a big reason for the talent dispersion these days is that alot of GMs understand how to get the talent. It is to bottom-out for a few years and build back up. Orlando stripped itself down much like we did after LeBron. Some teams are not good enough at doing it though, so you have teams like Sacramento flail about for years and years.

    And, I think there are a good number of teams who are well-equipped. The West goes 10 teams deep with capable teams on a given night. The East probably only goes 4 (outside Miami), but there are plenty of others who can put a good run on them and have some stars.

  • WFNYJon

    Your paragraph about having no players on guaranteed contracts beyond 2013 reminds me of the Indians position at the beginning of last year. Everyone was lamenting that the team wouldn’t invest in players, but the real point was that they were maintaining flexibility (it turns out, the flexibility to add Bourn, Swisher, Reynolds, et al). This was what I wrote about it then:

    The point would seem to cross league boundaries: these are GOOD problems for rebuilding teams to have–a lack of long-term financial obligations.

  • mgbode

    I put my thoughts on the FTS “trade the top5 pick” option in WWAW thread. They apply here too. I don’t have an issue shopping the pick, but if you trade it (and other assets), then you better make sure that it gets you into contention because you are accelerating your cap issues, shortening your contract lengths, and limiting your assets for future moves.

  • It’s not just that. The East is crazy weak this season to begin with – and then every team the Heat play is missing it’s best player on top of it. Or in the Cavs case – the top 3 players.

  • Matt underwood

    …And The weekly leBron article is here… Phil Dawson news/’bad front office for not re-signing 38 year old kicker” article to follow this afternoon.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The truth is for all the bitter Betty’s that the Cavaliers need LeBron James more then LeBron James needs the Cavaliers. James got his title and is more then proving his point. Meanwhile the Cavaliers toil in the abyss with no signs of ever finding their way out. Maybe James will take the redemption road and return to lead this franchise out of the darkness and into the light but if he does it’ll once again be on his terms. It will be interesting to see if he takes the hard road and returns putting up with all the flack he’ll receive while attempting to carry the Cavaliers on his back yet again. Or will he take the easy road and possibly take less money to go to another contending team or stay in Miami. I love a great story so I’m personally hoping he returns but I’ll believe it when I see it. Regardless this upcoming off-season is make or break for the Cavaliers but namely Chris Grant. It’s time to make something happen!

  • mgbode

    this upcoming off-season is not make or break. we have been building, we will continue to build. no reason to make a hasty decision.

    and, there are plenty of signs of finding their way out of the abyss. they start with Kyrie, but Waiters, Andy, Tristan, and others have shown signs. The Lakers (if they can start winning again) pick will help along with another top5 pick. Build the program, develop the team.

  • JK

    Cuz they’ll be able to rebound?!?

  • I hate this draft. I’d trade both picks for someone in a heartbeat. The best center in the draft might be the next Greg Oden. Then it’s a bunch of PGs and SGs. And Anthony Bennett – and the Cavs already have an undersized power forward.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Never said make a hasty decision but you can’t rebuild for five years and be mediocre either. The Cavaliers will have more then enough financial flexibility not to mention multiple draft picks in which to improve the team. It needs to really start this off-season IMO. If the Indians can do it then so can the Cavaliers.

    As for finding their way out of the abyss there was a week where it looked like they were blossoming but then of course Irving got hurt. The fact that Irving and Varejao cannot play full seasons is a real problem especially when the next best players are so far down the chain.

    I hate to say it but unless the Cavaliers find a second banana or perhaps a top banana to go along with Irving I don’t see this team being more then mediocre at best.

  • I sometimes have to pinch myself to test if this is real. I absolutely love the position the Cavaliers are in. But at some point, you have to flip the switch and start using those options to improve. I’ll be curious to see which direction the Cavaliers choose to go.

  • Agreed. But I just feel like at some point you have to make a big move and hope it works. There’s never a guarantee no matter how good of a player it is you’re getting. There are very few moves in any sport that teams can miss on and come out of it ok.

  • I haven’t fully immersed myself in draft prospects yet, but so far from what I’ve read and watched, I’m leaning toward agreeing with this. I don’t have a player that I covet in this draft so far.

  • dwhit110

    “If the Indians can do it then so can the Cavaliers.”

    Saying this before one game has been played harkens memories of George W. Bush and a certain “Mission Accomplished” banner.

  • Steve

    Miami isn’t a much bigger market than Cleveland. It’s just more glamorous. ESPN made plenty of money selling the NBA when Lebron was in Cleveland.

  • mgbode

    or that big move can be from within. Denver is a really great example of just continuing to compile “assets” and just utilize them as a very good team. Golden State, Indiana, and Chicago are other examples.

    I’m not sure which way that I lean right now, but I do know that I’m going to be more selective on my analysis moving forward.

    Big move that worked = James Harden
    Big move that was a disaster = Andrew Bynum

    Philly is worse than ground-zero on that trade right now. They might be set back years and years as they have to make a nearly blind choice in July on the matter.

  • Denver is a tough cookie to explain. But I’m not sure I want to be Golden State, Indiana, or Chicago. Sure, they’re all in better positions than Cleveland is, but what % do you give any of those 3 winning a title in the next 5 years? I’m not putting a high number on that.

    But you make a great point on being selective on future analysis. I think we all need to keep that in mind because I think the next two offseasons are so vital.

  • steve-o

    We don’t need LBJ to be competitive considering we have the ammo to improve, and over half the NBA makes the playoffs. But since any team LBJ plays for is the likely favorite to win it all (for the next 5-7 yrs anyway), we would need him for a run at a championship. But so would almost 29 other teams.

  • mgbode

    Completely understandable, as the question is if those teams can improve from where they are at or if they are stuck in “almost” land. San Antonio and OKC are the same model as well. Mostly built from within, importing some supporting pieces.

    IMO: Chicago, next year with Rose, is as capable as anyone in the East of toppling Miami. Also, both Chicago and Indiana potentially have trade assets to garner another star if one becomes available.

    GS is another case entirely just because I think they were poorly assembled. Right idea, but the Bogut miss is really hampering them along with some other contract choices that limit their flexibility.

  • woofersus

    Irving’s injuries would keep him out a lot less games if the Cavs were in a playoff push. Heck, Dion was just sore and they sat him down for a week. That said, obviously this rebuild is not yet complete. The Cavs will absolutely be looking to bring somebody in either this year or next, whether it’s LBJ or somebody else. I don’t know as much about this year’s draft as I will when we get closer, but the weakness of the draft just makes the pick worth less in trade. Future picks are a better asset because their value is still theoretical. I think they should take the best two guys they can with their two picks and continue to grow the young squad. The most valuable trading asset the Cavs have will be cap space for one more year, then you start thinking about trading somebody who is young and has high upside because of a positional logjam if one occurs, or a future pick.

    In any case, I think all the hand wringing over the status of the rebuild is a little premature, as we’re still starting 2 rookies, 2 second year players, and a 3rd-ish year D-league surprise from last year. It feels like this is taking forever, so it’s easy to forget how young everybody is. Beyond that, even though they were only a decent team for a few weeks from the start of the new year until Kyrie’s injury, they were grabbing (and blowing) huge leads at the beginning of the year when they had Andy but no bench at all. (imagine if they had Speights, Ellington, Livingston, and a functional Miles back then) I think the guys who they have picked and will be counting on in the future have given us lots of reasons to be optimistic.

  • I actually like Otto Porter a lot. But he’s not a top 5 pick at this point. Also like Poythress, who we may be able to get with the second #1 if the Lakers continue on a road to the playoffs.

    I wonder about signing Al Jefferson in the offseason.

  • I think some of the injury sitting is done knowing we are out of contention, so why not rest the stars. Chances are good that we’ll lose a few extra games and get some ping pong balls out of it.

  • mlawson

    Philly is in such bad shape that it’s almost indescribable. they traded away 2 top prospects (harkless and vucevic), a first round pick, and iguodala (who had legit trade value). on top of that, bynum just doesn’t give a damn. hilarious. I almost hope that they double down and give him a max contract, just to see him quit, get fat etc.