What LeBron's departure would mean for the Cavs

play
Summer of LeBron's free-agency fun begins (1:01)

LeBron James transitions into offseason mode, which means speculation which has already been going on for months is sure to pick up. (1:01)

Maybe it was inevitable the moment Dan Gilbert wrote his rage-infused, burn book excerpt in 2010 -- poisoning whatever relationship he had with LeBron James, and perhaps pushing James to maximize his leverage with a series of one- and two-year deals upon his return to Cleveland.

Maybe it was inevitable anyway -- the natural rise and fall of a championship team that sacrifices the future to win the thing that is the entire point of this enterprise.

Maybe it doesn't even matter, in the long, long, long term, that Kyrie Irving saw this coming and pushed his way to Boston.

But: The Cavaliers, swept away by a vastly superior Golden State team, will start nearly from scratch if James leaves in free agency -- capped-out through next season, without even one player they selected themselves in the first round of the draft after nabbing Tristan Thompson in 2011. And even in the most hopeful scenarios batted around Cleveland's front office, LeBron is very much a flight risk. LeBron opting in for next season as part of a trade probably won't net the Cavs enough in return to change this outlook much.

Their one saving grace: the Nets pick, No. 8 in this draft, the only item with clear, positive value remaining from the somewhat unexpectedly catastrophic Irving deal. (Larry Nance Jr. is the other piece that might be helpful, even when he signs his next contract, and the Cavs paid a premium to get him -- their own first-round pick, and the absorption of Jordan Crawford/Clarkson's contract.)

They missed chances to trade their best non-LeBron player, Kevin Love, at something close to peak value, and will have hard time flipping him for even 50 percent of that now. Expect the Cavs to explore what they might get for a package of Love and the No. 8 pick around the draft in a last-ditch attempt to convince LeBron to stay.

If LeBron leaves, it is hard to find any path back to 50 wins beyond bottoming out, again, and rebuilding through the draft. The chances of face-planting into the same preposterous lottery luck they enjoyed when LeBron left the first time -- wins in 2011, 2013, and 2014 -- are almost nil. And even if they do finish with one of the two or three worst records sometime in the next few seasons, revamped lottery rules will reduce their chances of nabbing the No. 1 pick.

Most championship teams end in ruins. Stars get old, bills for all those present-for-future trades come due. The Spurs are both an anomaly and an ideal -- the perennial, unkillable contender that managed to chase rings and replenish its youth at the same time. Even so, the Kawhi Leonard swap that bought them more time is close to a once-in-a-generation move. Boston's "Ocean's Eleven"-level heist of the Nets -- they might as well have stolen some of Billy King's personal belongings just to be mean -- might be something even rarer, an all-timer that spared the Celtics additional years of post-championship pain.

Even champions who manage to stay afloat when stars leave -- say, the current Heat -- often end up in 45-ish-win purgatory, with hefty cap sheets. It's unclear if a team of that sort, even while hosting a couple of playoff games, is in better long-term position than a gutted post-LeBron Cavs team. It might even be clear that it isn't.

Ironically, losing Irving for such a shaky return could give Cleveland easy and immediate access to the tank route. There are some around the league who would argue the Cavs have accidentally left themselves with a better long-term situation than they would have been in with Irving, Love, and some picks in the middle of the first round.

That is too cynical, and underestimates Irving. When you zoom out and wrestle with how the Cavs arrived at this potential post-LeBron wasteland, only two moves stand out as both disastrous and clearly avoidable: the Irving trade, and (secondarily) the long-forgotten selection of Anthony Bennett with the No. 1 pick in the muddled 2013 draft.

There are other moves you could nitpick. Two first-rounders for Timofey Mozgov, an important player in their 2015 Finals run, but a benchwarmer when they won it all the next season. Another to dump Anderson Varejao's contract. One more for Kyle Korver. A final one (plus Isaiah Thomas, who I believe played for the Cavs at some point) for Nance and Clarkson/Crawford. Drastic overpays, in years and salary, for Thompson, JR Smith, and Iman Shumpert -- the last banished to Sacramento. Even the loss of Joe Harris, thriving in Brooklyn, stings; the Cavs dealt him for nothing to open a roster spot while giving contracts to Sasha Kaun, Mo Williams, and James Jones.

As ever: Part of having LeBron James on your team is having a few old friends of LeBron James on your team -- hoarding roster spots best used on prospects.

Most of those forfeited picks turned into nothing of relevance today: Furkan Korkmaz, Harry Giles, Caleb Swanigan. Korver has more than justified the price Cleveland paid -- a tank-proof top-10-protected pick.

That does not mean those picks were worthless. Pascal Siakam, Dejounte Murray, and Malcolm Brogdon all went among the 10 picks after Korkmaz. Giles could have been OG Anunoby. Swanigan could have become Kyle Kuzma or Josh Hart. Picks are always liquid on the trade market.

It's easy, and mostly correct, to say none of those guys are moving the needle in a post-LeBron world. They are not the difference between a successful, quick rebuild and a sputtering one. The Cavs would have had to hit on two of them to beef up the trade war chest in any meaningful way. They never gave themselves a chance.

But that is the cost of building a championship team. The Warriors flipped two first-round picks to open cap space for Andre Iguodala, and have been reduced in recent years to buying second-rounders. When you have a chance to win a championship -- a real chance, not a Raptors chance -- you go all-in. You hunt upgrades even on the margins.

The Cavs went for it right away after LeBron came back, dealing away Andrew Wiggins (and Bennett) for Love -- even though Love in some ways played the same position as both LeBron and Thompson. Love could never transition to shooting-and-defense center the way Chris Bosh did. As a result, the Cavs never really weaponized the Love-LeBron pick-and-roll; teams just switched it.

You know what? Who cares? The Cavs won a freaking championship, and Love was a huge part of it. Wiggins wasn't ready. Nobody is dying to pay his new max contract.

Yeah, the Cavs went a little overboard with present-for-future moves. It was clear at the time that two first-rounders -- even in the 20s -- was an overpay for Mozgov. They lavished Thompson and Smith with fat new deals after long standoffs, even though neither (especially Smith) had much of a market at those salary ranges.

What, exactly, were they supposed to do? Cleveland had no cap room to replace either. They could rationalize the Thompson deal, knowing he would otherwise hit free agency in the summer of 2016 -- when a cap spike gave almost the whole league max-level cap space. Thompson had just helped Cleveland make the Finals when he inked his contract. Smith had just helped them win the whole stinking thing when he signed his. (Remember those two massive 3-pointers in the third quarter of Game 7?) Both had good relationships with LeBron. Both were represented by Klutch -- Rich Paul's LeBron-adjacent agency. LeBron was hopping between one-year contracts, holding the Cavs over a barrel.

Want to play hardball? That is much easier to suggest from the outside.

Taken together, these moves left the Cavs worse off today than need be, but it is hard to see any of them unfolding much differently given Cleveland's unique and messy circumstances.

And never forget: The Cavs won a title, and gave Cleveland one of the seminal moments in recent sports history. They might have repeated had that same cap spike not allowed the Warriors to add Durant. Last year's Cavaliers, when fully engaged, were a championship-level team with an all-time great offense. Greatness comes at a cost.

The Irving and Bennett moves are exceptions. Bennett happened in a different era, between LeBron stints, and feels almost irrelevant to what has happened since. It still matters. The consequences of getting literally zero from the single most valuable asset in the sport ripple over years.

That pick could have been another bust. That draft was full of them. It could have been Otto Porter Jr. or Victor Oladipo.

Hit that pick, or even get 75 percent of the expected value of it, and it would at least be something today -- the player selected, or some trade return netted in exchange for that player.

(Yes, the Cavs included Bennett in the Love deal. He was not in the deal for his talent, or potential. He was salary filler. The Cavs would not have traded both Wiggins and a typical No. 1 overall pick entering his second season for Love. Then again, had Bennett performed as a typical No. 1 pick, it's possible Cleveland never lands Wiggins -- and thus Love. But considering the Cavs won the Wiggins lottery from the No. 9 spot, we are beginning to plop uncertainties atop uncertainties. The pain of the Bennett pick lingers, somewhere, at least a little.)

A more even-keeled organization would have found a way to work things out with Irving. The Cavs specialize in endless, tiresome melodrama, and it cost them. When a crisis hit, they did not have the infrastructure in place to solve it. For a bit, they had no general manager. The relationship between owner and superstar is either dysfunctional or nonexistent -- or both. As our Dave McMenamin reported, Irving got wind of internal spitballing about his trade value -- the sorts of conversations every front office has all the time about almost every player. The Cavs indeed came close to trading Irving around the draft, but he didn't have to hear about it when and how he did.

Those talks fell through, leaving the Cavs a lot of ground to make up with Irving. He might have held the threat of preseason knee surgery over them. So what? There was no indication he would need a second surgery, or miss serious time. Get the appropriate power players (Gilbert, LeBron, Irving, an empowered GM) in a room to begin reconciliation, let him have surgery, and chase a ring again in June. You think Irving sits the entire season -- at his apex, with a movie coming out this summer? Please.

With a player of Irving's talent, you find a way to salvage the relationship. Cleveland failed. You never let the franchise devolve into fiefdoms and silent tensions in the first place.

At the time, the Boston trade looked like -- and probably was -- Cleveland's best shot at threading the needle: win now to coax LeBron into staying, win later if he leaves. There was enormous downside risk given the uncertainty surrounding Thomas's hip. Once that downside manifested, the trade became the sort of bust from which it can take years to recover.

Even if the endgame is a post-LeBron bottoming out, you still want Irving. He's a 26-year-old, homegrown superstar under contract though next season. He would keep things interesting in a market that isn't exactly rollicking when things aren't interesting. You have his Bird Rights to re-sign him in July 2019. If the team is mediocre at that point, Irving becomes a massive trade chip as he approaches 30 -- a way of pivoting into the next era with a little more ammunition.

They have some ammo now, thanks to that Nets pick, but they are poorly prepared for a potential transition of this magnitude. If LeBron leaves again, it will be a long while before we are talking about Cleveland basketball in May.