Free agency rolled along on Thursday, with Kelly Olynyk taking his talents to South Beach, the Knicks proving they don’t need Phil Jackson to make head-scratching contract offers and the Clippers luring Europe’s Magic Johnson to Los Angeles.
Cleveland? All quiet on the Midwestern front.
Even if the Cavaliers had a stable, fully functioning front office supported by an owner committed to sinking resources into the operation responsible for fine-tuning a three-time Eastern Conference champ, their options are limited. Cleveland’s free spending the last few summers has obliterated any salary-cap flexibility, and it’s near impossible to persuade any free agent of note to take the taxpayer mid-level exception ($5.2 million) or the veteran’s minimum when there is potentially more money out there. That’s why signing Jose Calderon, re-signing Kyle Korver and reportedly negotiating with Turkish forward Cedi Osman can be considered a decent haul.
And yet, you can’t help but feel like this could be the first sign of an empire crumbling. The Cavs whiffed on Paul George, LeBron James has gone radio silent and Dan Gilbert continues to treat key front-office positions like a luxury. Allowing GM David Griffin to walk was a mistake, one compounded by Gilbert’s unwillingness to pay Chauncey Billups the market rate to replace him or give him full autonomy within the organization. Or both.
Understand: Cleveland’s isn’t a plum executive job anyway. The possibility (likelihood?) of James walking after next season has cast a shadow over the franchise. Any incoming GM anywhere would want the opportunity to mold a team into a contender. It’s why gigs in Orlando and Atlanta have appeal. The Cavs’ job is viewed as more caretaker-ish, with cap restrictions limiting all but cosmetic changes and the team’s future held hostage by James’ next decision.
Gilbert hasn’t made it any more appealing. Griffin is enormously popular among his peers, and that he wasn’t rewarded for three straight trips to the Finals – and the first championship in franchise history – was met by widespread astonishment. “Put that success on paper and it’s worth a five-year, $25 million contract,” a high-ranking rival team executive told The Vertical. “You win, you get paid. [Gilbert] doesn’t get that.”
It’s puzzling that money would ever be an issue in Cleveland. Yes, the Cavs are heavy taxpayers; the Korver signing will push Cleveland’s luxury tax payments to $42.7 million next season, a stiff bill even for the richest of owners. But NBA owners are rich. Television billions have infused teams with unprecedented revenues, making ownership of a profitable franchise idiot-proof. In 2005, Gilbert bought the Cavs for $375 million. Today’s valuation, per Forbes: $1.2 billion.
So why isn’t Gilbert dangling $6 million offers in front of the best young minds in basketball? Why did he refuse to give Billups whatever it took to come aboard? A counterargument is that Billups hasn’t earned it. He’s three years removed from his last NBA season and his post-playing résumé includes a TV gig and a spot in Ice Cube’s Big3.
But that’s shortsighted. Billups is considered a budding talent; there’s literally no NBA job for which he wouldn’t be considered. Teams have expressed interest in luring him into coaching and at least two franchises – Cleveland and Atlanta – have discussed prominent front-office gigs. Besides, Billups is savvy enough to know what he doesn’t know. He would have fleshed out his staff with an experienced GM – Justin Zanik, recently squeezed out of Milwaukee, would have made sense – and run a fully functional operation.
(This isn’t a slight on Cavs acting GM Koby Altman, either. Altman’s respected in NBA circles and a rising exec in his own right. But Altman is a few years removed from an assistant coaching gig at Columbia and has limited front-office experience.)
Besides: In Cleveland, optics matter. Even if a GM’s options are limited, Cleveland needs to show stability. Who knows what James is thinking? More importantly, who knows whom he is talking to? Miami’s “Super Friends” came together after years of behind-the-scenes plotting by James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; the Warriors spent a full season lobbying Kevin Durant. James is one of the NBA’s most intelligent players. Do we really believe he isn’t already thinking about his next move?
Installing an experienced exec sends a strong message. And right now, that’s one of the few chips the Cavs can play. The Kevin Love market is limited and Cleveland isn’t trading Kyrie Irving. All the Cavs can do is show James they are prepared for what comes next. All they can do is show him that money – on the roster or the GM’s office – will be no object.
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