What's next for Cavaliers after LeBron James exit?

By Marc Lancaster 3 July 2018 2
What's next for Cavaliers after LeBron James exit?

This time, there was no bitterness in Cleveland as LeBron James left the Cavaliers behind. Not officially, anyway. 

Owner Dan Gilbert's statement upon James' decision to sign a four-year, $154million deal with the Lakers was pure class, expressing to the 33-year-old "nothing but appreciation and gratitude for everything you put into every moment you spent in a Cavaliers uniform." 

Yes, Cleveland will always have the memories of how James transformed a franchise, a city. But what about the future?

That picture is decidedly murkier as the Cavaliers prepare to move forward without their icon once again. 

While James has been the centrepiece of any team he has played on since his teenage years, the Cavs' reliance on him this past season was comprehensive.

He led all NBA players in total minutes played (3,026) and points (2,251) during the regular season, then took it up a notch or two during the playoffs. 

When it counted the most, James spent 103 more minutes on the court than any other player — a little more than two full games' worth — and scored 140 more points than anyone else. By the time a stacked Golden State Warriors roster swept out James and a mediocre supporting cast in the NBA Finals, he had averaged 34 points and 41.9 minutes in the postseason. 

Whether you're talking raw numbers or the gravitas of a legend, his departure leaves a yawning hole for the Cavs as they turn their eyes to next season and the future.

Their immediate prospects don't look good. The Cavs' existing 2018-19 contract commitments already have them over the newly established salary cap of $101,869,000. That includes $24.1m due to Kevin Love and a further $71.2m allotted to George Hill, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Korver.

So even if Gilbert wanted to try and jump on a big-ticket free agent or trade candidate to replace James, he would have to clear out some of those veteran contracts to make it work. That figures to be a tough sell. 

About the only good news for Cleveland fans at the moment is the sorry state of the Eastern Conference. James' departure would seem to move the Boston Celtics to favourite status in the East, with the young Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors — the latter breaking in a new coach — also in the mix. 

The bar for remaining competitive in the East is significantly lower than in the increasingly star-studded West, but it's far from a sure thing that a Kevin Love-led effort will be enough to keep the Cavs in the same type of air they've been breathing since James returned from Miami before the 2014-15 season. 

James simply did too much, was too valuable in all facets on and off the court, to be adequately replaced. 

Unlike last time he left, the Cavs do sound inclined to at least try and remain competitive, but it's difficult to envision an optimistic path forward from where they stand now. 

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Marc Lancaster