- Ron Schwane/AP
The Cleveland Cavaliers gave the Golden State Warriors their best shot, and it still wasn’t enough.
Over the final three minutes of Game 3 of the Finals, the Warriors outscored the Cavaliers 11-0, stealing what looked like a Cavs win to go up 3-0 in the Finals.
The loss all but ended the Cavs season. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, and there’s little reason to believe the Cavs could crawl out of the hole against this Warriors team.
For the Cavs, this series represents a worst-case scenario. There’s no shame in losing to an all-time great team, but the lopsided nature of the series should worry Cleveland. LeBron James and the Cavs are in it to win championships, not simply compete for them. They had their doors blown off in Games 1 and 2, and despite throwing haymakers in Game 3, getting 77 combined points from James and Kyrie Irving, it still wasn’t enough to top these Warriors.
After last year’s loss, the Warriors re-tooled, to put it lightly, and signed Kevin Durant. They needed more. The Cavs now find themselves in the same position, but there’s no simple rout to meaningfully improving their team.
The Cavs have gone all-in over the last several years. They’ve given long-term contracts to James, Irving, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert, an excellent core that simply isn’t enough against the Warriors. The Cavs have about $129 million on their payroll next season, according to Basketball-Reference, which puts them well above the salary cap. Simply put, the Cavs would have shed a ton of salary just to get cap space.
The Cavs also lack the assets to get anything meaningful in return in a trade. Sure, Love is an All-Star caliber player, but what kind of return would make the Cavs reasonably better than they are with Love now? They could trade Tristan Thompson, but how then would they find another rim-protecting, elite-rebounding center to take his place? Players like Smith and Shumpert have little trade value.
In going all-in, the Cavs have also dealt draft picks frivolously. They don’t have their own first-round pick this year, and owe their 2019 draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks as part of the Kyle Korver trade this year. They don’t own their own second-round draft pick until 2023, according to Real GM.
The top teams have to find talent on the margins in order to stay competitive (see: the Spurs). The Cavs have a solid core – one clearly good enough to run through the Eastern Conference without much trouble. But against an historically good Warriors team, they simply don’t have enough, and with few draft picks and no young, talented players to develop, their best bet is to make a splash in a trade.
The Cavs don’t have much of a shot at that, either. As mentioned, they have few players with trade value and few assets to intrigue teams. Would the hypothetical combination of Kevin Love, Shumpert, and a 2021 first-round draft pick be enough to land Paul George from the Pacers? It’s doubtful, though it’s unclear what the trade market for a player like George is. It’s also doubtful that giving up such depth to land another star player pushes the needle for the Cavs.
With rumors already swirling that James would consider changing teams again when he hits free agency, the Cavs are going to have to get creative. As currently constructed, they’re good enough to be the clear-cut second best team in the NBA. But it’s also clear that now, a large gulf exists between being No. 2 and No. 1.