CLEVELAND — After all the champagne corks had been popped, cigars had been lit and hugs had been shared, LeBron James stood in the center of the visitors locker room at Oracle Arena and turned an eye toward the future.
“We know it’s going to be an interesting offseason,” James told ESPN.com after the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ Game 7 win in the NBA Finals. “We got some guys, got some free agents and things of that nature, and I’ll probably be a free agent as well. But if we can hold this thing together, we can do some special things.
“We’re built. We’re built for longevity.”
James is, indeed, a free agent after opting out of the final year of his contract with the Cavs this week. It’s not a matter of if he will re-sign with Cleveland — he has made his intention to return quite clear — but when he’ll come to terms with the team and how many years the agreement will cover.
James, 31, stands to earn a significant raise — $27.5 million for next season instead of the $24 million he was slated for — just by opting out and taking advantage of the escalating salary cap. Perhaps he signs another one-year deal with a player option, allowing him to opt out again next summer — at which point he could become the league’s first $200 million man by signing a max deal.
He also could go for a two-year contract this summer that would net him approximately $64 million.
None of the aforementioned scenarios are stress-inducing. James will sign when he signs and the Cavs will retain the most dominant player in the game, surrounded by a core of impact players — Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson — already under contract.
The only drama for the Cavs’ summer, if you want to even call it that, exists in the margins.
Other than James, six members of the championship team — J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson, Timofey Mozgov, James Jones and Dahntay Jones — are set to hit the free-agent market Friday. Their importance ranges from priceless to replaceable, depending on your perspective.
Smith, who exercised an option to become a free agent, tested free agency last summer to his detriment, eventually signing with the Cavs for $5 million in August when he originally had a deal worth $6.4 million. He has since helped Cleveland win a title with a steady Finals, been named the Cavs’ best defensive player by coach Tyronn Lue and signed with Klutch Sports Group — the agency that represents James and Thompson.
Cleveland, already well over the cap with only a $3.5 million mini midlevel exception at its disposal to try to attract an outside free agent, would be best served to work something out with Smith. And if last summer’s tepid response for his services is any indication, Smith’s true value is in Cleveland and Cleveland alone. James can keep him in check and Smith can play off the Big Three, shooting 3s to his heart’s content.
The biggest question with Smith, who turns 31 in September, is how many years the team will want to commit to him.
Dellavedova had an underwhelming Finals, but he has established himself as a 3-and-D player in his three years in the league. Just 25 years old, he is still on the ascent. After coming into the league undrafted, he has yet to really cash in, earning just about $3 million for his career so far. That can all change this summer.
With teams such as New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Detroit all in the hunt for a point guard and equipped with money to spend, there will be a robust market for Dellavedova. Fortunately for the Cavs, Dellavedova is a restricted free agent, so that could deter the competition from getting into a bidding war for the Aussie, only to see Cleveland match.
The Cavaliers want Jefferson and James Jones back and it’s understood that they will fetch the veterans minimum. Jefferson, 36, has publicly flip-flopped on retirement already. If he plays anywhere next season, it will be in Cleveland.
LeBron James has publicly stumped for James Jones, saying in December: “I told J.J., as long as I’m playing, he’s going to be around. He’s not allowed to stop playing basketball. So, I’m going to make sure I got a roster spot for him.”
Jones will turn 36 in October, but he remains in impeccable shape. There will be a place for him with the Cavs.
The final pair is harder to determine. Mozgov, coming off a poor campaign in what he hoped would be a showcase year, will still command interest and offers by his sheer size alone. San Antonio, Houston, Miami and Golden State are all expected to court the 7-footer, according to league sources.
If Mozgov walks, Cleveland will either go into next season with Sasha Kaun as the primary backup center behind Thompson or have to use its mini midlevel exception to find a replacement. That could hurt, especially if Jefferson retires, because the MMLE would come in handy in finding a viable wing to add to the mix.
Dahntay Jones, who was in the D-League before Cleveland picked him up on the last day of the regular season, “will be talking to a number of teams,” according to his agent, Mark Bartelstein. Jones had a couple of key playoff contributions, but he will turn 36 in December. Still, the Cavs could certainly do worse than having him at the end of their bench.
The X factor the Cavs will have on their side — other than James — is the fact that, for the first time in franchise history, they can say they’re the best team around. The appeal of playing for a winner is what could really achieve the longevity that James referred to.