One of the critical aspects of building a championship team is knowing when to go for it. Teams like the Cavs stockpile good young players with loads of potential, but all too often they wait patiently for that potential to develop and ultimately find that the potential is never realized, or core players never peak at the same time, or they realize too late that the best opportunity for a championship just passed and they failed to recognize it.
The Cavs have done an admirable job building the nucleus of a contending team. The Heat have shown, though, that to win a championship it may be better to have three great players than six or seven really good players. This is particularly true when those six or seven players all hit the end of their rookie contracts together and expect to get paid like superstars. Normally, one would expect the Cavs to wait until they make the playoffs a couple of times, then make a big strike to fill whatever holes are keeping them from winning a championship. The better path, though, may be to make such a move earlier in the rebuilding process.
There are several reasons this may be the case. First, the Cavs have an abundance of draft picks over the next few years. The general perception is that these picks will be valuable because the Cavs have been so bad. Even if a general manager gets fleeced in a trade, if he gets two first-round picks he can step up to the podium with a straight face and talk about the valuable assets he has acquired. Fans would mutiny if their team traded its best player for Dion Waiters, but Dion Waiters and two first-round picks sounds like a great deal, and the final verdict on the deal won’t be rendered until the draft picks are actually made, possibly by the next general manager. And to be honest, the odds of a draft pick making a huge contribution to the Cavs will go down sharply as they improve, so trading them for immediate value might be the way to go.
The way the salary cap is set up is another reason the Cavs should consider making such a deal now. If the Cavs are successful in the next few years, they will find themselves facing the same quandary Oklahoma City was in when they decided to trade James Harden. At some point Irving, Waiters, Thompson and Bennett will all want to get paid like elite players. We may also be thinking about offering Bynum a long-term deal and making decisions on several role players as well. It’s a good problem to have, if those players are taking you deep into the playoffs. But you can’t pay all of them, and if you wait until your decision is imminent you have no leverage to make a move that helps your team. Trading a couple of the young guys for an established player, while adding to the payroll now, would likely result in more payroll flexibility 2-3 years from now, when the players you keep are looking for big money.
The main reason to make a move, though, is that we just don’t know what these guys are going to look like in a couple of years. Are we willing to bet the future of this franchise that Dion Waiters will learn to play without the ball and develop a decent shot selection? Do you foresee a scenario where Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett will be on the floor together for extended periods of time? If your answer to either of these questions was no, would it make more sense to consider packaging Thompson and Waiters in a trade for an established player without such serious question marks? In order to entice teams to make such a deal, the Cavs may need to overpay, possibly including several draft picks or even Anderson Varejao in order to make the salaries line up. That will no doubt lead to severe teeth gnashing about frontcourt depth and giving up on guys before they reach their full potential. Well, most guys don’t reach their full potential, and even if the guys we trade do become excellent players, does that matter if in return we get a guy who helps us contend for a title? As for the depth issue, part of what teams like Miami and San Antonio do well is to not overpay for role players. At some point in the next couple of years Thompson and Waiters are going to make $8-10 million a year. Unless you see them playing 35 minutes a game, that is a poor use of cap space. If all you need for that roster spot is someone to back up Anthony Bennett for fifteen minutes a night, there are a dozen free agents every year who will do the job nearly as well as Thompson as long as you use them in situations that don’t expose their weaknesses and cost a third as much. That leaves more money to pay the guys who will win games for you in May and June.
So who would the Cavs go after if they decide to pursue this strategy? Well, I’m on record as saying Irving and Bennett are going to be the core of the team when it reaches contender status, so that means point guard and power forward are covered. There’s no sense going after a center until you figure out what Bynum can bring. That leaves the wing positions. The goal would be someone who represents a significant upgrade over the current options but young enough that he will retain that skill level for several years and in a situation where his current team doesn’t value him as highly as the Cavs would. Preferably a deadeye shooter.
The problem is that there is not an obvious candidate for a trade. In looking at the top 40 scorers from last year, the only swingmen who look like they might be available are Luol Deng , DeMar DeRozan and Danilo Gallinari. Deng only has a year left on his contract, so the Cavs would only trade for him if he signed an extension. The Bulls aren’t in a position to trade where they would want to trade for future assets, but I could see a Varajao/Deng trade at some point, since the Bulls don’t have a lot of frontcourt depth. DeRozan shot 28 percent from three last year, so he wouldn’t be the guy to spread the floor for Kyrie to penetrate. Gallinari is recovering from knee surgery, so the Cavs would probably want to see him perform in the regular season a bit before they commit to him, and he would only be available then if Denver’s season goes south, which is not unlikely given the turmoil of their offseason. Still, while Gallinari has a skill set that would fit perfectly with the Cavs, none of these guys moves the needle enough in terms of making a team an instant contender. That could mean that the move to be made is one that isn’t on the radar right now, or that the Cavs decide to manage their cap space with an eye toward the free agent class of 2014. My guess is, Chris Grant realizes the chances of a big free agent (even you-know-who) coming to Cleveland are not good enough to bet the future of the franchise on it. But at some point this season teams will start looking at their rosters and decide to shed some long-term deals to position themselves for the free agent sweepstakes. That will be the opportunity Grant needs to pick up an elite player and move the Cavs into position to contend for years to come.
To get your seats for the Cavs as they continue to build towards a potential contender, visit TiqIQ.com for the best deals on Cleveland Cavaliers tickets.