LeBron James can’t wait out the Warriors. He will turn 33 in December, and he has already played in more games than Michael Jordan had in his entire career. He has an opt-out in his contract next summer, and as our Kevin O’Connor reported last week, LeBron is thinking about creating a new superteam in L.A. to better challenge Golden State. He has left a franchise coming off a Finals appearance once before, and his legacy in Cleveland is secure. The Heat tried to sell LeBron on Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger in 2014. The Cavs will have to do better than that. However, even if a player as good as Kevin Durant were available in free agency, Cleveland couldn’t acquire him. The team already has the highest payroll in the league despite having only eight players with guaranteed contracts for next season. Their only avenue for improving the team is a trade, and most of their players don’t have much value on the market.
Kevin Love is the obvious candidate to be moved. He was better than many people anticipated in the Finals, but he still struggled to defend Durant and Steph Curry in space and he didn’t have enough offensive responsibility to make the Warriors adjust to him. While he’s coming off his best season in Cleveland, he will never fully utilize his skill set playing with LeBron and Kyrie Irving, and he’s the only member of their supporting cast who would fetch much in a trade. Creating a trade that makes sense for Cleveland and the team that acquires Love is difficult, but there is one possible deal that would work for all parties involved: Love for Paul George. Not only would the trade give Cleveland a much better chance of beating Golden State, it would allow Indiana to remain relevant without George, who is widely rumored to be leaving in free agency at the end of next season. It almost makes too much sense not to happen.
George would flip the dynamic of a potential Cavs vs. Warriors IV in much the same way Durant did Cavs vs. Warriors III. One of the biggest problems for Tyronn Lue in this season’s Finals is that he was unable to play Love and Tristan Thompson together for long. Playing the two big men left LeBron to guard either Durant, Klay Thompson, or Curry, wearing him down and forcing him to do too much on both ends of the floor. George would give Cleveland someone to guard Durant, while allowing LeBron to return to playing primarily as a free safety off Draymond Green, the key strategic move that allowed the Cavs to win the 2016 Finals. On the other side of the ball, with Thompson guarding Irving, Durant would have to guard George, forcing Green to move off his free safety role on Tristan Thompson and guard LeBron. Steve Kerr would probably have to bench his centers and start Andre Iguodala, but that assumes the Warriors can even retain him in free agency, and that his 33-year-old body (which has broken down in the past two postseasons) can hold up.
George has slipped under the radar over the past two seasons as Indiana has fallen back to the pack in the East, but he’s one of the best players in the NBA. At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he’s an elite athlete with a complete offensive game who can do a little bit of everything on the court. George more than held his own against LeBron in the first round of the playoffs, averaging 28 points, 8.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 1.8 steals, and he would make the Cavs a much more dangerous team on both sides of the ball. He would be the best perimeter defender in their starting lineup, space the floor for Kyrie and LeBron, and ease some of their scoring and facilitating burden. Lue could stagger LeBron’s and George’s minutes so one is always on the floor, in much the same way Miami did with LeBron and Dwyane Wade.
Swapping George for Love would slide LeBron to power forward, a move he has been reluctant to make due to the toll it takes on his body, but it’s not something the Cavs have to do in the regular season. They could start George and LeBron on the wings, move J.R. Smith to the bench, and use a veteran placeholder like Richard Jefferson or Derrick Williams to play 20 minutes a night as the starting power forward. With so much firepower on the perimeter, having a below-average player in that spot wouldn’t be a huge burden against lesser competition. Then, when the games start to really matter, Lue could play his best lineups and blow other teams off the floor, similar to the way the Warriors hold their Lineup of Death in reserve until the postseason.
From a talent perspective, the Cavs would be the big winner in the deal. Indiana would pull the trigger due to George’s impending free agency, as he has reportedly not given the Pacers any indication he’s willing to sign with them long-term. George has been linked to his hometown L.A. Lakers for years, with many people speculating that he and LeBron could link up there next summer. By trading for him now, the Cavs would cut out the middleman and offer both players their best chance to compete with the Golden State juggernaut. The Pacers, meanwhile, would get the certainty of having Love under contract for the next three seasons, while also being able to avoid the long-term rebuilding project they would have to undertake if they moved George for draft picks. Cleveland could throw in some sweeteners as well, most notably Cedi Osman, the no. 31 overall pick in the 2015 draft who just finished an excellent season in Turkey and is expected to come over to the NBA.
Love would be the centerpiece of an interesting team in Indiana. After three years of standing in the corner and getting out of everyone else’s way, he could return to the primary role in the offense that he had in his final season with Minnesota, where he averaged 26 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists a game on 45.7 percent shooting. Love has seen the downsides of playing on a superteam, and with a championship already under his belt, he would feel less pressure than George to team up with other elite players. Put together three seasons as the best player on a 50-plus-win team in Indiana, and Love could build a Hall of Fame case.
Love would form a dynamic frontcourt tandem with Myles Turner, who after two seasons has developed rapidly as both a shot blocker and a floor spacer with range out to the 3-point line, while also flashing skills in the post as a scorer and facilitator. Turner’s ability to protect the rim could cover up some of Love’s shortcomings on defense, while the two have the versatility to alternate between playing high/low out of the post (à la the Memphis Grizzlies) and five-out basketball with both spread out along the 3-point line (à la the former Hawks with Paul Millsap and Al Horford). Nate McMillan could stagger their minutes so that one is always in the game, allowing Indiana to match up with teams that go small at power forward while also punishing inferior second-string centers.
Turner and Love’s shooting ability would create huge driving lanes for guards like Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis, and Lance Stephenson, who would have more time to play with the ball in their hands following George’s departure. Osman, Glenn Robinson III, and C.J. Miles, assuming he is re-signed in free agency, would give the Pacers some 3-and-D ability on the wings, without being forced to overextend themselves on offense. While Love would make Thaddeus Young somewhat redundant, he would thrive in a sixth-man role off the bench, and he has a fairly reasonable contract that would allow the Pacers to move him to a team looking for more offensive punch at the forward positions.
Love and Osman for George works for both teams, and it would position Cleveland to outflank potential challengers in the East like Boston and Miami, both of whom will make a run at Gordon Hayward in free agency. The Celtics could conceivably add both Hayward and Jimmy Butler this offseason, which would give them two elite wings to throw at LeBron in a seven-game series. Trading for George in the next week could take the wind out of the Celtics’ sails: Hayward might decide that switching conferences wouldn’t make his path to the Finals easier, while Boston could decide not to cash in its treasure trove of assets to win now. With two superteams in their path, the Celtics’ best chance to win a championship might be to build for the future around Jaylen Brown, likely no. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, and another high lottery pick in 2018 courtesy of the Nets.
There are smaller deals that make sense for the Cavs, too. Cleveland could trade Love for several pieces in order to build its depth and roster flexibility. However, doing something like sending him to the Pistons for a package of Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, and the no. 12 pick wouldn’t send shockwaves through the league. Adding George would make the Warriors sit up and take notice. Golden State’s core players have all played with him on Team USA; they know how good he is. "He’s my favorite player in the league, I’ve been saying that for a while," Durant told reporters before a game against George in December. "He’s just so smooth, man. He can do it all. He can pass, he can rebound, defend, shoot the J, post up, and handle the ball. Just getting to know him over the last few years, it makes the competition even better when we play against each other. I got nothing but respect for Paul. It’s a mutual respect."
Adding Durant to the Cavs vs. Warriors rivalry was like adding the Rock to the Fast and Furious series. And just like in the movies, if there are more sequels to come, the teams have to keep adding characters to keep things interesting. In this analogy, Paul George is Jason Statham. Trading for him would be a huge gamble for Cleveland, since both he and LeBron could be unrestricted free agents at the same time next summer, but so would coming back next season with the same team and hoping that would be enough to beat Golden State. For as competitive as the last few games of the Finals were, Steve Kerr had several adjustments in his back pocket he never made. He benched Andrew Bogut when his team was down in the 2015 Finals, and he would have almost certainly done the same with Zaza Pachulia in a similar scenario in 2017. Zaza was the weakest link in the Warriors’ starting lineup, and he could be replaced by someone like Nene next season. There is an unprecedented amount of talent in Golden State, and it’s going to take something similar to dethrone it. Durant’s signing could create a ripple effect over the next few seasons as the rest of the league’s elite players position themselves to challenge the Warriors. The arms race has only begun. If the Cavs don’t keep up, they are going to get left behind.