The undeniably exceptional Golden State Warriors finished off their superb season on Monday with a 129-120 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, finishing the playoffs 16-1 and sending a message to the rest of the league: No one is on their level.
As Cavs forward Richard Jefferson said last week, this means that their season will be considered a failure. They may have gone 12-1 against the Eastern Conference and improved from last season, but the Warriors outplayed them on the game's biggest stage. Since they didn't repeat as champions, they will now face serious questions as they head into the offseason. Such is life with LeBron James on the roster.
1. What does this loss say about the Cavs?
Honestly, it says more about Golden State, arguably the best team ever assembled. Cleveland is a championship-caliber club, and it the playoffs it was clear that it had taken a major step forward. Midseason addition Kyle Korver made the Cavs even more difficult to defend in transition and in the halfcourt, and star forward Kevin Love had easily his best year in Cleveland. None of that, though, was enough to take more than a game from a juggernaut -- LeBron's term -- that paired the last two MVPs with the likely Defensive Player of the Year, arguably the best two-way shooting guard in the league and perhaps the Sixth Man of the Year.
The way James played, these Cavaliers could have beaten several recent champions. He is still the most unstoppable individual force in the league, and he makes everybody around him better. The manner in which Cleveland disposed of its challengers in the East led some of us to think it could give the Warriors a run for their money, too. That did eventually happen, but only after two blowouts at Oracle Arena.
Like other elite teams, Cleveland has flaws, and those were magnified against Golden State. At the very highest level, its best offensive lineups have trouble getting stops, and its best defensive lineups do not provide enough spacing or scoring. It could use more 3-and-D guys; it could use playmakers who can also guard multiple positions; it is clearly less athletic and versatile than the Warriors.
The sobering reality, though, is that if these problems were easy to solve, the front office would have done that during the season. The Cavaliers won't feel good about coming up short, but they should at least be proud of the way they competed in the last three games.
2. Are the Love rumors going to start again? If so, is that fair?
Almost certainly, especially because of his six points on 2 for 8 shooting in Game 5. And no, that isn't fair. Love found his place in coach Tyronn Lue's system this season, and his effort and execution on defense in the Finals were about as good as anybody could have hoped. He's a wonderful player, and it is not his fault that the Cavs couldn't get past Golden State. He might, however, need to be moved for them to have a better chance.
The Warriors' roster is full of versatile wings and forwards who can switch on defense. Cleveland's roster is not built that way. Love's combination of scoring, rebounding and passing is not easy to find, but his team could be better off against Golden State if it had in his place a long, athletic, defensive-minded forward whose offensive game consisted only of shooting 3-pointers. At this point, this one matchup is more important than anything else.
Could the Cavs trade Love for a wing superstar like Paul George or Jimmy Butler? It seems incredibly unlikely unless one of them pressures his team to do so, but it's worth wondering whether or not it is possible. Alternatively, maybe Cleveland could trade Love for a package of role players that give Lue different lineup options, but that doesn't come without risk. There is a heavy enough playmaking burden on James and Kyrie Irving already -- if Love is moved, then Lue might need to re-imagine Cleveland's offense to take some pressure off of them.
3. Is there any other way the Cavs could shake things up?
Well, does anybody want to talk about trading Irving? It seems like a ridiculous idea, but it is fascinating to think about what he might return on the trade market, especially if George and Butler are available. Perhaps it's not completely crazy for Cleveland to be open to it ... but it feels weird after seeing what Irving can do in the Finals once again.
Beyond trading a star, the Cavs don't have a ton of options. They could look at moving Tristan Thompson, but, somewhat disappointing Finals aside, he is extremely important to what they do. J.R. Smith is on a fair deal, but not necessarily one that can be easily moved for a piece that fits better. Channing Frye is probably worth more to Cleveland than it is to a potential trade partner. Iman Shumpert's value is difficult to discern. This summer is going to be tricky for general manager David Griffin or whoever ends up making these decisions -- Griffin and the organization have not reached an agreement on a new contract -- because the best plan might be bringing the same group back, but that plan isn't particularly exciting after losing to the Warriors in five games.
4. Is it seriously time to start worrying about LeBron leaving?
About a year ago, The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that winning a title in Cleveland would give James "lifetime immunity for his legacy," meaning that he could safely leave his hometown team again, perhaps for "somewhere warm," without risking damage to his reputation. Last week, Jalen Rose predicted on ESPN that James would eventually leave for the Los Angeles Lakers and The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor quoted league sources saying the Clippers are also a "viable destination." It might not feel like James is about to leave anytime soon, but he has never guaranteed that he is going to spend the rest of his career as a Cavalier. He can opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent after next season if he chooses.
It might not be wise to dismiss the possibility of James leaving, but none of this really changes what Cleveland's front office must do. Griffin (or the new guy) has immense pressure to improve the roster because of James' presence, not because of the threat of James leaving. There's no time to waste with him heading into his 15th season and chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan.
5. Is there anything else to watch for this summer?
Korver, Deron Williams, Derrick Williams, James Jones and Dahntay Jones are all unrestricted free agents. This means there will be roster spots to fill, and it will be fascinating to see what the Cavs do. They have no picks in the upcoming draft, and it's unclear which veterans might be willing to take a discount to play with James.
Of the aforementioned free agents, the names to watch here are Korver and Deron Williams -- do they want to come back on minimum contracts in order to stay with this group? Can the Cavs even guarantee them spots in the rotation again given that they're preparing for another potential rematch with the Warriors? They were both great at times in the postseason, but Cleveland probably wants its second unit to be better defensively.