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Exit Interview: Cleveland Cavaliers

One of LeBron James’s best seasons yet is over after just four games in the NBA Finals. Now the real game begins.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James managed to drag the Cavaliers to the top of the Eastern Conference yet again, but a four-game loss to the Warriors in the NBA Finals is a fitting end to a Cleveland season that felt disjointed from the start. Nobody on this roster was a sure thing besides James. It’s why general manager Koby Altman overhauled the team at the trade deadline, and head coach Tyronn Lue cycled through starting lineups like they were hands at a blackjack table.

Despite having the best player on earth, the Cavs’ inconsistent defense and overreliance on LeBron was too much to overcome. Now, LeBron once again enters the offseason with the power to set the course for the entire league with one decision. The Cavs, well, they’ll just have to hope there’s a way to keep him without the one thing always at the top of LeBron’s wish list: a supporting cast capable of helping him reach the Finals.

What Will LeBron Do?

It’s the question that has loomed over the Cavs’ season the way a final exam does a school year. Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Houston seem to be the most talked-about destinations, aside from Cleveland, but nobody really knows what LeBron will do for the next move in his Hall of Fame career. Will there be meetings? Will he look to team up with another round of young stars? Will a dark horse spring up in the 11th hour? (Hello, Boston.) Will there be a trade that tips us off to a certain destination? It’s all on the table. Nobody knows anything yet, and that’s just how LeBron wants it. He’ll drag this out into mid-July if he feels like it.

Cleveland has no choice but to wait, to keep trying to convince him that they can keep competing for titles. That could mean another one-year (plus an option) pact with LeBron, and mortgaging more of the future for the present. But that would be better than life without the best player in the world.

Is There a Path to Adding Another Star?

LeBron’s return to Cleveland has to be contingent on a roster upgrade. But what can the Cavs do that they haven’t already done this season? Brooklyn’s first-round pick should help, but at just no. 8 overall, it’s probably not the franchise changer that they had hoped for when they acquired it in the Kyrie Irving deal. And aside from Kevin Love, who has two more years left on his current deal, there isn’t a trade piece that will lure another top-tier player. Love has been as good as advertised at times this season, but mostly inconsistent. If LeBron stays, improving the team will likely come at the expense of dealing the player whose trade to Cleveland four years ago solidified the Cavs’ contending core.

Cap space is also not a thing that exists in Cleveland right now. Should LeBron pick up his $35.6 million player option, Dan Gilbert could be on the hook for one of the priciest payrolls in NBA history. This is why Altman will probably need to go the trade route to improve the roster. But save for somehow getting Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, or even DeMarcus Cousins, it’s hard to see the Cavs doing enough to feel good about their chances in the East next season against a healthy Celtics team and a more experienced Sixers team.

What Is Cleveland’s Outlook Without LeBron?

Every time LeBron took a breather in any game this season, the Cavs got a glance at what their future without him could look like. Most of the time, that meant near disaster. There’s no alpha or beta (unless you count J.R. Smith, who probably thinks he’s both). Cleveland will have a decision to make: try to gun for the 8-seed in the East with a ragtag bunch led by Love, or blow it up and get assets to build around its new first-round pick.

More likely than not, LeBron’s departure will put everyone on the current roster on the trade block. It’ll be tough getting off, say, George Hill’s contract ($19 million next season, and a partial guarantee the following year), or Tristan Thompson’s ($36 million over the next two seasons). And their free agents? Rodney Hood was virtually unplayable in the conference finals, so I doubt he bought any goodwill with the front office on the eve of his restricted free agency. Jeff Green is an unrestricted free agent, too, but he’s also Jeff Green. The Cavs are probably better off gutting the team, and maybe even taking on bad deals for picks like the Nets have the past few offseasons.

They’ll showcase the fun, young player plucked with the eighth pick, play Cedi Osman more, and sell their fan base on the future — just like they did in the wake of LeBron’s first departure from Cleveland. It’s bleak, but at least this time they know what they’re in for.