Thursday, June 4, 2015

Roster Analysis: How the Cavs Went From Max Cap Space to a Tax Paying Finals Team

Seeing LeBron James about to enter his astonishing 5th straight NBA Finals with the aid of both young players still trying to earn their second contract like Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova and veterans who were brought in to fill specific roles like Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith, I realized something: this roster has come a long way from having the #1 pick and a bunch of cap space just last summer.

It was just over a year ago when the randomness of chance gave the 9th slotted Cavaliers the #1 pick in the lottery for the third time out of four years, and at that time, there were hardly any indications that Ohio's prodigal son that was in yet another deep playoff run in Miami was about to come home. Head coach David Blatt was brought in after his illustrious overseas career to bring together a young team on the rise, yet here he is now, watching the best player in the world dribble the air out of the ball instead of running his Princeton-style, movement offense. How did they get here?

Let's take a look at the Cavs' roster and assets going into last June's draft compared to where it stands now in the playoffs and examine how GM David Griffin shot right past the the salary cap of just over $67 million and settled past the luxury tax line of a little under $77 million.

(Note: When making these spreadsheets, I used estimates of $67.1M/$81.6M for the 2016-2017 season salary cap/luxury tax and $89M/$108M for 2017-2018. Qualifying Offers are not included since it cannot be guaranteed that they will be extended and cap holds will be addressed when applicable with discussing actual cap space. As always,,,,, and were invaluable resources for the various data used.)

That's quite a bit different. With Anderson Varejao's contract only guaranteed for $4 million, they could have cleared just about enough cap room for a max contract by waiving him and the other non-guaranteed players, but then what about the rest of the team since that would push them right to the cap? Cutting LeBron's buddy who is the last holdover from his first Cavs tenure probably wouldn't have been the best way to convince him to sign, either, so Griffin embarked on a long and creative (albeit somewhat inefficient) journey to both sign the star and build a team around him.

Step One: Setting the Foundation

With the top pick in a much anticipated draft, they selected the best player, Andrew Wiggins. Remember, at this point, James had not yet made a decision on his future after a definitive Finals loss to the Spurs, and they had just introduce Blatt as a rookie NBA coach the day before. Thus, they needed to make sure to grab the best building block, which they did. They also nabbed solid wing prospect Joe Harris with their #33 pick and then executed a sneaky trade to pick up two more assets in the second round. They used Scotty Hopson's unguaranteed contract, which was expensively signed at the end of the season specifically for a trade like this, to trade for the 45th pick, Dwight Powell, and Brendan Haywood's unique contract. 

Charlotte had claimed him off waivers for a set amount of guaranteed money once Dallas had used the Amnesty provision on him, but the final year on his contract that was fully unguaranteed was not adjusted to roughly $2 million like the guaranteed years. They now wanted to clear the oft-injured center's '14-15 salary off the books so that they had as much cap space as possible to work with, so they sacrificed their second round pick to swap him for Hopson's easily waived contract. Haywood would only serve as an emergency center this season, but his contract suddenly becomes a trade chip in the upcoming summer in a bigger version of how they used Hopson.

Perhaps most important in luring James to come home, Cleveland agreed with Kyrie Irving, the #1 pick in the first year after The Decision, on a five year, max extension, cementing the foundation for the future of the roster. That resulted in the books looking like this, with the highlighted areas expressing the change (although the last year of Irving's deal is not shown):

Step Two: Clearing the Space

Once the Cavs got wind that LeBron was serious about considering to leave Miami, they had to make sure they had the ability to sign him. Now, I haven't included the incumbent small forward, Luol Deng, in this because there was a rather small chance that he would re-sign, meaning his large cap hold didn't need to be taken into account, but his Bird rights did provide a rather simple way to bring in James: a double sign-and-trade. Since Miami quickly moved on to Deng as a replacement, I thought it would benefit both teams to retain Bird rights and operate as over the cap with access to other cap exceptions. However, Griffin had already made the necessary moves to sign James outright, and that was the route that was chosen, despite the small forwards' similar one year deals with second year player options.

Alonzo Gee's fully unguaranteed contract was easy enough to clear: instead of simply being waived, he was traded to New Orleans for a conditional 2016 second round pick because the Pelicans needed salary fodder for their Omer Asik trade (funnily enough, the recently traded Hopson contract was also included in that deal after Charlotte flipped him for cash).

The bigger trade involved Boston and Brooklyn, wherein Cleveland dumped the $13.1 million that was guaranteed for Jarrett Jack over the next two seasons by giving up their 2016 first round pick (top 10 protected through 2018), Tyler Zeller (the 17th pick in 2012 who ended up starting 59 games for the Celtics), and Sergey Karasev (the 19th pick in 2013 who won an Olympic Bronze with Blatt as coach in 2012). A hefty price, but one that created over $10 million in cap room once you account for the empty roster charges. Thus, they had the means to sign King James when he made his decision on July 11th in a Sports Illustrated feature that notably did not include Wiggins or Anthony Bennett. Hmm...did he just have a thing against Canadians?

Step 3: Executing the Timing

After James signed, there was a sliver of cap space left since Wiggins was still unsigned and only counted as a cap hold for his first round salary slot. Here's where Griffin's cap acrobatics begin to shine. Since second round picks can only be signed to deals over two years by using cap room, getting Harris under contract for three seasons was the last move made before going over the cap. Zach Lowe has written some fascinating pieces on second round picks and the negotiations involved with such tricky leverage, and as Mark Deeks pointed out on his salary page, Harris has an interestingly negotiated salary. It looks like in exchange for accepting the extra years that aren't guaranteed, Harris got a notable amount more than the rookie minimum he was counting at as an incomplete roster hold: it was the most he could get upfront while still taking the maximum decrease to the 2nd year minimum in 2015.

The next way Griffin made the most out of the insignificant amount of room remaining was by making an imbalanced trade to accumulate more of those useful, non-guaranteed contracts. By trading Carrick Felix, a marginal prospect who was a high second round pick the previous year; their 2015 second round pick; and cash, they were able to absorb John Lucas III's into that remaining cap space and take on Malcolm Thomas and Erik Murphy via the Minimum Salary Exception. Murphy's contract had guarantee dates of  $100,000 on August 1st and $200,000 on November 1st, but the rest of this trade came with no salary commitments.

Finally, Wiggins was signed to the typical 120% of the rookie salary scale on July 24th, increasing his cap number and creating an awkward 30 day period during which he couldn't be traded. He had already played on Cleveland's summer league team and was saying all the right things about being excited to play with 'Bron, but the writing was on the wall. I was initially hoping that Wiggins would be playing alongside two creators like James and Irving since he still needed to work on creating his own shot, but I realize now that he probably would not have been able to realize his Pippen potential alongside The Chosen One due to his tendency to fade out of games on occasion. Being forced to have the ball in his hands on a lottery team was probably the best thing for his development since it pushed him to grow at an astounding rate on the offensive end. 

On a sidenote, since Dellavedova wasn't waived the next day, his contract became fully guaranteed, as reflected here:

Step Four: Bringing in the Veterans

As expected, the Kevin Love trade was consummated once the Kansas product was eligible to be moved. The final cost ended up being Wiggins, Bennett (the #1 pick in 2013), and the future Miami first rounder, which was why they needed Wiggins under contract instead of just having his rights since his salary needed to be aggregated with Bennett's in order to come within $5 million of Love's to make the trade work for salary totals in this range.

LeBron got the inside-out threat he wanted at the 4, and he was also reunited with two of the shooters he used to feed in Miami: Mike Miller and James Jones, signed with the Room Mid-Level Exception and Minimum Salary Exception, respectively. Finally, Powell was signed after the trade to a minimum salary, the only resource available to sign players at this point.

Step Five: Maintaining Flexibility

A month after signing, Powell was included as a featured piece for Boston in a trade with their 2016 and 2017 second round picks and the unguaranteed salaries of Lucas, Thomas, and Murphy for Keith Bogans' fully unguaranteed contract. Including two picks was a bit excessive, but Griffin stretched the extent of the traded salaries restrictions to turn the $3,364,645 of unguaranteed contracts (which, remember, was originally from Utah) into one contract whose $5,285,817 cap number can now be easily aggregated into a bigger number.

This led to speculation that Bogans (overpaid in the first year of a required three year deal to be a sign-and-trade piece for the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Jason Terry blockbuster) was going to cash in on another paycheck if he was going to stay in Cleveland for a year in order to eventually be combined with the Haywood trade chip in the summer of 2015 for a potential blockbuster. Unfortunately for him, the minimum contract signings of Shawn Marion, Alex Kirk, Lou Amundson, and A.J. Price (with The Matrix the only likely contributor and thus the only one getting a guaranteed deal) put Bogans in a numbers game, and since they were now dangerously close to the luxury tax for a team that was still an unknown, they decided he wasn't worth the roster spot.

At the cost of yet another second round pick, they dumped Bogans on the Sixers, who happily waived him, for a conditional second round pick. This created a medium sized Trade Exception equal to his salary. Trade Exceptions are useful to absorb salary without having to send anything out, but they can't be combined with anything else to aggregate salary. This is what the asset situation looked like after all of this shuffling around as they headed into the season:

Step Six: Making the Pieces Fit

That was what the roster looked like heading into the season, but right after it started, Varejao was unnecessarily signed to a three year extension, with $19 million guaranteed in the first two years. This is what I would identify as the worst move by Griffin during this season because while the trading of so many second round picks was somewhat inefficient, that cost does not have a tangible value that compares to tying up that much money to an injury prone player who just turned 32 and was still a year away from free agency. To make matters worse, he tore his Achilles on December 23rd, removing their de facto starting center from the lineup for the rest of the season.

And after all that, the team wasn't working. With James playing in "chill mode," the defense was laughable, Love wasn't involved enough in the offense that didn't even resemble what Blatt wanted to run, and Dion Waiters was as inefficient as ever despite playing next to possibly the greatest passing forward ever. Right before LeBron's 30th birthday, it was decided that he would take what was essentially a two week sabbatical to recover from various nagging ailments, with the team sitting at 18-12. After losing 3 out of the next 4, a shakeup was needed, and on January 5th,  right before contracts became guaranteed for the rest of the season, the first of what was essentially a two part trade occurred, in which they parted with Waiters, their 2019 second round pick, and the unguaranteed contracts of Amundson and Kirk in order to add Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and a protected Thunder first rounder.

The Knicks, not wanting to pay Shumpert or possibly lose him for nothing in restricted free agency, used him as a sweetener to get out of Smith's player option for next season and add a much needed extra draft pick before waiving the players with unguaranteed salary that they received. The Thunder, on the other hand, saw something in Waiters that made them think he'd be a great guy to run the second unit's offense through and gave up a heavily protected pick to take him into a trade exception they smartly created when Thabo Sefolosha left.

The reason that this can be considered the first half of a blockbuster deal is that Griffin flipped that Oklahoma City pick with the heavily protected Memphis pick they'd been holding onto and acquired the center they needed, Mosgov, along with a second round pick. The Russian big man, whom Blatt coached on the national team, is on a bargain of a contract, with just a $4.95 million team option for next season, that nicely fit into that Bogans Trade Exception. Combine that with Smith's 15% trade kicker, and that is how Cleveland ended up over $4 million into the luxury tax. And you know what? It was worth it to get to this point.

Once the four time MVP returned on January 13th, the team was 34-10 with a +8.5 point differential, legitimizing them as title contenders. I loved the way the roster just worked going forward.

King James is obviously the focal point of the team, but now he was surround by a frontcourt that consisted of:

  • A true center that protects the rim, rebounds on both ends, and finishes inside.
  • A power forward who can clean up the glass, stretch the defense with his 3 point shooting, carry the offense at times from the elbow and down, and make great passes, whether it be from the perimeter, inside, or out of the pick and roll.
  • Possibly the best offensive rebounder in the league who provides instant energy off the bench at either big man spot and can slide with perimeter players on defense.
...and a backcourt of:
  • One of the most dynamic ball handlers in the league who is an excellent shooter from both the 3 point line and inside, someone who can create plenty of offense so that LeBron doesn't have to always shoulder the load.
  • A versatile perimeter defender who doesn't need the ball but can get hot from deep and create secondary offense when the stars draw all of the attention.
  • The ideal 6th man who can generate any shot and isn't afraid to take them or make plays for others.
  • A backup point guard who is big enough and a good enough shooter that he can play alongside the starter and not hurt the team on either end.
Toss in the battle-tested veterans who can be thrown into tight spots when foul trouble or injuries call for them, and you have a dangerous team that has positional versatility and a group of skill sets that complement each other.

However, it should be noted that Golden State, the best team all season, did also go 38-10 with a +9.4 differential during that same time period, and that is why I still feel comfortable with my Warriors in 5 pick even after doing all this research. If Irving wasn't dealing with knee tendinitis and especially if Love didn't get knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, I would feel more compelled to go with the underdog, but nothing since February has changed my opinion of the Dubs as the title favorites. In fact, the more information I've gathered has reinforced the idea that a team with as high of both a winning percentage and point differential sustained over the course of the whole season has to be viewed as the most likely candidate to win it all.

I don't think LeBron will be as complimentary of Stephen Curry this time around.

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