Man, would I would to see where the Cavaleirs would be if not for the cap space. In a recent ranking compiled by Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe, Cleveland’s NBA franchise comes in fifth among the most attractive destinations for a front office hoping to right their team’s respective ship.
This is a crucial summer for Cleveland, but you can start here: Jarrett Jack is the only player on a non-rookie deal that extends beyond next season. That will change once David Griffin, the team’s well-regarded new GM, decides which players to retain from the current roster. Spencer Hawes and Luol Deng are about to enter unrestricted free agency, and Cleveland gave up a combined five draft picks to get them in a slim-chance run at the no. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference. Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving are both eligible for extensions this summer, and Irving is a no-brainer candidate for the max.
That sounds crazy, since Irving is a flawed player. He plays abominable defense, he just had the worst shooting season of his career, he has been hurt a lot, and he clashed at times with Dion Waiters last season. But he just turned 22, and he’s a fantastically talented offensive player — that rare breed of point guard with ankle-breaking off-the-bounce skills and a threatening 3-point shot. He’s the Damian Lillard of the Eastern Conference, only almost two years younger, with a higher ceiling.
And remember: The “max” for guys coming off their rookie deals is smaller than the “max” for veteran players. It might stand as an overpay for present-day Irving, but it’s an overpay you make with the cap rising so fast every season.
Thompson is a thornier choice. He declined a bit in Year 3, he can’t shoot, and he doesn’t protect the rim well enough to play heavy minutes at center. Team executives are increasingly wary of big men who can play only power forward and cannot shoot 3s. That’s Thompson, and Griffin has spoken openly about the need to find more shooting from all positions.
Regardless: Cleveland has a relatively clean cap sheet, a budding star in Irving, and extra first-round picks coming from Memphis and Miami. Dan Gilbert is a loud, impetuous owner, but this job would have piqued the interest of lots of GM candidates had Cleveland truly opened it up.
Per Lowe, the New York Knicks (the KNICKS!), Memphis Grizzlies, Detroit Pistons and New Orleans Pelicans offer better landing spots for those willing to take on the challenge. If you take a step back, the salary cap flexibility that Cleveland has is pretty incredible as the team has managed to roster rookie contracts and low-cost free agents (outside of Jack). Also, it was encouraging to see a national writer point out that, in the wake of all of this Damian Lillard talk, Irving is two years younger and has yet to reach his maximum potential. Things may not look too great right now, but those two first-round picks in 2015 should not be overlooked.
It could all be much worse. Just look at Milwaukee.
Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY