2018 Free Agency

Do Cleveland Cavaliers tread water or dive deep after LeBron James' second departure?

Full-blown rebuild might not be so effective this time around for Cavs

Having gone through this once before, the Cleveland Cavaliers merely have to pop the cap off an architectural tube, unroll the blueprint inside and follow the steps that worked so well during their first post-LeBron James phase from 2010 to 2014.

Which is to say, the Cavaliers will be just fine going forward as long as they snag the No. 1 overall pick in the Draft three times in the next four years and then lure James back home for a third stint in the wine and gold.

Failing any or all of that? It’s strictly uncharted. Possibly unimaginable.

The news Sunday that James – arguably the NBA’s best player and once again its most significant free agent – had agreed to sign a four-year, $154 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers immediately had the Cavaliers and their fans looking forward and backward.

Forward to the great unknown of their short- and long-term futures, heading into the NBA wilderness without their MVP, their perennial All-Star and the iconic Finals frequenter who ranks as the greatest player in franchise history.

And backward, too, not just to the most successful four-season run in Cavs history but to the four years that preceded that. Those seasons are the ones that serve now as a model for how to survive and recover from what they’re suddenly facing.

Or, maybe, as a cautionary tale for not tempting fate like this more than once.

In hindsight, what Cleveland went through the first time James left in 2010 wasn’t so bad at all. Sure, the Cavaliers went subterranean, winning only 19, 21, 24, and 33 games in the four years he was in Miami, on the heels of amassing 50, 45, 66 and 61 victories with deep playoff runs in the four years immediately before that.

But the Cavs’ rebuilding plan got traction almost instantly, with a roster of mismatched toys feeble enough to deliver Kyrie Irving as the first pick in the 2011 draft. A year later Anthony Bennett arrived via the No. 1 pick – hey, Cleveland at least got the right to select first, even if it whiffed – and Andrew Wiggins was nabbed first overall in 2014.

Tristan Thompson showed up with Irving, the point guard who quickly established himself as one of the league’s most explosive, creative scorers and an All-Star MVP. After James abruptly signed back with Cleveland in 2014, the Cavs packaged Wiggins and Bennett to Minnesota for All-Star forward Kevin Love to form a new Big Three.

The result, after considerable tweaking around the edges: A squad that won 53, 57, 51 and 50 games from 2015 to last season, even as it shifted focus to the playoffs for four consecutive runs to The Finals. In 2016, it all came together for the NBA title, the Cavaliers becoming the first Finals team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the championship round. Bigger than that, James & Co. ended Cleveland’s title drought that stretched back to the NFL Browns’ last title in 1964.

The resurgence was so complete, so satisfying, that had Cavs fans been offered this deal at the outset – LeBron is going to leave for four years and win two titles with another team, but ultimately will return to Cleveland for four Finals appearances and a championship – most happily would have taken it.

No one had that vision then, of course, and no one knows what the Cavaliers are facing now.

Irving is gone, having force a trade to Boston last summer to set in motion this whole LeBron-less scenario. Love remains, still an All-Star, his full potential available to be unleashed now that he’s no longer cast as a sidekick or a third option.

The roster is clogged with role players – Thompson, George Hill, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Jordan Clarkson – who look like the Jackson 5 minus Michael, with salaries that crept higher in the fat Finals times and now mostly seem burdensome.

So the question is, do the Cavaliers try to make it back to the playoffs for a fifth consecutive time, their first without James since 1998?

Or do they go all-in on another rebuild, trying to catch lottery lightning in a bottle again for a fan base that skirted the down times faced by teams such as Minnesota or Sacramento?

Keep in mind, the Cavaliers traded their 2019 first-round pick – with top-10 protection – to Atlanta in the deal that brought Korver aboard in January 2017. If they decide to push toward a playoff spot and make it, or miss by a few slots, they’ll forfeit the pick. The same protections apply in 2020.

Owner Dan Gilbert privately is said to be OK moving into this post-LeBron era – especially since he won’t be the one paying James that $154 million – and might want to keep the playoff streak alive. The odds of securing such elite draft position again, repeatedly, are slim. And the rules of the lottery have changed, making more elusive the reward for teams that tank.

Trading Love, who has the most market value of the Cavs’ veterans, for another overhaul would bring some payroll and luxury tax relief. But it might send the team into a lottery spiral that lasts far longer this time.

The alternative, though, is to chase mediocrity, to get stuck in the teens where first-round picks talented enough to change the franchise’s fortunes are rare and to slide slowly backward in the Eastern Conference.

The Lakers’ annual visit promises to be a tough ticket at Quicken Loans Arena for the next four seasons. How soon it has company from the other 40 home games is the challenge for Cavs’ GM Koby Altman, coach Tyronn Lue and the rest.

Whether they tread water or dive deep.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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