What's next for LeBron and Cavs?

ByBrian Windhorst ESPN logo
Thursday, June 18, 2015

CLEVELAND -- It is decision time again for LeBron James.

Where he'll end up after his latest potential foray into free agency likely won't be as intriguing as the how.

James' foreseeable future is in Cleveland. With the ability to opt out of the two-year deal he signed with the Cavaliers last offseason, James must now decide just how much he wants to influence the Cavs as they enter a summer full of uncertainty and potentially massive spending.

The Cavs prefer he give a lot of input. In past similar situations, James has skewed toward passive-aggressiveness from the shadows. Taking such a position now would only add to the anxiety the franchise is sure to feel.

As if the Golden State Warriors' championship celebration on the Cavs' floor Tuesday night wasn't bad enough, the Cavs' immediate future is troublesome: James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova could all be free agents by July 1.

James, Love and Smith have player options for next season and all are expected to decline them. Thompson, Shumpert and Dellavedova are expected to receive qualifying offers from the Cavs and they will become restricted free agents, giving the team the right to match any offer they receive. And the extensions Kyrie Irving (five years, $90 million) and Anderson Varejao (two years, $20.3 million) signed last year are also set to kick in.

Internally, the Cavs have discussed their payroll needing to balloon to between $100 million and $110 million for next season, according to sources.

If they actually hit the top end of that salary threshold, it would put owner Dan Gilbert on the hook for more than $75 million in luxury tax payments and bring the team near the record $193 million in taxes and salaries the Brooklyn Nets spent in 2013-14.

Gilbert, who has seen his estimated net worth quadruple to more than $4 billion during the decade he has owned the Cavs, has indicated numerous times he is willing to spend. To keep James committed, Gilbert has no choice. But he'd probably prefer it if James' commitment was just as deep in terms of length of years. And that likely won't be the case for the time being.

When James does re-sign with the Cavs this summer, it's probable it will be to another one-year contract plus a player option. Even if this route makes financial sense for James with the salary cap expected to surge following the 2016-17 season, it will keep the Cavs uncomfortable going forward.

But that's the point: He doesn't want his organization to be comfortable.

Welcome to the modern NBA, where James doesn't just control every facet of the game, he controls every facet of the organization.

Ideally for the Cavs, James would come into his exit meeting with strong opinions: Sign this guy at any cost; don't worry about this guy; try to keep this guy, but don't break the bank.

No, this is not how things are supposed to be done in a classic NBA hierarchy. But the reality is the Cavs prefer James to be invested in their decisions so that everyone is on the same page. It's better than operating in a gray area, where they're uncertain of James' investment in working with a player going forward.

This is especially important in regard to Love. James very much pushed for the Cavs to trade for Love last summer, to the point where he was comfortable with No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins being included. However, James and Love didn't particularly mesh well, on or off the court.

The Cavs improved vastly on defense following Love's shoulder injury earlier in the playoffs and were able to continue to excel without him. Considering Love's recent shoulder surgery and the back issues that affected him all season, the Cavs would have reason to pause before offering Love the maximum-allowed five years, $100 million.

This is why they'd prefer to have James' seal of approval. If Love's deal ends up being a burden in the future, they'd want James to share in the responsibility for it.

This is also why James wouldn't be so interested in taking part. He wants a great team and the owners to spend to get it there, but he doesn't want it to limit his future flexibility. As a once-a-generation player, he can have both.

James, though, has been more outspoken when it comes to Thompson. The former fourth overall pick shares an agent with James and appears to have a better chemistry with him on court and off. And James has made it clear in the past that he'd like to play with Thompson for a long time. During the conference finals, James went so far as to say: "Tristan should probably be a Cavalier for his whole career. There's no reason why he shouldn't."

James has at times been an active recruiter in free agency in conjunction with the Cavs and Miami Heat front offices. But he's detached himself in summers when he's been a free agent.

In 2010, the Cavs couldn't get him on the phone when trying to decide Mike Brown's future. Last summer, the Heat were left to parse James' tweets for his opinions on players, because he went dark on them. (That's probably part of what Heat president Pat Riley meant in April, when he said that the Heat would go into this offseason with "no more smiling faces with hidden agendas.")

It isn't clear how James will handle free agency this summer, but he is going to be a free agent again.

He could be posting photos on Instagram while on a yacht as the Cavs twist over whether they should play hard ball or just go ahead and outlay the cash to retain their free agents.

Or he could do the opposite. He could opt out by June 30, commit to re-signing on July 1 and then get involved in trying to get the Cavs to close deals.

Every NBA summer is filled with drama, and over the past five years the Cavs have been involved in some of the biggest in league history.

The Cavs will likely emerge from this summer as the favorites to repeat as Eastern Conference champs and with a staggering amount of new money of their books. Brace yourself for the journey there.

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