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The Cavs Are Standing Idle, and It Might Cost Them LeBron James

Cleveland’s offseason has been one uninspiring move after another, and while the team is still good enough to make its fourth straight Finals appearance, it isn’t anywhere close to matching the Warriors

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Cavs don’t appear to have a plan right now. It’s hard to have one when there’s no person in charge. Dan Gilbert decided not to re-sign general manager David Griffin, who had been with the team since 2010 and had masterminded the strategy to bring LeBron James back to Cleveland and build a championship team around him. The Cavs then lowballed Chauncey Billups, the guy they targeted to replace him. The start of free agency is the worst possible time to have an interim GM (Koby Altman), and the Cavs have been relatively quiet while the league’s other elite teams have been feverishly upgrading their rosters to challenge the Warriors. With LeBron James set to be a free agent next summer, Cleveland’s complacency is baffling. If they can’t put together a team that can challenge Golden State, LeBron could leave. None of the moves they have made so far inspire much confidence.

The biggest contract they have given out was re-signing Kyle Korver to a three-year, $22 million deal. Korver is one of the best shooters in the NBA, and he shot an eye-popping 48.5 percent from 3 after Cleveland acquired him at the trade deadline last season, but he’s also an aging, one-dimensional player who doesn’t play any defense and struggled to make an impact in the Finals. The Warriors shadowed Korver all over the floor and prevented him from getting clean looks at the basket, and then relentlessly attacked him on defense. He shot 36.8 percent from the field and 31.1 percent from 3 against Golden State, and if he’s not knocking down shots, it’s hard to justify playing him considering how bad he is defensively. For as effective as he can be against most NBA teams, he’s not very useful against the Warriors, which should be the primary factor the Cavs consider when making any roster decision.

Cleveland has reportedly been shopping Iman Shumpert to save money on the luxury tax, which is exactly backward. Shumpert attempted a number of baffling shots against the Warriors, but he’s one of the only players on the Cavs’ roster with the physical tools to match up with Golden State’s superstars. He spent most of the Finals guarding either Steph Curry and Kevin Durant; he didn’t slow them down much, but there was no one else on Cleveland who could have done any better, and many who would have done much worse. The Cavs need more guys with his skill set, not less. Offense was not the issue in the Finals: The Cavs averaged 114.8 points a game in the five-game series on 46.1 percent shooting. The problem was that the Warriors averaged 121.6 points per game on 47.5 percent shooting. By emphasizing offense at the expense of defense, the Cavs are cutting off their nose to spite their face.

There are few players in the NBA less valuable against Golden State than Jose Calderon, a backup point guard whom Cleveland signed to a one-year contract at the minimum. It’s no exaggeration to say that Calderon is one of the worst defensive players in the league. In 24 games with the Lakers last season, Synergy Sports rated Calderon in the first percentile when defending spot-up shooters and in the zeroth percentile as an isolation defender. While it’s not a huge sample size, he was a poor defender who could barely move his feet in his prime, much less at the age of 35. Calderon should probably be heading back to Europe this season, not playing for a title contender. He could be effective playing with LeBron in the regular season, but he’s not going to be able to stay on the floor in a Finals matchup with the Warriors.

The best move Cleveland has made this offseason is signing Jeff Green to a one-year deal at the minimum, and there’s no guarantee that works either. Green has played for four teams the past four seasons, rapidly wearing out his welcome wherever he has gone. He’s an average-at-best defender and an inconsistent shooter whose only NBA skill is creating inefficient shots off the dribble, and the Cavs will have to hope playing with LeBron will allow him to tap into potential that has been unrealized in his previous nine seasons in the league. As a former top-five pick hoping to salvage his career, Green takes the combo forward spot on the roster previously held by Derrick Williams. Cleveland needs the experiment to work better the second time around. After a fairly productive stint in the regular season, Williams was unable to crack their rotation in last year’s playoffs.

The only real bit of optimism the Cavs have comes in the form of Cedi Osman, a 2015 second-round pick from Turkey who agreed to a three-year, $8.3 million deal with Cleveland on Wednesday. Osman, an athletic wing listed at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, shot 38 percent from 3 on 3.7 attempts per game over the past two seasons with Anadolu Efes, and he could take some of Richard Jefferson’s minutes as a backup combo forward, if the 22-year-old is able to earn Tyronn Lue’s trust. Osman is exactly the type of young player the Cavs have not developed in LeBron’s three years in Cleveland, a philosophy which came back to bite them last season, when their bench stocked with aging veterans was run off the floor by Golden State. While the Warriors gave minutes to Patrick McCaw, a rookie second-round draft pick, the Cavs sent out 36-year-old goon Dahntay Jones, for whom they cut DeAndre Liggins, an athletic wing in his late 20s.

The Cavs seem to be falling into the same traps the Heat did by the end of LeBron’s time there. If they trade Shumpert, it will be very similar to Miami’s decision to waive Mike Miller in 2013 to save money, which reportedly infuriated LeBron. The lack of young players and the emphasis on veterans, meanwhile, is a classic example of the short-sighted thinking having LeBron can produce. To be fair, LeBron may be the one pushing the team to sign guys he’s familiar with, but it’s not like he gave the Heat any credit for listening to him when he made his decision to leave South Beach in free agency. Remember Shabazz Napier? The Heat drafted the UConn point guard because LeBron said he was one of his favorite players, and LeBron still ended up leaving a few weeks later. Napier lasted only one season in Miami before being dumped for a protected second-round pick.

Given the state of the Eastern Conference, Cleveland can still feel pretty good about making its fourth consecutive Finals. Boston is the only one of the Cavs’ rivals who improved its team, and the Celtics still don’t have anyone who can guard LeBron. Gordon Hayward is solid defensively, but he isn’t the type of elite perimeter defender, like Kawhi Leonard or Andre Iguodala, that has historically given LeBron trouble in the playoffs, and neither is Marcus Morris. Losing Avery Bradley, meanwhile, removes the player most capable of defending Kyrie Irving. Boston will need huge series from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to knock off Cleveland, which is a lot to ask of two players still under 21. However, getting to the Finals for the fourth consecutive time won’t be enough to convince LeBron to stay if he once again gets blown out upon arrival. Just ask the Heat.

For as much fun as this offseason has been, the NBA still seems headed for Cavs vs. Warriors IV in the Finals, and the gap between the two teams hasn’t gotten any smaller this offseason. If anything, it has increased. Not only will Kevin Durant be much more comfortable in his second season in the Bay, they added two more elite 3-point shooters in Omri Casspi and Nick Young, as well as a promising young big man in Jordan Bell. The Warriors are raising the bar, while the Cavs are standing still. LeBron has already won a championship in Cleveland, so there’s nothing holding him there if he doesn’t think the Cavs give him the best shot at winning. He’s a 32-year-old who has played 14 seasons in the NBA and sees his basketball mortality in front of him. He doesn’t have any time to waste, and that’s all Cleveland is doing right now.