No team has had a more dramatic 2017/18 league year than the Cavaliers, who dealt with Kyrie Irving‘s trade request last offseason, underwent multiple roster overhauls, improbably made it back to the NBA Finals, and are now facing the prospect of losing LeBron James — again.
The Cavaliers’ comeback in the 2016 NBA Finals to erase a 3-1 deficit and knock off the 73-win Warriors earned James the right to leave on better terms this time around than he did in 2010, but the club would still prefer to have him stick around a little longer. His decision will ultimately be the catalyst that determines which direction the Cavs will go for the next several years.
Here are five key questions facing the franchise this summer:
1. So… what’s LeBron going to do?
The two best players in the NBA are eligible for free agency this summer, but Kevin Durant is a lock to re-sign with the Warriors, making LeBron’s decision the offseason’s most important subplot. At this point, his options have been discussed ad nauseam. The Lakers, Sixers, Celtics, Rockets, Clippers, Spurs, Heat, and even the Warriors look like potential threats to the Cavs, and that’s not taking into account any potential wild-card suitors that arise during his decision-making process.
I’ve already written at length about the various factors that will play a role in James’ decision, but even after endless speculation, it doesn’t feel like we’re any closer to figuring out where he’ll end up. Every potential landing spot has its pros and cons, which could work in Cleveland’s favor, forcing the future Hall-of-Famer to seriously consider the possibility of simply sticking with the Cavs rather than leaving for any number of imperfect options.
Still, it would be somewhat surprising if James re-upped with the Cavs. He accomplished what he set out to to do when he returned to the franchise in 2014, winning a title for his hometown team. From an on-court perspective, there are better opportunities out there for him. From a marketing and lifestyle perspective, moving to a bigger market like Los Angeles would make sense. It just seems like there’s too much working against the Cavs.
That doesn’t mean that a return to Cleveland is out of the question, but if I had to bet on James starting the 2018/19 season with either the Cavs or one of the NBA’s other 29 teams, I’d take the field.
2. What should the Cavaliers do with the No. 8 pick?
While it’s possible that James will no longer be a Cavalier at this time next month, the team can’t approach the offseason as if he’s already gone. By all accounts, LeBron has yet to make a final decision, so the Cavs’ moves in the next week or two could push him in one direction or the other.
That puts the Cavs in an incredibly tough spot with their lottery pick. If the club knew James would leave, it would make sense for the front office to target the player with the highest long-term ceiling at No. 8, in the hopes of identifying a franchise player for the post-LeBron era. With no assurances one way or the other, Cleveland will have to straddle the fence, finding a player who could play alongside James or who could develop and thrive on a new-look Cavs roster.
Of course, if the Cavs really want to make a strong pitch to James, packaging the No. 8 pick in a deal for another star would represent the all-in approach. Even if the club could find a workable trade for someone like Kemba Walker or Kawhi Leonard though, it would provide no guarantees on the LeBron front. Both Walker and Leonard are eligible for free agency in 2019 and aren’t well positioned to sign extensions before then, so it’s unlikely that acquiring one of them would prompt James to commit to more than one extra year in Cleveland.
Ultimately, the Cavs probably need to take the best player available at No. 8, regardless of that player’s fit, his ability to make an immediate impact, or his appeal to trade partners. If need be, the front office could always shop that player in July after finding out what James plans to do.