It’s hard for me to watch the 2016 Finals without being reminded of the last time a LeBron James-lead team looked this overmatched.
The way the Warriors have dominated the Cavaliers has given the series a bit of a 2014 vibe. Those Finals were also one-sided, with a sneaky-great James series being overshadowed by bad air conditioning, a hard-to-watch Dwyane Wade and the Spurs’ basketball clinic.
Of course, it was after those Finals that LeBron returned to Cleveland, at the very least to escape a veteran, run-down Heat team for a young, up-and-coming Cavaliers squad (with Kevin Love on the way.) Our Andrew Sharp touched on this Monday, but many decisions made in the summer of 2014 have gone a long way in shaping the current NBA.
Now, 2016 stands as another pivotal summer for LeBron and the Cavs, with a new million-dollar question looming after the Finals: How does James build Cleveland into a championship team that mirrors the one on the other coast?
Make no mistake, James will be the one doing the building, as Harvey Araton eloquently discussed, bringing attention to James’s outsized role with the Cavs. LeBron’s hand-picked roster in Cleveland is good enough to roll through the East, but likely would have been in a dogfight with any of the top three teams from the West.
Where do the Cavaliers go from here? “Here” being on track to the worst Finals defeat ever. It’s so easy to look at the Warriors’ depth and wonder how Cleveland is stuck paying max money for guys like Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, who at times have been thoroughly outplayed by Leandro Barbosa.
But it will be nearly impossible to recreate what Golden State has done, and not because Joe Lacob is some kind of championship savant. While the Warriors have built their roster with some fantastic pieces, they were greatly aided by Stephen Curry’s earlier ankle problems, setting the stage for Curry’s current contract, which pays him less than Andre Igoudala, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. The Warriors are a juggernaut, sure, but it’s a lot easier to build one when you can pay the MVP roughly half of a max salary.
LeBron’s fascination with Big Threes make sense. The Warriors, after all, have numerous great players, they just don’t pay them all what they’re actually worth. James’s preference for veteran teams means his players absolutely must play up to the level of their deal, because it slims the margin of error when it comes to filling out other parts of the roster, even if Dan Gilbert is up to his eyeballs in luxury tax payments.
So what does LeBron do this summer? The Cavaliers may have already blown their best chance at taking advantage of a market inefficiency when they traded Andrew Wiggins for Love. It was a trade that absolutely made sense at the time, but it has since robbed the Cavs of taking advantage of Wiggins’s rookie deal and using the leftover money to add other pieces.
Will it be incumbent upon LeBron to take a paycut to acquire the players necessary to win it all? That’s certainly not very fair, and James has structured his contracts specifically to sign a super-max deal in 2017.
Of course, another option is to try to wait out the Warriors. The Cavaliers will be Finals contenders with LeBron for the foreseeable future, and eventually Golden State will have to start paying guys who are on team-friendly deals, which could chip away at the Dubs’ depth.
Ultimately, James has shown he is willing to make drastic changes when he feels he’s far away from a title. If James is feeling that way now, after the most lopsided two-game start in Finals history, big changes should be on the horizon for the Cavs in the summer. And whatever decisions James makes could go a long way in determining if he ever brings a trophy to Cleveland.