BOSTON (CBS) — To no surprise, the heavily favored Warriors finished their 16-1 postseason with a Game 5 elimination of the Cavaliers on Monday night at Oracle. That’s two titles in three years for Golden State, and its first with finals MVP Kevin Durant leading the charge.
The expectation now, with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green each on the books at least two more years, is two-time MVP Steph Curry will re-up with a five-year supermax deal this offseason and Durant will opt out of his contract to sign a new agreement with the Dubs. Durant reportedly may even be willing to take slightly less than a max offer to allow his club to use its Bird rights to re-sign key reserves Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
That in mind, the Warriors are already 1-to-2 favorites to repeat as champs next spring, while LeBron James’ Cavaliers hold 3-to-1 odds after losing the title-series rubber-match. The Celtics, if you’re curious, sit fourth at 15-to1, just behind the 12-to-1 Spurs.
However, the offseason’s just beginning. There will be draft-night trades, key free agents changing homes, and other summer swings prior to fall tip-offs.
Most agree Plan A for the C’s is to use the No. 1 pick in the June 22 draft on Washington guard Markelle Fultz, and to follow that up by signing Jazz free agent and former Brad Stevens pupil Gordon Hayward next month. That, or perhaps deal the top draft choice for a proven NBA superstar (Anthony Davis, in many people’s fantasy) and still add Hayward. It’s Boston’s opportunity to simultaneously compete for conference championships while continuing to build for the future with a young and talented core in the years to come. Heard about that 2018 Nets pick?
As much fun as it was watching the Cavaliers gift the Green the top seed this past year before the Cavs showed the Shamrocks they aren’t on Cleveland’s level in the conference finals, Fultz and Hayward probably wouldn’t even the score. Those additions certainly wouldn’t put the Celts on the Warriors’ playing field.
There’s the rub. Not just for Boston, but everyone else, including LeBron.
The King has reached seven straight finals and he’s 3-5 in the championship round all time. Following Cleveland’s series loss to Golden State, he wrapped his arm around fellow All-Star Kyrie Irving and said, “We’ll be back, me and you. We’ll be back.” He probably will. As of this moment, the Cavs remain the Beast in the East.
But, despite a blowout win and two competitive losses among their five games with the Dubs, what are the Cavs supposed to do going forward? Barring an injury to a member of the champs’ four-headed monster, the Warriors would win that battle virtually every time. As it is, it took a miraculous and historic comeback from down 3-1 for James to bring his first trophy to The Land. Even averaging a triple-double in these Finals with a healthy Irving and Kevin Love by his side wasn’t enough. It’s so easy to forget now the Cavaliers rolled thru the Eastern Conference with a 12-1 record.
There’s the juggernaut Warriors, then the Cavs, then essentially everyone else.
“We were another opponent in their way,” James admitted of the Warriors.
There’s been speculation James may have his sights set on Los Angeles in 2018, which would create a captivating and seemingly far more open dynamic in the East as compared to the existing “LeBron’s Team” placeholder.
As the report goes from The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, James is considering leaving his hometown for the second time when he’s an unrestricted free agent for warmer pastures, where he already owns a home 30 minutes from the Staples Center. James may either look to build a new super team (though he’d prefer you don’t call it that) with the Lakers, perhaps alongside Pacers star and L.A. native Paul George, who will also be free to sign elsewhere in 2018. Or, he could reunite with Dwyane Wade and fellow banana-boaters Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony with the Clippers.
O’Connor isn’t the only one getting this vibe.
It will be particularly interesting if the Lakers start clearing cap space this summer, while retaining some of their young talents like Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, and Julius Randle, along with whomever they select at No. 2 in the draft. Still, it’s unclear how that group with George and maybe another mystery star would be any better than what James is working with now. And, of course, that streak of Finals appearances would surely end sooner than later out west if the Warriors remain intact.
Conversely, a core with LeBron and his BFFs makes very little sense unless they’re prioritizing friendship and togetherness over actually winning. A year from now, LeBron and Paul will be 33, Anthony will be 34, and Wade will be 36. They may as well drop a guy and enter the Olympic 3-on-3 tournament in 2020 instead because that would be their best hope at a title.
For now, both L.A. options seem unrealistic. If you’re Danny Ainge, you’d be offering LeBron a ride to the airport and personally funding his relocation costs. Maybe even throwing in a future first-round pick. Whatever it takes.
If James wants to add to his jewelry box and keep chasing Michael Jordan, though, his best hope is staying with the cap-strapped Cavaliers and, like the Warriors, starting to build with a younger core around him. The East remains his to lose for a least the next few seasons, depending on health and which All-Stars are flanking him. Irving and Love are valuable pieces, but Cleveland still needs more two-way/3-and-D players if it can create the salary space by veering from overpriced, underachieving vets. Their roster construction’s a major problem, at least against the only team that possesses more talent. Depending on who’s on the floor, the Cavs can score at will but can’t defend, or defend reasonably well but struggle to score. There’s little balance.
Cleveland could opt for a makeover and shop Love in spite of a very productive season in an effort to find a more versatile option, or even pursue George – quicker, more versatile, and a better defender – on a rental for a year before he gets curious about the Lakers. Jimmy Butler, equally unlikely, could be a trade target as well.
Cavs general manager David Griffin’s contract is up June 30, adding another wrinkle to the story. Will he continue to have the reins to build upon three straight trips to the Finals, or will those responsibilities fall upon someone else’s shoulders?
James, Love, Irving, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Channing Frye are all locked up for next year for anywhere between $7.4 million to $33.3 million for a total of roughly $122.7 million, which is already over the estimated $121 million luxury tax line. The cap-crunchers will have to get creative in order to keep up with the younger, deeper, more talented and athletic Warriors. And, unfortunately, short of moving Love or even Irving, there are few if any easy to envision trade options that would actually return value and improve the existing group. The Cavaliers do not have any picks in the upcoming draft, and Kyle Korver, the Williamses and Joneses are all unrestricted free agents. Bird rights will take care of Korver but, beyond him, will anyone stay on the cheap? Will someone from elsewhere take the one available $5 million mid-level exception or a minimum contract, a la David West, to contend?
“I know our front office is going to continue to try to put our franchise in a position where we compete for a championship year in and year out,” James said after a frustrating Finals loss. “Franchises are going to be trying to figure out ways that they can put personnel together to be able to hopefully compete against this team.”
It’ll be fascinating to see to what end the Cavaliers will go in an effort to get the almost-superhuman James his fourth ring, if they can convince him to stay beyond next year.
You can bet the ultra-patient Celtics are watching closely, waiting and hoping for their moment to strike.