NBA Free Agency: How the Cavs could benefit in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes

“Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success.”
~Napoleon Hill

NBA free agency is only four days old but players are already on the move. JJ Redick is now a Clipper along with Jared Dudley. Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler are now on the Suns. Martell Webster got paid to stay in Washington. The same happened with Tiago Splitter, Chase Budinger, David West, Andre Blatche, Manu Ginobili, Chris Paul, and others. Kevin Martin is on his way to Minnesota. And even before July 1st we saw Garnett and Pierce get traded to Brooklyn. It’s been a wild couple of days.

Meanwhile, Chris Grant and the Cleveland Cavaliers have been mostly quiet save for signing the unheralded Earl Clark who played on the disappointing Lakers this past season. This bothers a lot of Cavs fans and media members. People have screamed that we can’t make the playoffs if we’re not signing big-name guys and then go on to bemoan the fact that we can’t attract free agents to Cleveland.

I agree that it’s not a whole lot of fun to sit around and wait while other teams throw money out willy-nilly and the Cavs just chill and apparently do nothing. And let’s be honest, Earl Clark isn’t a game-changing player. But this is best way to go about it.

It’s tough to sign free agents. You typically have to overpay to get players at this point in the process. That’s why you hear about Tyreke Evens getting a four-year, $44M offer from New Orleans. Do you really want the Cavs to shell out that kind of money for players like that? I hope not. We could also go out and spend $28M for four years on a guy like Kevin Martin who’s never been the best player on a winning team, doesn’t play any defense, and is probably best served as a bench player. Do you want to play $7M a year for that? Or do you want to spend $5M a year for a bit piece like Martell Webster?

Cleveland is in the unfortunate position where they have to overpay to get free agents. It’s stupid and to those of us who love Cleveland it makes no sense why people don’t want to come here. But it’s also reality. Even Earl Clark probably isn’t worth $4.5M a year.[1] What Chris Grant has continued to say is that they’re plan is to build first through the draft and second through trades. When you bring a guy over in a trade he’s already under contract so you don’t have to convince him to play for you at a given price. He’s already locked in and you know how much you’ll have to pay him. It’s a more economical way of acquiring players.

After some reports last evening it appears that a situation may be developing that demonstrates the value of not throwing money around early in the free agency period. There are multiple teams that have been granted access to vie for the services of Dwight Howard. The Cavs were never going to be one of those teams but they could still get involved. One of the teams that is in play is the Golden State Warriors. However, in order to get Howard on the books they’d either have to work a sign-and-trade with the Lakers (something LA doesn’t really want to do) or they’d have clear out $20M under the cap to sign him outright. The second scenario is what they are aggressively researching according to a report by ESPN on Thursday evening. They are looking for teams with a lot of cap space to take on the big expiring contracts of Andrew Bogut ($14M), Richard Jefferson ($11M), and Andris Biedrins ($9M). Not many teams would be able to pull that off, but the Cavs could be one of them. In fact, CBS Sports has reported that Cleveland is one of the teams that Golden State has contacted.

The Cavs currently sit at around $25M under the cap so they might have to make a supplemental move like trading Varejao to make the move work. But it’s not inconceivable at this point that they could make that happen. Now, the Cavs wouldn’t just take on three terribly overpriced contracts just to do the Warriors a solid so they can land the best center in the league. There would have to be something else included to sweeten the deal, like either Harrison Barnes or Klay Thompson. And now you can start seeing the value of waiting to fill out your cap space.

Would you rather play Tyreke Evens $11M a year or Harrison Barnes $3M? That’s not really a tough choice at all. If Grant and the Cavs had gotten really aggressive early on and overpaid for bench players this chance wouldn’t exist. The same as what happened last year in the deal with Memphis. And while none of the players that we got in that deal will be with the team next season they still got quality bench play for half a season and a draft pick for nothing. All because they had cap space to make it happen.

Now, I would be remiss if I was spreading vain hope that there’s a good chance the Cavs could pull this off. It’s not very likely that anything will happen. Howard could decide he wants to go to Houston and that would be the end of the discussion. And even if he did decide to go to  Gold State the logistics of moving Varejao and subsequently taking on Bogut, Jefferson, and Biedrins aren’t exactly simple. And I’m pretty sure that the Warriors will explore all possibilities to take on Howard without giving up Barnes or Thompson.

But the point remains that you have to keep your options open for a deal like this. This is how good organizations in small markets build winning teams. It’s not by doing what the Bobcats did yesterday when they gave Al Jefferson a $41M/3-year deal, essentially locking themselves into mediocrity for the conceivable future.[2] Leaving yourself open to make trades that take advantage of salary cap strapped teams is just the smarter play.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. Even if the Cavs can’t pull of this deal, and even if they don’t sign any major free agents this summer, and even if LeBron doesn’t come back next summer, I still believe that the slow cautious approach by Grant is the right move. If no other big pieces are added to this roster the Cavs still have a very solid young core with Kyrie, Dion, Tristan, Zeller, and now Bennett and Karasev. If they don’t take on any long-term high-priced contracts that would allow them to keep all or most of these guys on the team beyond their rookie deals so you don’t fall into an OKC situation where you have to trade James Harden because you’re paying Kendrick Perkins $9M.

Be patient, Cavs fans. Good things come to those who wait.

[1] For the record, I don’t love the Clark signing but I also don’t hate it. It’s a move you almost have to make. It’s only a two-year deal and the second year isn’t guaranteed so the dollars don’t really matter too much. It’s a very low-risk move. If he can give you quality minutes at the SF position then it’ll be a good move.

[2] That move made zero sense to me. The Bobcats have no star players on their roster. Their players with the most upside are probably Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Cody Zeller. By taking on Jefferson you’re betting on those guys turning into All-Stars at the least, and within the next couple years. Otherwise what’s the point? If I’m a Bobcats fan I’d rather the team continue to wallow in losses for one more year and keep the chances alive of winning the big prize in a stacked lottery. As constituted now they’re probably around the 10th best team in the East. And what good is that if it means you basically have no shot at a top pick? But hey, it’s the Bobcats, so what’d you expect?


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