Before we even try to begin a conversation about the state of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and their prospects for success moving forward, in the wake of LeBron James' second departure from his first and only true NBA home, let's just go ahead and state the obvious: For at least the next few seasons, the Cavs are pretty boned.
Yes, we're all aware of Jordan Clarkson's optimistic outlook that the Cavs are going to "shock a lot of people" with their post-LeBron play, and yes, as currently constructed, they do still have a handful of capable players -- including one in Kevin Love who might still have the goods to be a borderline No. 1 option if given the opportunity, which he presumably will be in Cleveland if he isn't traded before the start of next season.
Still, there isn't an athlete on the planet that single-handedly swings the fate of a franchise more dramatically than LeBron. With him, the 2018-19 Cavs -- flaws and all -- would've once again been a serious Finals contender at the absolute worst; in the East, perhaps they would've still been the Finals favorite, even with the Boston Celtics' presumed rise to prominence. Without LeBron, the Cavs could very well miss the playoffs entirely. If they decide to truly blow it up and start from scratch -- which is to say trade Love and anyone else they can, even if it means taking on bad money if it would include a draft pick in return -- they could very reasonably lose 60 games and finish as one of the worst teams in the depleted Eastern Conference.
Which would mean another high lottery pick in 2019.
And probably another one in 2020.
And that's where this gets interesting. With the understanding that they would trade it all to get LeBron back, there is a case to be made that the Cavs are actually in a better position to withstand LeBron's leaving than you might realize. Yes, their books are clogged with cap-killing contracts like those of Tristan Thompson, Jordan Clarkson, George Hill, J.R. Smith and to a lesser extent Kyle Korver, who are set to make a combined $71 million next year. But Smith, Hill and Korver come off the books in 2019, and by 2020, the Cavs can be free of all that money.
Do the math, and just two years from now, should they choose to pursue this avenue, the Cavs stand to be flush with somewhere between $60 million-$70 million in cap space. Throw in this year's No. 8 overall selection, Collin Sexton, and those aforementioned potential lottery picks in 2019 and 2020, and if you squint, you can see a pretty promising future for the Cavs on the not-too-distant horizon -- one that could become even more promising should they find the right suitor for Love, who, at least in theory, still has enough value to fetch another solid first-round pick in return.
All of this will require a lot of losing over the next two to four years, which will in turn require a lot of patience. But the Cavs have a real opportunity to get back to even and start fresh now that they no longer have to operate under the year-to-year threat of LeBron leaving -- as they did all of last season and also in 2015-16, with both being seasons that preceded with an out in LeBron's contract, which meant he could've walked in the ensuing summer.
In talking to a handful of people with multiple organizations at the NBA's Las Vegas Summer League, the common sentiment was that these short-term deals with player options to leave are, for rather obvious reasons, a challenging way to do business. You just can't put much priority on big-picture thinking if the center of that picture could just up and disappear. To keep this from happening, you often end up trading young, promising players and draft picks while paying a bunch of money to short-term "ready-to-win" veterans who have little value without a guy like LeBron next to them -- and for whom the bill eventually comes due, as it has for the Cavs.
Understand, any team would happily engage in this unspoken agreement to mortgage the future for a player like LeBron, who will single-handedly take your team into a stratosphere you'll likely never reach with all the future draft picks and young players in the world. But it's still tough.
Look at the patience the Lakers are exercising in this potential Kawhi Leonard trade scenario, a luxury they have been afforded with LeBron signing up for a guaranteed three years. If LeBron had only made a one- or two-year commitment, there would be more pressure to immediately put a team in place that would entice him to stay, no matter the cost.
In that scenario, maybe the Lakers have to bite the bullet and trade Brandon Ingram, who a handful people I talked with at Summer League think could be a fringe All-Star in the relatively near future, even in the talent-rich Western Conference (there are definitely differing opinions on this). Perhaps they move Lonzo Ball as well. Now, with something of a bare cupboard behind the glitzy shelf display of LeBron and one other star, all you really have, in essence, are a few late-career LeBron years to make enough hay to somewhat comfort you during the biblical storm of his inevitable departure.
The Cavs did this for years, and for the 2016 championship alone it was worth it. But had it gone any further, well, you could argue that there was going to start being some diminishing returns on doing business with LeBron, as crazy as that sounds. Think about it like this: Had LeBron gone back to Cleveland, it likely would've been because every other option fell apart, not because he really wanted to go back and stay long term. He likely would've signed a one-year deal with another dreaded player option, meaning the Cavs would've been right back in the same situation next summer.
Also, with LeBron back on board, even if only temporarily, they would have been more or less obligated to do everything they could in the coming season to keep him. Put another way, GM Koby Altman and the Cavs would've been in for another year of potentially not trading Love, who would then lose another year of value, while also having to entertain the thought of trading Sexton -- their best asset moving forward -- to bring in another expensive player more ready to help LeBron win.
Let's say, for instance, that player was Kemba Walker, or a rough equivalent. That still wouldn't be enough to make the Cavs a true title contender, and LeBron still probably would've left in 2019 anyway, meaning they would've let yet another lottery pick get away from them. This has become a pattern.
Since 2003, the Cavs have had four No. 1 overall draft picks including LeBron, by far the most of any team over that 15-year stretch, and not a single one is still with them. LeBron didn't want to play with Andrew Wiggins, who wasn't ready to play a meaningful role on a title team in 2014, so they traded him. Kyrie Irving didn't want to play with LeBron anymore, so they traded him, too. Anthony Bennett isn't even in the league anymore.
Any way you look at it, that is tough to swallow. No. 1 picks are gold. For Altman and the Cavs, having already lost all that talent in the name of doing business with LeBron, to even have to think about trading Sexton -- before they even know what he is or can be -- in another shortsighted deal would've made for a lot of sleepless nights. They would never say as much, but there has to be at least a little bit of a collective exhale in that Cleveland front office that they don't have to make that decision.
Sexton, for his part, has looked terrific in Summer League. He's gotten to every spot he wants to on the floor. He's made jumpers (even if his 3-point range remains in question). He's shown his relentless competitiveness and athleticism, and a savvy ability to get to the rim. He's shown a pretty tight handle, too, and says he's super comfortable running the pick and roll, which is evident in watching him and is such a vital part of a modern point guard's job description. He gets into guys on defense and will battle anyone, big or small, with everything he's got. Perhaps most importantly, he's more than ready to step into a leadership role on a veteran-laded team in LeBron's absence.
"I felt like I turned into a leader at Alabama very quick, so it's definitely going to translate," Sexton, who is just 19 years old and played only one season in college, told CBS Sports. "We're going to be good."
As long as Love is around, Sexton probably won't be the best player on the team, at least not for a while, but he's clearly the beginning of a new day in Cleveland. That day will probably look dark for a while, but the light of 2020 is visible. In the end, this feels right. LeBron and the Cavs ramming their heads against the immovable Warriors force had run its course. In hindsight, he was always going to leave. No use in delaying the inevitable.
In his second term as Cleveland's King, LeBron gave the Cavs four straight Finals appearances, and again, that championship in 2016 when the Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the 73-win Warriors will go down as one of the single-greatest sports accomplishments in history. Cleveland fans will die as different people, changed at their core, for that victory. It was more than sports, and it was certainly worth the cost.
But now the Cavs can look ahead to a new kind of reward, and it might be closer than you think. Would they rather have LeBron James back? Yes. At the same time, you could understand if they're quietly not completely devastated that he left.