The Cleveland Cavaliers may have a $300 million roster next season if LeBron James remains with the franchise.
When the dust settled following their sweeping trades last week, the Cavs put themselves in position to break records if they elect to keep their new core together. And, most importantly, if James elects to re-sign in Cleveland or simply pick up his $35.6 million player option for 2018-19.
Team owner Dan Gilbert has never put his front office on a budget, and so the team continues to spend.
For several uncomfortable months — and a couple of unbearable weeks — James was sending a message to the Cavs’ front office that he wanted the team’s roster upgraded.
The team did some hedging on the future with or without James, starting with the Kyrie Irving trade last summer. In the first rounds of trade talks approaching last week’s deadline, the Cavs took a position in some discussions that they didn’t want to add future salary, multiple league executives said.
Ultimately, however, the Cavs furthered their commitment to the team around James. In the short term by trading for George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr., the Cavs added about $10 million in salary and luxury tax to their books this season. That will boost their tax payment to about $50 million and their overall payroll to nearly $190 million, the second highest in league history after the Brooklyn Nets’ $193 million in 2013-14.
The Cavs still have two open roster spots they will likely eventually fill that could add a few million more to that total.
As a quick aside here, the Cavs have paid a combined total of $86 million in luxury tax over the previous three seasons. Add in this season — as the team is now in the more penal repeater luxury tax zone — and the total tax payments since James returned in 2014 will approach $140 million.
Focusing on the future, if James remains and accepts a new max contract or picks up his option and the Cavs re-sign Hood — who will be a restricted free agent — they will break all current records.
It is hard to predict the market for restricted free agents. This summer is especially challenging because teams are expected to tighten spending. If James stays and Hood remains with Cleveland and lands a long-term deal that starts at $12 million or more, the Cavs would likely crest $300 million in total spending based on the contracts they have on their books. That would include roughly $150 million in luxury tax alone.
A factor is that the team will have the Nets’ first-round pick. Currently the No. 7 pick, that addition will cost the team roughly $4 million in new salary. If the Cavs get lucky and the pick jumps into the top three in the lottery, the new player would cost between $6 million and $7 million next season.
When evaluating the Cavs’ moves last week, some league executives believed Cleveland made them because the organization is preparing for James’ departure. Refreshing the roster with younger players while keeping the Nets pick lined up a rebuild in the event James leaves, some suggested. If the Cavs were hedging before, this was seen by some as a more elaborate hedge, where they can improve this year and send the message to James that they’re supporting him but still lay the foundation for change. Otherwise, executives said, it’s hard to fathom the team spending this much money.
But multiple Cavs executives reinforced that is not the plan, that Gilbert continues to offer unwavering support and is focused on winning more than on the team’s bottom line. The Cavs have added salary with midseason moves in each of the past four seasons. The past three seasons, the Cavs reached the Finals. The actions speak quite loudly.
Since starting his run of Finals in 2011, James has typically been exhausted from physical and mental fatigue at the end of each season. With all the personnel moves, the Cavs’ front office and ownership have gotten used to that feeling themselves.
ESPN front-office insider Bobby Marks contributed to this story.