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Payroll Problems Could Hinder Cleveland’s Otherwise Promising Future

Although the Cavs’ payroll is not screaming for help, it does need some relatively major work if Cleveland hopes to optimize their young core.

Franchise’s payroll problems are very inconsistently cared about across the NBA. Some teams go all-in on paying players, while others fight for every penny they can. Oftentimes, big market teams spend top-dollar on marquee free agents, while small-market teams rely on extending their promising youngsters. Recently, the NBA’s attempted to solve the competitive imbalance dilemma by enhancing super-max extensions.

And to some extent, it worked. Specifically, one of the league’s smallest cities, Milwaukee, just secured the two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, for several seasons. However, not all teams get as lucky as the Bucks did with the 15th overall pick in 2013. Soon into the Greek Freak’s career, Milwaukee made it their mission to build a strong future solely around him. And doing so likely showed the organization’s commitment and pushed him into signing the super-max.

In the curious case of Cleveland, though, nobody really knows their intent in going over the luxury tax. In LeBron James‘ second stint, their payroll seemed limitless. However, they didn’t do nearly enough in free agency the first time around. Flash forward to today, and the Cavaliers’ current state of operations is curious as ever. Nobody expected them to be playoff-bound, but here they are, sitting comfortably in the middle of the pack.

However, that’s all they are, or so it seems. Although injuries plagued them recently, Cleveland seems destined for a first-round exit. Of course, nothing is out of the picture yet, but their talent simply doesn’t quite match the top-tier teams in the east. That said, their future might if appropriately handled.

Cleveland’s Future Outlook

As a so-called ‘over exceeding’ team, Cleveland quickly turned their fate around from previous seasons. There are several reasons behind why this is the case, but nothing comes to mind faster than their youth development. Specifically, Darius Garland and Evan Mobley emerged as a dangerous duo for years to come. Additionally, their supersized lineup, including Lauri Markkanen and Jarrett Allen, also deserves immense credit for Cleveland’s success.

Nevertheless, clearly whatever Cleveland’s doing this year is working, but is it working enough? The Cavs will be a playoff team, but whether or not they’ll advance is an entirely different question. Without much of a bench, alongside an injury-riddled roster, Cleveland could quickly become a warmup round for some teams. Therefore, if that is the case, Cleveland needs to find a plan to enhance this roster even more. However, that cannot be so easily done with the payroll limitations they’re currently facing.

As previously mentioned, the Cavaliers’ future aligns with two men, Garland and Mobley. Mobley, a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, is heading towards a significant extension in the coming years, so planning ahead for that is a necessity. As for Garland, his rookie contract ends this year, but Cleveland does hold a team option for next year. That said, this offseason is the perfect time to extend him to avoid future discontent with negotiations and to express your confidence in him fully.

But, with the way things are currently set, Cleveland cannot easily do so without making some dramatic alterations.

The Cavs’ Payroll Pickle

This year, the Cavaliers sit $22 million dollars over the cap. Moreover, their $134.8 million payroll ranks 15th in the NBA. Above all else, nobody accounts for more of that than Kevin Love and the tail end of his max contract. Love is making $31.3 million dollars this year while earning slightly less next season ($28.9 million). Although K-Love is a fan favorite and is performing admirably off the bench, his value does not match his pay.

Therefore, the number one priority for Cleveland should be restructuring this deal. Doing so may be difficult, but Love seems to love playing in Cleveland and might be willing to do so. If not, finding a trade partner might be even more difficult. Cutting him is an option that might save some dough, but not enough to carry the load of all that dead-cap.

On a different note, Cleveland needs to capitalize on an easily forgotten member, Collin Sexton. Sexton is a true baller but barely played this year due to injury. And after not reaching an extension agreement last offseason, his future with the Cavs is seriously in doubt. This offseason, Sexton enters restricted free agency and will likely receive some big offers. Rather than merely cutting him loose, Cleveland must find a sign-and-trade partner. Whether it be a massive return like the Chris Paul to the Rockets trade in 2017 or some chump change second-rounders like 2019’s Malcolm Brogdon to the Pacers exchange, any return is better than nothing. 

Since Cleveland lacks a first-rounder this season, obtaining one or multiple second-rounders could provide some much-needed depth. Furthermore, building through the draft is especially needed without ideal payroll flexibility.

Other Options for Fixing Cleveland’s Payroll

Beyond these two players, Cleveland’s only other options are evident in some major contributors. No Cav is guaranteed more money right now than Jarrett Allen ($100mil/5years), but trading him seems out of the question. His impact on and above the glass is unparalleled in the association. Furthermore, his pairing alongside Mobley seems like a match made in heaven.

Recently acquired Caris LeVert is earning $17.5 million this year and $18.8 million next season. However, Cleveland surrendered multiple picks to acquire him, meaning their commitment likely extends into the future as well. Despite his injury issues so far, he too seems like a solid match for Garland. 

The biggest question mark remaining is someone very much up for debate. Lauri Markkanen entered last offseason without too much hype. After sitting on the market, Cleveland finally showed interest and acquired him via sign-and-trade. In year one of a 4 year, $64 million dollar contract, Markkanen’s production is somewhat inconsistent yet direly needed. His height allows Cleveland to play the way they do, and head coach JB Bickerstaff frequently discusses his unmatched value within their system.

However, with Garland eligible for a massive $181.2 million for five years ($36.24 mil/year) extension and Mobley’s not too far around the corner, is keeping Markkanen’s $16-$18 million/year contract worth it? His trade value alone may not be tremendous, but maybe if paired with Sexton, the Cavs could obtain a relatively valuable pick or player. Doing so in the short-term may seem like a step backward, but it could set them up for quality future free agencies. 

Cleveland’s future is bright but definitely not clear. There are several unchecked boxes needing to be answered, and none yield simple solutions either. However, if done properly, Cleveland’s potential might be unmatched and destined for title contention. 

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